On the eve of the vote on whether Britain should join the campaign of air strikes against Isis in Syria, David Cameron sparked anger by urging Conservative MPs not to side with the "terrorist sympathisers" voting against the government's motion.

Everyone accepts that air strikes alone cannot defeat Isis, and Cameron has claimed there are 70,000 moderate fighters on the ground prepared to fight the terrorist group in Syria.

But just how moderate are these moderates?

Speaking before Parliament's foreign affairs select committee yesterday, Lt Gen Gordon Messenger, the deputy chief of the defence staff said he could not reveal how many of the 70,000 belonged to more radical Islamist groups such as Islamic Front or Ahrar al-Sham - on national security grounds. He is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

I can’t get into detail because of the level of classification of this briefing. What I can say is there is a spectrum of extremism.

Later, however, Labour MP and shadow minister Louise Haigh, claimed that the government's national security adviser Mark Lyall Grant had told MPs during a (non-confidential) briefing that only 40,000 of the fighters could be considered "moderates".

Writing in our sister paper i, defence editor Kim Sengupta claims that the West has missed its opportunity to back the Syrian moderates:

Those of us who have spent some time with the rebels in Syria have seen how the definition of moderation has changed over the blood-soaked years. In the summer of 2012, during fighting in Aleppo, there were indeed large numbers of moderate Muslim opposition fighters. Isis did not exist at the time, and [al-Qaeda affiliate] Nusra was a small and nasty band that fled when regime tanks made a foray into the front line at Salaheddine.

Western help would have buttressed the moderates and may even have allowed them to seize Syria's largest city. But that help did not come. Nusra grew, Isis was born. Among the rebel militias fighting Isis now, the Kurds are getting the most publicity, but there are also highly effective Arab groups. Some of them, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are conservative Islamists, although they are moderate in comparison with Isis.

Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn meanwhile says the idea of 70,000 moderates ready to fight Isis is "very debatable":

The one group that has some claim to be non-sectarian, secular and a powerful fighting force is the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who claim to number 50,000, but probably total half that. It has been the most effective anti-Isis ground force and, heavily supported by US air strikes, its territory now stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates.

It claims to be non-sectarian and that it does not persecute Sunni Arabs, but sectarian fear and hatred is today so deep in Syria – partly but not entirely because of the atrocities of Isis – that people flee the attack of every other sectarian or ethnic group different from themselves. The Sunni population in Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian capital, or in Mosul in Iraq, may dislike Isis, but they are even more terrified of the Kurds or the Shia militias.


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