The British military drew up a secret plan two years ago to train a 100,000-strong Syrian rebel force aimed at toppling president Bashar al-Assad.

The plan was the brainchild of General Sir David Richards, then chief of staff. The military regularly draws up contingency plans for all kinds of scenarios, but this one was considered more seriously than most and widely circulated – including to Downing Street and senior US military staff. It was shelved as being too risky.

The Ministry of Defence declined to confirm or comment. But according to the BBC, Richards proposed an international coalition to vet and train an army of moderate Syrian rebels at bases in Turkey and Jordan for about a year.

It would then march on Damascus, with air cover from western forces and Gulf allies. The plan was drawn up at a time of strong support in the UK and US governments for intervention in the Syrian civil war by arming and training the rebels. Among prominent supporters in the US were then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, then defence secretary Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, who served as the head of the CIA as well as the head of US central command and the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

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