'MPs SET TO RETURN TO DEBATE SYRIAN INTERVENTION'

Parliament likely to be recalled, while David Cameron cuts short holiday and Nick Clegg calls off Afghanistan trip

By Nicholas Watt, Chief Political Correspondent

Guardian – 27 August 2013

Parliament is expected to be recalled by the end of the week as David Cameron and Nick Clegg move to ensure that MPs are fully consulted on any military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Downing Street announced on Monday that the prime minister would cut short his holiday in Cornwall to return to London on Tuesday before a meeting of the national security council on Wednesday. The deputy prime minister cancelled a trip to Afghanistan on Tuesday to attend the NSC meeting, during which ministers are expected to discuss the findings of the UN weapons inspectors after their visit to Mouadamiya, the suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, where the suspected chemical weapons attack took place.

Downing Street will make a final decision on Tuesday on whether to recall parliament, which is not due to meet in formal session until Monday. But government sources, who had said parliament would be recalled only to approve military action, indicated that MPs would now be given a chance to debate the recent developments after last Wednesday's alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad forces.

A recall of parliament would allow Cameron to make a statement to MPs, possibly after the meeting of the NSC on Wednesday. He had a phone conversation on Monday with Vladimir Putin, which was described as testy. It is understood that the Russian president agreed that the use of chemical weapons would amount to a breach of international law. But Putin said he did not accept that the Assad regime had used weapons and disputed whether they had been used at all. Russia's stance means Britain, France and the US would struggle to win support for a UN security council resolution approving an armed response. William Hague, the foreign secretary, raised the possibility of authorising military action under international laws banning the use of chemical weapons. Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, will advise the NSC on the legality of such action on Wednesday.

Putin's position on Syria and the determination to act scrupulously within the law prompted government sources to caution against an immediate military response. Sources said ministers, in common with the US administration, would want to take time to study the evidence from the UN visit to Mouadamiya and to examine the legal position carefully. The sources said that caution did not mean there would be no armed response and ministers just wanted to make sure Britain, France and the US acted within the law.

Julian Lewis, one of the leading Tory critics of military action on the grounds that it would end up helping al-Qaida forces in Syria, said he could support a limited strike to punish the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons. Lewis told the Guardian:

"If we can be satisfied that the Syrian government has carried out this atrocity using sarin gas, there is an argument to be made for some sort of surgical military punishment strike to show the regime that such behaviour will not be tolerated in the 21st century. It sounds like what is being suggested is something similar to what was done against [Muammar] Gaddafi in 1986, when we facilitated the Americans bombing Libya in response to an outrage. It is generally agreed that from that time onwards, despite a lot of protests, Gaddafi started to mend his ways."

But Lewis added that he remained adamantly opposed to a wider military campaign in Syria. He said:

"It would be absolutely against the national interest for us to do anything to assist the transformation of another Arab dictatorship into another Islamist-controlled Arab regime, particularly because of the presence in considerable numbers of al-Qaida-affiliated activists at the heart of the opposition."

[To see why Julian decided to vote against the Government's motion on 29 August 2013, click here and here.]