'PM's SYRIA FIGHTERS FIGURE A "MAGICAL NUMBER" '

Defence Committee Chairman Julian Lewis warns MPs must not decide on Syria strikes on the basis of "misleading information".

Sky News Online – 27 November 2015

David Cameron has been challenged by one of his own MPs over whether there really are 70,000 Syrian fighters on the ground. Making his case for Britain to join in airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, the Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 Syrian fighters not linked to extremist groups on the ground in the country. In a letter to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr Cameron said:

"Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups."

However, the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Dr Julian Lewis, has raised significant concerns about the number and tabled a question for the Prime Minister. Dr Lewis told Sky News he did not know where the "magical" 70,000 figure had come from but stopped short of suggesting the 33-page document Mr Cameron submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee had been "sexed up".

But he warned that MPs should not look back on this moment and realise Britain made a "big mistake" on the basis of misleading information.

Britain has been badly scarred by the decision to go to war in Iraq 2003 party on the basis of the so-called "dodgy dossier", which claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched in 45 minutes – claims which were later proven false. Dr Lewis said:

"If you look at the analysis of seasoned correspondents, including journalists in the field ... who have written extensively on the nature of the opposition in Syria, the figures don't come anything near approaching 70,000 – or even half that number.

"And we had recently admissions from the Americans that the number of moderate fighters that they had successfully managed to train and integrate into the theatre was down in minute numbers and indeed single figures in some cases.

"So where are these magical 70,000 people and why have they been unable to roll back ISIL/Daesh? Is it that they are in the wrong place? Is it that they are fighting each other? Or is it in reality they are not altogether moderate and that there are a lot of jihadists amongst them?

"I think we really need to know about this so that we don't look back on this moment as having made a big mistake on the basis of misleading information that was given not by the Prime Minister but to the Prime Minister."

Dr Lewis has tabled a question for the Prime Minister, asking him to list the main groups comprising the 70,000 "moderate fighters" and showing the

"estimated number of fighters in each main group"

and a

"political and religious description of each main group".

He said he expected a written reply from Mr Cameron within three working days.

* * *

SYRIA AIR STRIKES DEBATE: DAVID CAMERON CHALLENGED OVER 'MAGICAL' 70,000 MODERATES FIGURE

Senior Tory questions where the 70,000 figure has come from and Labour wants the Prime Minister to clarify this claim before deciding its position

By Matt Dathan

Sky News Online – 26 November 2015

A senior Conservative MP has challenged David Cameron over his "magical" claim that there are 70,000 moderate fighters in Syria who could seize Isis-held territory following a bombing raid on the Islamic extremists in the north of the country. The claim has also become a sticking point for Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn expected to demand clarification over the 70,000 figure before deciding his party's position on air strikes.

Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Defence Committee, said he was "extremely surprised" to hear the Prime Minister tell MPs that there were

"about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups"

when he set out the case for launching air strikes against Isis targets in Syria. Mr Lewis said he was tabling a question in the House of Commons demanding Mr Cameron clarify the claim.

Following a Shadow Cabinet meeting to discuss Mr Cameron's seven-point plan for defeating Isis, which he set out in a 32-page document in response to a Foreign Affairs Committee report that expressed grave concerns over military action, senior Labour figures made clear that Mr Cameron would have to give more information about the number of forces on the ground in Syria.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman said the 70,000 figure was based on the

"best intelligence and analysis we have",

adding:

"The figure was provided to him by the Joint Intelligence Committee; they provided that intelligence and analysis independent of the Government. That's the best advice we've received; we've no reason to doubt it in anyway. He [the Prime Minister] obviously felt comfortable with the analysis provided to him."

Mr Lewis said intervention in Syria should not go ahead without the involvement with President Assad's army, saying:

"Sometimes the best you can do is choose the lesser of two evils."

He told Sky News:

"Where are these magical 70,000 people and if they are there fighting, how come they haven't been able to roll back Isil/Daesh? Is it that they're in the wrong place? Is it that they're fighting each other? Or is it that in reality they're not all that moderate and that there are a lot of jihadists among them?

"I think we really need to know about this so that we don't look back on this moment as having made a big mistake on the base of misleading information that was given not by the Prime Minister but to the Prime Minister.

"The Prime Minister has conceded that air strikes alone cannot be decisive in taking on Isil/Daesh, unless they are supported by credible ground forces. So the only missing element is the credible ground forces."

He added:

"The reality is if you want to defeat Isil/Daesh, you need to have the regular Syrian Army as part of the force that's going to do it and that's where the Prime Minister has a sticking point because he still can't bring himself to forge an alliance with the Russians and their client [President] Assad because, of course, they are ... so unpleasant.

"But Churchill, who we are constantly told we must emulate, did precisely that with Stalin and the Bolsheviks in World War II.

"Sometimes the best you can do is choose the lesser of two evils."

[For a video of part of this interview, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Y9wN2cYrvY.]