In Depth

Syria chemical weapons attack: time for UK to take action?

Theresa May under pressure to join retaliatory strike against Assad regime

Theresa May has been told she faces being left behind by Britain’s two closest military allies if she refuses to join a US-led military strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

With French President Emmanuel Macron said to be “egging on” Donald Trump, “senior figures warned that [the UK] risked losing influence in Washington to France” if it rejected a request by the US president to join a retaliatory strike for last week’s chemical attack on civilians in Syria, reports The Times.

Reuters reported last night that the White House is weighing a “multinational military response” to the attack in the rebel-held city of Douma, which is believed to have been perpetrated by Assad’s government.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson spoke with his French and US counterparts yesterday, ahead of an emergency session of the United Nations. According to The Times, Johnson is “among a number of ministers who believe that May should agree to take part in US-led strikes”.

Speaking in Denmark, during a trip to discuss post-Brexit trade deals, May did not rule out joining military action with the US and France. “If this [chemical attack] is at the hands of the Assad regime… it must be held to account - and its backers must be held to account too,” the PM said.

Chemical weapons ‘will become legitimised’

With time running out for Britain to make a decision about its part in any retaliatory measures, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the UN must be allowed  to fully investigate the Douma atrocity, “so we can find out exactly who delivered that chemical weapon”.

The UK’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce echoed Corbyn's caution, telling reporters that Britain “would prefer to start with a proper investigation” but that all options were on the table.

However, former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband argues that intervention is necessary. Writing in The Times, he says: “We now face a situation where there is nothing to deter the warring parties from continuing the conflict, no progress in peacemaking and no relief for the Syrian people.”

Miliband’s former opposite number William Hague agrees. In an article for The Daily Telegraph, Hague warns that chemical weapons will become “legitimised” and used in wars for “coming decades” if the West fails to take military action against Assad.

Commons convention

The dilemma is that “a precedent has evolved that the Commons votes before Britain takes part in any military action, and MPs voted against air strikes against Assad after a similar attack in 2013”, says The Times’s Matt Chorley.

However, former PM Tony Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning that it was “probably not necessary” for May to seek parliamentary backing for UK air strikes, arguing that there is a distinction to be made between such strikes and ground troops.

Tory MP Johnny Mercer, a former soldier and member of the Defence Select Committee, goes a step further. Writing in The Sun, Mercer says the PM should authorise air strikes without even asking the Commons. “In the age of the professional politician, I’m afraid the temptation to ‘vanity vote’ down military action is too tempting - it cannot go through Parliament,” he says.

According to the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, it’s true that “if May wants, she doesn’t need to consult Parliament before committing British troops”, thanks to “the UK’s unwritten Constitution”.

But “that debate is almost certainly redundant”, Bush adds, as “there is a significant group of Labour MPs who bitterly regret not voting with the government in 2013, and that buffer of 30 to 50 MPs means that if May wants some kind of military response to this attack, she has the votes for it.”

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