Michael Fallon

The UK’s defence secretary has accused Vladimir Putin of “propping up the Assad regime” as he again pushed the case for British air strikes against Isis strongholds in Syria.

Michael Fallon told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that Russia’s intervention in Syria should not “divert us for a moment from our focus against [Isis],” adding that “the logic is inescapable” for joining air strikes against extremist groups’ strongholds.

Mr Fallon conceded “there is the danger of accidents” if Russian and British warplanes were to both fly missions over Syrian airspace, but the defence secretary argued that 80 per cent of Russian attacks in Syria were in areas “that [Isis] has nothing to do with”.

David Cameron, prime minister, would like parliament to approve the extension of RAF air strikes against Isis in Iraq to Syria, a move the defence secretary endorsed on Sunday. Ministers believe about 20 Conservative MPs would vote against such a move, requiring the government to win over opposition members.

At its conference this week in Aberdeen, the Scottish National party committed itself to opposing air strikes in Syria. But many moderate Labour MPs are inclined to support the government, though they want to be presented with a clear plan and for Mr Cameron to first seek a new UN resolution.

A spokesperson for the Labour leader said this week that Jeremy Corbyn “had not ruled anything out”, even though the former chairman of the Stop the War Coalition made clear during his leadership campaign that he opposed air strikes in Syria.

Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, said this week that even if a UN resolution were vetoed, Labour would “need to look at the position again”.

“I would appeal to moderate Labour MPs to put national interest above party interests,” said Mr Fallon.

The defence secretary also responded to criticism from the Church of England that the government was not doing enough to address the refugee crisis. A letter sent by 84 bishops to the prime minister last month, and published on Sunday by the Observer, called on Mr Cameron to increase from 20,000 to 50,000 the number of Syrian refugees the UK would accept before the end of the parliament in 2020.

Mr Fallon said: “No country in Europe is doing more in Syria than we are,” citing the £1.1bn the UK is spending on international aid in the surrounding region.

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