UK cabinet gives backing to strike against Syria – Financial Times


Theresa May won cabinet backing to deploy British forces in any US-led assault on Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, after an emergency meeting in Downing Street lasting more than two hours.

The prime minister’s special cabinet agreed that the use of chemical weapons could not go “unchallenged” and signed off plans for military action alongside the US and France.

Some in London expect military action to start within 72 hours and ministers agreed that Britain could launch an attack without the prior consent of MPs, who return from the Easter break on Monday.

Mrs May spoke to Donald Trump, US president, about Syria on Thursday evening.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. They agreed to keep working closely together on the international response.”

While Mrs May has spent the past few days cautiously assessing the consequences of military strikes, Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, was said by colleagues to be “pushing hard” for a swift response.

An official breakdown of the cabinet meeting said ministers agreed that the Assad regime had a record of using chemical weapons and it was highly likely that his regime was responsible for Saturday’s attack on Douma.

Mrs May is reported to have called it a further example of the erosion of international law in relation to the use of chemical weapons.

In spite of demands by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, for a parliamentary vote and public scepticism, Mrs May told ministers it was vital to deter the Assad regime from any further use of chemical weapons.

In spite of conflicting signals from Washington, some British officials believe the western alliance could strike in days, with one predicting “a busy weekend”.

Eight Tornado aircraft and six Typhoon fighters are on standby at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus; they could be deployed to fire Storm Shadow missiles that have a range of more than 500km.

That would mean the jets would be able to launch strikes without risking being taken out by Syria’s anti-aircraft systems.

However, analysts and former UK military commanders said it was more likely that one of the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered Astute or Trafalgar-class attack submarines would be used to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syrian targets.

The Tomahawk, described by Justin Bronk at the Royal United Services Institute as “pretty damn accurate”, has a range of 1,500km. Each submarine can carry at least 30 missiles, which can be retargeted in flight to avoid civilian casualties.

A weekend attack would preclude a parliamentary vote before military action starts. Mrs May can legally send the armed forces into action using prerogative powers, acting on behalf of the crown.

Mrs May wants to back Donald Trump, US president, in punishing the Syrian regime — and its Russian allies — over the alleged chemical attack on Douma last weekend to stop the “normalisation” of such tactics in war.

But there is some frustration in British circles that Mr Trump does not share London’s interest in seeking a longer-term political settlement in Syria, including support for an interim administration involving different factions and eventual elections.

Mrs May’s cabinet met against a background of political resistance to an early attack, with Labour, the Scottish National party, Liberal Democrats and some Tory MPs insisting that parliament should debate the issue first.

“More bombing, more killing, more war will not save life,” said Mr Corbyn, a life-long peace campaigner, who says there should be further investigation of the Douma incident and a new effort to find a political solution.

There were also signs that the British public remained resistant to military intervention in the Middle East after the searing experience of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A YouGov poll found that only 22 per cent supported bombing the Assad regime, while 43 per cent said they were against military action and 34 per cent replied “don’t know”.

Some Tory MPs demanded that Mrs May delay any attack. “We need a clear response to the Syrian chemical outrage but parliament must be involved before any military action is agreed,” said Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

“Specifically the government needs to explain who is strengthened if and when Assad is weakened and what happens after,” he tweeted.

Like other Tory MPs, he asked what would be the longer-term consequences of a western attack. “Specifically the government needs to explain who is strengthened if and when Assad is weakened and what happens after,” he tweeted.

David Davis, Brexit secretary, opposed military action in Syria in 2013, writing at the time that it was hard to see how the humanitarian cause could be helped “by adding cruise missile strikes to an already volatile situation”.

On Wednesday, Mr Davis said the situation had been different in 2013: “We had not provided the evidence and the intelligence that we knew who it was, and secondly there was not a proper plan thought through thoroughly. Those two things, I’m assured, we’re going to answer today.”



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