David Cameron should not be contemplating intervening in Syria’s civil war while simultaneously cutting thousands of Army jobs, Conservative MPs and retired officers have warned.
Redundancy notices will be issued to 5,300 Army personnel this week as part of the Coalition’s plan to reduce the number of soldiers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2017.
The job losses will be imposed while the Prime Minister considers whether Britain should arm Syria’s rebels.
Some of Mr Cameron’s MPs fear that sending weapons to Syria would be the first step down a path that could lead to another British deployment in the Middle East.
Richard Drax, the MP for South Dorset who is a vocal member of a Tory group that has attacked military cuts, said: “Here we are yet again with a Government reducing our Armed Services and at the same time talking about military intervention of some sort in Syria.
“In such an increasingly unstable world, events like Syria and Turkey can develop at any moment and yet here we are cutting our Armed Services to the size of a gendarmerie. Our Navy is now little more than something you put in the bath.
“These jobs cuts should never have taken place, but what is happening in Syria only underlines that. It is a betrayal of our duty.”
Earlier this month, 82 Tory MPs wrote to the Prime Minister to demand a parliamentary vote on any decision to equip Syria’s rebels — a procedure Mr Cameron has agreed will take place.
John Baron, the Essex MP who leads the Conservative group campaigning for a fairer deal for the Armed Forces, said: “It is incredibly strange that at a time when many countries not necessarily friendly to the West are increasing their defence spending, we are cutting ours.”
He warned that if Britain became involved in the Syrian conflict “mission creep” was a “real possibility”. Some Conservative MPs fear that any weapons given to the rebels could fall into the hands of some fighters who have links with al-Qaeda.
Maj Gen Julian Thompson, who commanded British Forces in the Falklands, warned that the prospect of another intervention in the Middle East at a time of reductions to troop numbers would damage morale.
“People [in the military] will think it absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “The thought of getting involved with something else before we finish what we are trying to do in Afghanistan would certainly not be good for morale.”
Gen Sir Mike Jackson, the former chief of the general staff, said that the events in Syria were a reminder that the world is a more uncertain place in the 21st century.
“Look at it [military spending] as a life insurance policy,” he said. “In a more uncertain world, how high a premium are you prepared to pay?” Sir Mike also attacked the plan unveiled by Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, to fill the gap created by 20,000 Army job cuts by boosting the size of the Territorial Army from 15,000 to 30,000.
“I think that plan is a very tall order,” said Sir Mike, who served in the part-time Army for two years in the Seventies.
The Prime Minister has agreed to meet Conservative MPs over the next few weeks to discuss their concerns about the shake-up of the TA, which will be rebranded as the Army Reserve.
Those Tories who oppose the plan include Bob Stewart, the MP for Beckenham who led United Nations forces in Bosnia during the Nineties.
More details of the strategy will be set out in a White Paper expected later this year. Mr Cameron said on Friday that there would be no further job losses in the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force beyond those already outlined.
The Prime Minister was speaking after General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the Army, said further cuts in troop numbers could harm Britain’s ability to win wars.