Theresa May calls urgent cabinet meeting over Britain’s response to escalating Syria crisis

The UK's response to the alleged chemical attack in Douma is the only item on the agenda

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Thursday 12 April 2018 10:31 BST
Syria crisis: Theresa May to chair emergency Cabinet meeting

Theresa May has called an urgent cabinet meeting to approve Britain’s response to the escalating crisis in Syria, amid concern the UK will launch military action without consulting Parliament.

Downing Street said Ms May and her top ministers would sit down, with the situation in the war-torn country the only item on their agenda.

The meeting comes as the prime minister toughened her language on the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, effectively blaming the Syrian regime and demanding it be held to account.

But with Donald Trump promising that missiles would soon be fired at Syrian targets, MPs including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded a Commons vote before the UK deploys forces.

The heightened tensions came on another day of drama on the international stage, which saw the US and Russia squaring up over the on-going bloody Syrian civil war and Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad.

Downing Street sources said the cabinet meeting – unusual during a parliamentary break – represented the “next phase” of Ms May’s approach to the crisis, following her conversations with Mr Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and national security officials.

With the callout notice for the cabinet meeting sent on Wednesday night, the prime minister appeared to harden her language on the Douma incident, in which reports suggest bombs filled with a chemical substance were dropped on the town leaving more than 40 people dead.

US v Russia on Syria: The story so far

Ms May said: “All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible and we will be working with our closest allies on how we can ensure that those who are responsible are held to account and how we can prevent and deter the humanitarian catastrophe that comes from the use of chemical weapons in the future.

“The continued use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.”

All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible and we will be working with our closest allies on how we can ensure that those who are responsible are held to account

Prime Minister Theresa May

She told reporters during a visit to Birmingham that she was “appalled” but “not surprised” by Russia’s decision to veto a draft resolution at the United Nations on Tuesday, which sought to create a new body to determine responsibility for the attack.

Indicating that she believes the diplomatic route may have been exhausted, she said: “There can be no role now for investigations by the United Nations.”

Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkinhad, warned that his country would shoot down US rockets, and even fire on “the sources that launched the missiles” – raising the prospect of direct engagement between US and Russian forces.

General Richard Barons on Russia's claim it will shoot down US missiles fired at Syria: 'That is war'

In a tweet responding to the threat, President Trump said: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria.

“Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’. You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

Government insiders suggested it is unlikely that parliament would be called before it returns from the Easter recess on Monday.

It means that if Ms May decides to join any action before then she risks a backlash from MPs, including many on the Conservative benches, who think there should be a vote before any deployment.

Tony Blair’s decision to take the country to war in Iraq in 2003 was the first time such a decision was put to a vote in the Commons.

In 2011 David Cameron offered no vote before UK air strikes on Libya, but won a retrospective one shortly after, once British service personnel were committed.

But then in 2013 he lost a vote to take action against Assad in Syria, winning votes the following two years to take limited action against Isis in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Corbyn urged the Government to wait for an “inquiry into the source and usage of the chemical weapons” used in Syria.

He went on: “Parliament should always be given a say on military action.

“That’s a case that I’ve made going back many, many years in parliament. Obviously the situation is very serious, obviously there has to be, now, a demand for a political process to end the war in Syria.”

Syria civil war: Footage shows children treated following chemical weapons attack in Douma

The Labour leader also warned against a “bombardment which leads to escalation and leads to a hot war between Russia and America over the skies of Syria”.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said that while the use of chemical weapons crossed a “clear red line”, ministers should present their evidence of regime involvement to MPs.

“A unilateral response by any country, outside of a wider strategy, without allies is not the way forward.

“There must be a debate and vote in the House of Commons ahead of any military action,” he said.

SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald also called for a parliamentary vote before any decision to launch air strikes against the regime.

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