Downing Street is drawing up a new strategy for Syria that would involve limited military strikes against the “controlling brains” of the Islamic State and a renewed diplomatic push that could see Bashar al-Assad remain president for a transitional period of six months.

In a sign of No 10’s determination to avoid another Commons defeat on Syria, ministers are arguing that military action would be narrowly defined to remove a terrorist threat with the added benefit of strengthening Iraq’s democratically elected government.

David Cameron highlighted the government’s belief that the time is fast approaching for Britain to extend its airstrikes against Isis targets from Iraq into Syria when he said “hard military force” would be necessary.

The prime minister said he would seek parliamentary approval before escalating Britain’s involvement. He told MPs: “We have to be part of the international alliance that says we need an approach in Syria which will mean we have a government that can look after its people. Assad has to go, Isil has to go. Some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but it will on occasion require hard military force.”

The government has faced intense scrutiny over its strategy in Syria after Cameron announced to MPs on Monday that an RAF Reaper drone had killed two British Isis jihadis last month. Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed on 21 August near Raqqa. Junaid Hussain, another Briton, was killed in a US airstrike on 24 August as part of a joint operation.

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