Sending Western troops into Syria too soon would risk creating a power vacuum that could allow chemical and biological weapons and military hardware to fall into the wrong hands, a former British Army general has warned.
Professor Sir Paul Newton, 56, who served in conflicts including Kosovo and Iraq, said taking premature direct military action to try to end the conflict could be the worst option and could only serve to further destabilise the situation in the volatile country.
The retired lieutenant general, now a director at the University of Exeter's Strategy and Security Institute, has co-authored a report which argues that in-depth "scenario planning", including recruiting members of President Bashar Assad's regime, would be vital to avoid the sort of protracted insurgency that dogged Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
Earlier this month Foreign Secretary William Hague told a Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco that "we do not rule out any option to save lives" in the Middle Eastern state, where Assad is fighting an uprising which has lasted 21 months.
Concerns have also been voiced that Western powers, by avoiding direct military force, are leaving a power vacuum that is being filled by al Qaida-linked jihadi groups.
But Sir Paul said: "Although it may appear attractive in the short-term, the one scenario that must be avoided is sudden, uncontrolled state collapse.
"This may seem like a paradox given the pressing need to end humanitarian suffering and the risk of the conflict spreading. However, it could be catastrophic.
"If unmanaged disintegration of the Syrian state were to occur, access to weapons of mass destruction would be uncontrolled."
Sir Paul, knighted earlier this year for his army service, has been involved in strategic military planning and conduct of operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone during 38 years in the British Army.
His report, written along with Professor Gareth Stansfield, Dr Andrew Rathmell and Professor Jonathan Githens-Mazer, said it was imperative to convey clear messages to Syria's security and intelligence forces, offering an alternative path to a fight to the bitter end.