By Sam Coates, Deputy Political Editor; Francis Elliott, Political Editor; Tom Parfitt, Moscow
The Times Online – 10 April 2018
Theresa May spoke to President Trump and President Macron of France today as she decides whether to agree to British military action against President Assad’s regime in Syria The Prime Minister is caught between MPs demanding Britain takes part in swift retaliatory action after the apparent chemical attack in Syria on Saturday and those in support of her wish not to go ahead without Parliamentary authority.
The Commons does not return until Monday, yet US and French strikes may take place before then. Mrs May said today that the suspected chemical attack in Syria was “barbaric” and that she was also holding urgent international talks.
“Obviously we are working urgently with our allies and partners to assess what has happened on the ground. If this is the responsibility of Assad’s regime in Syria then it’s yet another example of the brutality and brazen disregard for their people that they show,”
“I spoke this morning to President Macron, I will be speaking later today with President Trump and the national security council meets regularly, and I’ll be chairing a meeting of the national security council later today, and we’ll be working with our allies as I say, crucially, to make an assessment of what has happened on the ground.”
The call with Mr Trump is understood to have now taken place. The US President earlier cancelled his first trip to Latin America since his election as he considers his response to the alleged chemical attack. In a sign Mrs May could be considering action, she said those responsible need to be held to account, but some Tory MPs have started voicing their concern at action without Commons approval.
Julian Lewis, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, is the most prominent voice to insist that Parliament get a vote before action, which could mean Britain does not take part in any joint US-French strike. He told The Times:
“When our country comes under attack, the Government may have to act first and seek Parliament’s approval afterwards. But when we are contemplating military intervention in other people’s conflicts, Parliament ought to be consulted first. In Syria, neither side deserves our support: the choice there is ‘monsters or maniacs’.
“Our only allies in Syria, the Kurdish led forces, are under attack from Turkey, a fellow member of NATO currently cosying up to the Russians. A one-off punishment strike against Assad may be justifiable, but overthrowing the Syrian Government would simply create another jihadist state, even if the Russians permitted this.
“So can anything be done to punish and deter Assad from the future use of CW [chemical weapons], without our taking sides in this civil war between two equally repugnant alternatives? That is the Government’s dilemma.”
A former aide to William Hague as Foreign Secretary today added his voice to the calls to support an attack. Keith Simpson, Tory MP for Mid-Norfolk, said that he would support Mrs May if she decided Britain should take part in a retaliatory strike with the US and France before parliament returns next week.
“She doesn’t need to recall Parliament but would have to make a statement on Monday and face the consequences. If the Opposition want to force a vote then my belief is that she would win it,”
said Mr Simpson.
Meanwhile Labour says that there needed to be a UN-led investigation into the attack. Asked if he thought parliament should be recalled to decide on any military intervention in Syria, Jeremy Corbyn said:
“Well, at the moment there is no decision to intervene, or not. I think the intervention ought to be to support the United Nations in undertaking an investigation into the chemical weapons attack. That’s what the UN has called for.
“But, also, there has to be a political solution in Syria. That does mean the US and Russia, instead of engaging in megaphone diplomacy across the floor of the security council, saying they will support the reconvening of the Geneva talks and all the countries in the region getting round the table together.”
The UN Security Council is now set to vote on rival US and Russian motions in response to the chemical attack, guaranteeing there will not by unanimity. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it will send a fact-finding mission to Douma. Officials said the organisation has already been gathering information from all available sources and analysing it.
President Trump has said an apparent poison gas attack in Syria will be “met forcefully” and held talks with his military leaders in Washington on Monday night. Mr Trump did not give a time frame for any retaliatory action, but said the US could not stand by as such atrocities take place because “we are able to stop it”.
The President’s comments came after Moscow’s ambassador to the UN warned of the potential consequences to Western intervention in Syria. Vassily Nebenzia said US attacks on Syria “could lead to grave repercussions” during heated exchanges at the UN Security Council. Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, promised that his country would respond to US sanctions which have wiped billions of dollars off Russian stocks on international markets and caused a slide in the rouble since they were introduced on Friday. Asked if Moscow would retaliate, Mr Bogdanov told reporters:
“Naturally. It is a rule of the game: there should be an appropriate answer to any unfriendly step.”
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, said the sanctions were being “analysed”.
“Of course, this situation is not easy. Yet our own interests should be prioritised,”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, expressed “great concern” that the White House and the Kremlin could not establish dialogue as tensions worsened.
“As Russia and the United States have found themselves on the verge of a confrontation, it is necessary to accelerate preparations for a meeting of their leaders,”
“They must meet ‘halfway’, but fully, with one or two days of serious conversation with participation of Foreign and Defence Ministers.”
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, discussed the situation with the Acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan twice on Monday. The US State Department said Mr Johnson and his Washington counterpart had discussed
“potential further steps the US and UK governments might take in co-ordination with other partners”.