Sit­ting on the sidelines was never an op­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - - Front page - By Con Cough­lin DE­FENCE ED­I­TOR

The fun­da­men­tal truth about Theresa May’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of com­mit­ting Bri­tain’s Armed Forces to com­bat is that she re­ally had no other choice.

There are many MPs of all po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions who will ar­gue that the Prime Min­is­ter should have held back un­til the Com­mons had been given the chance to vote on Bri­tish in­volve­ment. The re­al­ity, though, is that, once Don­ald Trump had taken the de­ci­sion to tar­get forces loyal to Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar al-As­sad, the choice for Down­ing Street be­came a sim­ple ques­tion of whether we sup­ported Washington or ab­stained.

And, in the con­text of the re­mark­able dis­play of in­ter­na­tional sup­port Mrs May has drummed up af­ter the Sal­is­bury poi­son­ing, sit­ting on the sidelines was just not an op­tion.

Bri­tain can­not protest about the use of chem­i­cal weapons in an English city and then turn its back when they are used in the sub­urbs of Damascus. To in­dulge in such dou­ble stan­dards amounts to moral bank­ruptcy of a very high or­der. To Mrs May’s credit, she un­der­stood the im­por­tance of the con­nec­tion be­tween these atroc­i­ties from the mo­ment it be­came clear the ev­i­dence pointed to As­sad be­ing re­spon­si­ble for launch­ing the attack on Douma last week­end, killing an es­ti­mated 70 peo­ple.

The civilised world sim­ply can­not stand idly by when rogue regimes such as Rus­sia and Syria re­sort to such mea­sures. And it is for this rea­son that Bri­tain’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in yes­ter­day morn­ing’s care­fully co-or­di­nated airstrikes was thor­oughly jus­ti­fied.

Jeremy Cor­byn, who has no cred­i­ble pro­pos­als of his own for tack­ling the mod­ern evils of chem­i­cal weapons, is hope­lessly wrong when he claims that Mrs May was sim­ply tak­ing in­struc­tions from Washington, and that the ac­tion was legally ques­tion­able.

There is a well-es­tab­lished body of in­ter­na­tional law un­der the Chem­i­cal Weapons Con­ven­tion, to which Bri­tain is a sig­na­tory, that pro­hibits the use of such mu­ni­tions. And by sup­port­ing in­ter­na­tional mil­i­tary ac­tion, the Gov­ern­ment has demon­strated that it is just as op­posed to the use of chem­i­cal weapons in Syria as it is on the streets of Bri­tain. More­over, Mrs May, who is not renowned for her demon­stra­tive lead­er­ship skills, de­serves credit for hav­ing the po­lit­i­cal courage to back mil­i­tary ac­tion when the siren voices of op­po­si­tion MPs,

and even her own back­benchers, cau­tioned re­straint.

Tar­geted airstrikes car­ried out by the RAF in sup­port of in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised treaties are not the same as a large-scale mil­i­tary of­fen­sive to top­ple the regime of a for­eign state, as hap­pened in Iraq in 2003 and was the rea­son Tony Blair set the ques­tion­able prece­dent of al­low­ing the Com­mons a vote on mil­i­tary ac­tion.

The fast-mov­ing dy­namic of mod­ern global con­flict de­crees that a Bri­tish prime min­is­ter must be al­lowed to ex­er­cise the author­ity he or she en­joys un­der the royal pre­rog­a­tive to ini­ti­ate mil­i­tary ac­tion when the in­ter­ests of na­tional se­cu­rity are at stake. And it is hard to con­tem­plate a more per­ni­cious threat to our col­lec­tive well-be­ing than rogue states that are pre­pared to use weapons of mass de­struc­tion with dis­re­gard for the likely con­se­quences.

On a prac­ti­cal level, I doubt that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, or the French, were pre­pared to de­lay the pro­posed mil­i­tary ac­tion to al­low Mrs May to pan­der to the van­ity of MPs by al­low­ing them a vote on the is­sue.

Mrs May can rest as­sured that she has been “blooded” in her first con­flict as Prime Min­is­ter for all the right rea­sons. And by so do­ing, she has called the bluff of the Rus­sians, whose tac­tics of ob­struc­tion and dis­sem­bling are rem­i­nis­cent of Sad­dam Hus­sein in his hey­day.

The one area of con­cern the al­lied ac­tion does not ad­dress, though, is what to do about Syria’s long-run­ning and bru­tal civil war, which is now in its eighth year. The ab­sence of any mean­ing­ful in­ter­na­tional pres­sure to re­solve the con­flict sim­ply lends en­cour­age­ment to rogue states such as Rus­sia, Syria and Iran that they can act with im­punity. And this is po­ten­tially a far greater threat to world peace than As­sad’s chem­i­cal weapons.

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