‘The lesson of history is that when the global rules that keep us safe come under threat – we must take a stand and defend them’ Theresa May
The Prime Minister joins Trump and Macron to take a tough stance on Syria – and does what Cameron never managed in 2013
IT WAS midnight at Chequers and Theresa May had a long list of phone calls to make.
For the first time in her premiership, she was ordering British forces into combat and from the Prime Minister’s Buckinghamshire manor she began to phone the UK’s other political leaders to inform them of her decision.
One call was to Jeremy Corbyn, who warned that strikes against the Syrian regime might be illegal and demanded more negotiations at the UN.
The Labour leader appealed to Mrs May to change her mind and allow a vote in Parliament but she had already settled on her course.
The Prime Minister also telephoned the first ministers of Wales and Scotland, solemnly explaining to each of them why she thought intervention in Syria was necessary.
She also placed a call to David Cameron, who listened carefully and offered his full support.
Mrs May was about to do what he had tried and failed to do five years earlier – launch strikes against the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.
Her decision came after days of military coordination and intelligence sharing between London, Washington and Paris.
In a phone call to French president Emmanuel Macron on Friday, the two leaders agreed they were confident in the assessment of Western spies: an Assad regime helicopter had dropped chemical weapons on the Damascus suburb of Douma, killing more than 70 people. And the Syrian dictator must be held accountable.
“This behaviour must be stopped – not just to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons,” Mrs May said in a pre-recorded statement released at 2.15am.
Six minutes earlier, Donald Trump had finished his own speech from the White House, where he vowed to use “righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.
John Bolton, on only his fifth day as Mr Trump’s national security adviser, stood nearby scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad.
By the time Mrs May’s aides had sent the statement to journalists, four British Tornado GR4s were already in the air over the Mediterranean.
The aircraft from 903 Expeditionary Wing had taken off from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus and were racing over the dark sea towards the coast of Syria, escorted by Typhoon fighter jets.
The eight Tornado airmen had between them flown dozens of missions over Syria against the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil). But tonight they had a different and more complicated target.
Military planners had assigned them to attack Him Shinshar, a former missile base 15 miles west of Homs.
Western intelligence believed the base was used to store the deadly nerve agent Sarin and other chemical weapons which the Assad regime falsely claimed to have disposed of as part of a 2013 deal with the Obama administration.
As the Tornados neared the coastline, the weapons operators activated their Storm Shadows – bulky cruise missiles which weigh more than a ton and are capable of blasting through concrete to destroy underground targets.
They fired from 300 miles away, sending the missiles streaking towards their target as the Tornados veered back over the sea and away from the Syrian regime’s air defence systems.
The Tornados’ sortie was just one element of a vast allied air and naval operation which unfolded in the early hours of yesterday morning.
British, French, and American forces fired a total of 105 missiles – more than double the number launched by Mr Trump in his first strike on the Syrian regime in 2017.
“I would use three words to describe this operation: precise, overwhelming, and effective,” Lt Gen Kenneth McKenzie, director of the US joint staff said.
Initial assessments indicated no civilians were killed in the strike.
The bombardment was led by the USS Monterey, an American guided missile cruiser in the Red Sea, whose decks were lit up in red as crews fired 30 Tomahawk missiles towards Syria.
Two more American warships also launched missiles from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
A Virginia-class US submarine, normally hidden in the depths of the Mediterranean, rose to the surface to fire six Tomahawk missiles of its own, while a French frigate launched three missiles nearby.
Two American B-1 bombers and a handful of French Rafale and Mirage fighter jets rounded out the strikes, while a constellation of escort jets and refuelling tankers also filled the sky.
Three quarters of the missiles were aimed at a single target: the Barzeh research facility in northern Damascus.
From the outside, the facility appeared to be a modern academic campus. Supporters of the Assad regime posted pictures of children in classrooms purportedly inside the centre.
But US intelligence assessed that Barzeh was at the “heart” of Assad’s research into chemical weapons and that the toxins used in Douma may have been developed at the site.
The facility was surrounded by Syrian anti-aircraft missile systems and US officials described the airspace as some of the “most heavily-defended in the world”.
Damascus residents were jolted from their beds as Syrian troops fired missiles and lit up the night with tracer fire. Buildings shook and those brave enough to look through their windows could see Assad’s Ottoman palace on the slopes of Mount Qasioun illuminated by the explosions.
While Russia claimed that 71 allied missiles had been intercepted by Syria’s air defence, US officials were coolly confident that the weapons had, in fact, found their marks.
The evidence was plain to see as the sun rose in Damascus: the Barzeh facility had been reduced to rubble.
“It does not exist any more,” Lt Gen McKenzie said flatly in a briefing at the Pentagon. “This is going to set the Syrian chemical weapon progamme back years.”
The final and smallest target was a bunker used by Assad’s elite Republican Guard near the storage facility struck by the Tornados at Him Shinshar.
The Pentagon said seven French missiles had been enough to destroy it.
In command centres around the world, allied officers quietly counted their aircraft home safely.
At Chequers, Mrs May was given the British military’s initial assessment of the night: the mission had been a success and her first experience of sending troops into combat had ended without UK loss of life. The Prime Minister went to bed at around 2.30am.
While the strikes were over, the tension was not. Russia warned earlier in the week that it could attack Western forces in retaliation for targeting Assad.
French and US ships remained on high alert and in the Golan Heights, Israeli troops were also on standby in case Assad’s Iranian allies used the chaos as a chance to strike.
But hours ticked by and there was no sign of a military response from Russia, Iran or Syria.
Bashar al-Assad, the 52-year-old who plunged his country into seven years of bloodshed, had been a spectator to the night of bombing and the week of diplomatic wrangling that led up to it.
But at precisely 9am yesterday the Syrian regime began to execute a small piece of theatre it had been rehearsing for some time.
The Syrian president’s official Twitter account posted a short video of Assad walking briskly into work at his palace, a suitcase in his right hand. “The morning of steadfastness,” read the caption.
The footage was almost certainly staged and analysis suggests it may have been filmed at midday the day before.
But the message was unmistakable: the regime may have been attacked by the world’s most powerful military but it lives to fight another day.
“This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting terrorism,” Assad told his Iranian counterpart.
Later, crowds of supposedly spontaneous Assad supporters marched through the streets of
Damascus, waving the regime flag as well as the tricolore of Russia.Several hundreds miles north in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, a weary father named Abu Jihad was following news of the strikes via his patchy internet connection.
His three children have spent their entire lives under siege from regime forces. But Abu could summon no enthusiasm for the Western strikes.
“This will change nothing,” he said. “The regime has known for a week that the strikes were coming and they hid their aircraft, their equipment and their top people. This is like pricking someone with a pin.
“We survived in Ghouta with the chemical attacks, the phosphorous bombs and the bombardments. Life and death is the same for us now.”
‘This attack will set the Syrian chemical weapon programme back years. It does not exist any more’
The skies above Damascus light up as the allies launch their attack, above. Satellite images show the Barzeh facilty both before and after the strike, top right, as a Syrian soldier hoses down the stillsmouldering rubble. President Trump, right, said...