British efforts to stop the slaughter by forces of President Bashar Assad could see us dragged into war, to prevent the regime's chemical weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda, Britain's outgoing Army chief has warned.
In an interview with the Sun, retiring General Sir David Richards, stepping down on Thursday as Chief of the Defence Staff, said that British forces could also be sent to the country to prevent chemical weapons falling into the wrong hands.
He told the paper: "The risk of terrorism is becoming more and more dominant in our strategic vision for what we might do in Syria.
"If that risk develops, we would almost certainly have to act to mitigate it and we are ready to do so.
"I think it is a very big question. If we saw chemical weapons proliferate as a result of what is happening in Syria then we would have to act."
He added: "Some could characterise that, even though it might be for a limited period, as a war".
Last week British spy chiefs warned Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of al Qaida militants if Assad was toppled with potentially "catastrophic" consequences.
The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which oversees the work of the intelligence agencies, said there was "serious concern" about the security of the "vast stockpiles" of chemical weapons amassed by the regime.
Sir David said no-fly-zones over the Middle East country would be "insufficient" to restrain regime forces and Western military would be forced to hit ground target.
He also said that British forces "would have to act" if the Baathist regime suddenly collapsed to prevent its chemical weapons falling into the hands of al Qaeda and other extremist groups fighting with the rebels in the country.
The general told the Daily Telegraph: "If you wanted to have the material impact on the Syrian regime's calculations that some people seek, a no-fly zone per se is insufficient.
"You have to be able, as we did successfully in Libya, to hit ground targets.
"You have to establish a ground control zone. You have to take out their air defences. You also have to make sure they can't manoeuvre - which means you have to take out their tanks, and their armoured personnel carriers and all the other things that are actually doing the damage.
"If you want to have the material effect that people seek you have to be able to hit ground targets and so you would be going to war if that is what you want to do."
Sir David said there was a "lack of international consensus" over what to do to stop the killing.
Tensions over Syria dominated the G8 gathering in Northern Ireland last month, which took place in the wake of an announcement by US president Barack Obama that the US was ready to arm the rebels despite Moscow's opposition.
Prime Minister David Cameron said Assad had "blood on his hands" and insisted it was "unthinkable" the dictator could play any part in the nation's future.
General Richards steps down after a career of more than 40 years in the British Army.
He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1971 and served in Northern Ireland, Germany, East Timor, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, where his role as head of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) made him the first British general to command American troops since the Second World War.