Military might How leaders reacted to collective action Action was lawful and unavoidable says May in bid to calm critics
PM produces document laying out legality of strikes on humanitarian grounds to head off MPs’ hostility
THERESA MAY ordered British aircraft to take part in strikes against the Syrian regime after government lawyers advised that a strike would be lawful on humanitarian grounds.
A summary of legal advice signed off by Jeremy Wright, the Attorney General, stated that the attack, aimed at “degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability”, was permitted under international law because it represented “an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity”.
The document was released yesterday ahead of a Commons statement by Mrs May tomorrow during which she is likely to face strong criticism from Jeremy Corbyn, and possibly some of her own backbenchers, about the decision to proceed with military action without Parliament’s approval.
Government figures hoped it would allay concerns about the legality of the strikes and pave the way for a less hostile response from MPs. Yesterday, several senior Conservatives who had previously opposed military intervention against Bashar al-Assad rallied around the Prime Minister, praising the action taken in the early hours of yesterday morning.
Speaking in Downing Street, Mrs May said her appearance in the Commons would “give parliamentarians the opportunity to question me about this”.
“I believe it was right to take the action that we have done in the timing that we have done, as I have indicated, in relation to assessment planning and operational security,” she said. “And it was to send a very clear message about the use of these chemical weapons.”
Drawing a link with last month’s nerve agent attack on a former spy and his daughter in Salisbury, Mrs May added: “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.”
Yesterday Syrian state media described the strikes as “a flagrant violation of international law”, while, in a letter to Mrs May, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said the action was “legally questionable” and insisted Parliament “should have been consulted and voted on the matter”.
A Downing Street summary of the legal advice relied on by the Government pointed out that international action to alleviate suffering caused by chemical weapons had been repeatedly blocked by Syria’s allies, including Russia. Mr Wright’s advice was considered by the Cabinet on Thursday, along with assessments by Sir Mark Sedwill, the national security adviser, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the Chief of the Defence Staff, before ministers agreed to take action in response to last week’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians in Douma.
The document highlighted how the Syrian regime has been using chemical weapons since 2013, when an attack on eastern Damascus left over 800 dead.
The regime then “failed to imple- ment its commitment in 2013 to ensure the destruction of its chemical weapons capability”, leading to another attack in Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017, which killed around 80 people and left hundreds more injured.
Last weekend’s attack in Douma killed up to 75 people, and injured over 500 people, the Government said.
Diplomatic action, sanctions, and the US strikes against the Shayrat airbase in April 2017 have failed to sufficiently degrade Syria’s chemical weapons capability, the document added.
“There was no practicable alternative to the truly exceptional use of force,” the paper said.
Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN, insisted the Government was “certain” of its legal case.
The Downing Street paper said the UK met three demands under international law – that there is convincing evidence of extreme humanitarian distress, there is no practicable alternative to the use of force, and the action is necessary and proportionate.
Mrs May also insisted the move was in “Britain’s national interest”.
She said: “We must reinstate the global consensus that chemical weapons cannot be used.
“The lesson of history is that when the global rules and standards that keep us safe come under threat we must take a stand and defend them.”
Several Conservatives could air their concerns in the Commons tomorrow. But allies of the Prime Minister insisted that military intervention was a decision to be made by ministers.
Damian Green, Mrs May’s former deputy, said: “This action is a necessary and proportionate response to a barbaric action. Parliament can now do its constitutional job of holding the Government to account. Parliament does not take executive decisions.”
‘The lesson of history is that when the global rules… that keep us safe come under threat we must take a stand’