Government releases official documents giving UK verdict on Damascus chemical weapons incident and prospect for military action
A debate over military intervention in Syria following alleged chemical attacks has begun in the House of Commons today.
The Prime Minister was the first to speak after the debate opened at 2.30pm. Mr Cameron said: “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, invading or regime change. It is about the large scale use of chemical weapons, and our response to a war crime – nothing else.
“We have published a very clear summary of the legal advice. I am of course mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts. In particular, the deep concerns caused by what went wrong with the Iraq conflict in 2003. […] What we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different.
“Europe is untied in the view that we should not let this chemical weapon use stand.”
The Prime minister said action would be taken “purely and simply” to “deter and degrade the future use of chemical weapons”.
He described Syrian President Bashar al- Assad as a “brutal dictator” and admitted there is currently not a 100 per cent certainty over who is responsible, but said “you have to make a judgement”.
Shadow Cabinet leader Ed Miliband said the public should not be under “any illusions about the effect of Britain’s relationship to the conflict in Syria, if the Government decided to intervene”. Instead, Britain must be “clear-eyed about the impact that this would have”.
“Any military action we take must be justified in terms of the cause and the potential consequences” he added, and stressed “evidence should proceed decision” when deciding whether to intervene or not.
Mr Miliband said “the UN is not some inconvenient sideshow” and argued further evidence must be gathered before a decision is made on whether the military should take action.
In advance of today’s crucial Commons debate on military action in Syria, the Government published a statement in which it outlined its legal position, and said not only that a chemical weapons attack did take place but that “it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again”.
The statement said that even if military action is blocked by the UN Security Council, “the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria”.
The Government also provided the Commons with evidence compiled by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which says a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week and that it is “highly likely” that Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.
A number 10 spokeswoman said the JIC found there is “some intelligence to suggest regime culpability”, and that “no opposition group has the capability to conduct a chemical weapons attack on this scale”.
The Syrian government have responded with a letter addressed to British Parliamentarians this afternoon, addressed speaker to speaker, to say that “an aggressive and unprovoked act of war would be illegal”, arguing that because results of the UN Report had not been published, “no-one can yet know whether it will conclude that there is enough evidence for any kind of prosecution, let alone acts of mass execution with your own Weapons of Mass Destruction”.
A Labour source has now said they expect the party to vote against the government’s motion in Syria, as it could not support a motion that “in principle” gave support for military action.
The source said: “Our position is clear: we want to see the UN weapons inspectors’ report, we want to see the evidence which is available and then we want the Prime Minister to come back to the House of Commons.
“Because they seem to be regarding it as in principle support for military action, because of its opaque nature, we are going to vote against it.”
Meanwhile, six RAF Typhoon jets have been deployed to Cyprus to protect British sovereign bases, as a purely “precautionary measure” the Ministry of Defence confirmed today.
A brake had been put on British involvement in an immediate military strike against Syria after Labour broke ranks with David Cameron ahead of tonight’s vote.
Barack Obama also came under pressure to delay the widely-expected US intervention as Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, pleaded for more time for its inspectors in Syria who are investigating last week’s chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus, in which hundreds of civilians were killed.
“Let them conclude their work for four days and then we will have to analyse scientifically with experts. Then I think we will have to report to the Security Council for any action,” he said.
Labour toughened its stance against UK military action only a day after Ed Miliband signalled that the Opposition was likely to support Mr Cameron. Last night it demanded six concessions as the price of supporting him tonight – including a UN Security Council vote on the inspectors’ report; a further report to the Commons and a second vote before Britain takes part in any military action; “compelling evidence” that the Assad regime was responsible for last week’s attack and a “clear basis in international law” for intervention.
Labour claimed it had forced Mr Cameron to concede a second Commons vote before UK forces take part in any military intervention, which can now not take place until next week at the earliest. A Labour source said the Prime Minister had “totally ruled out a second vote” in a telephone call with Mr Miliband at 5.15pm last night, only to agree to one when the Government’s motion was published less than two hours later. The motion states the UN Security Council should have the opportunity to consider the inspectors’ briefing and that “every effort” should be made to secure a UN resolution backing military action before it is taken.
The publication today of the JIC’s findings, blaming the Syrian regime for the attack, is another echo of the run-up to the Iraq War. Officials insisted it was an independent report, based on “open” rather than intelligence sources. They are not describing it as “dossier” because the Blair government was accused of putting pressure on the JIC to come up with evidence Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Mr Cameron has now issued his summary of the Government’s advice on the legality of military action, without UN approval, in order to protect the Syrian people. Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, reported his view today to the National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister, which declared Assad was responsible for the attack and “the world shouldn’t stand idly by”.
In New York, Britain proposed a new UN resolution condemning last week’s attack and authorising “measures to protect civilians” in Syria. But there was a stalemate when it was discussed with the other four permanent members of the Security Council, where Russia and China have a veto.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the US State Department, conceded: “We see no avenue forward, given continued Russian opposition, to any meaningful council action on Syria. We do not believe that the Syrian regime should be able to hide the behind the fact that the Russians continue to block action.” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, told Britain the Security Council should not consider a draft resolution before UN inspectors report on their findings.
Elsewhere, when asked if Syria would strike Israel in retaliation at an attack on it, Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said it had a “right to self defence under the UN charter”, while Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, warned that US military action would be “a disaster for the region”.
The Arab League blamed the chemical attack on Assad, but stopped short of condoning retaliation, while Jordan warned that it would not be used as a launching pad for any attacks on Syria. Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq, said the country was on high alert against any domestic consequences of possible military action in Syria.