British Prime Minister Theresa May has told restive MPs that military air strikes against Syria were right both legally and morally, and accused Syria and its ally Russia of attempting to cover up evidence of a deadly chemical weapons attack.
- UK Government not legally bound to get MP approval for military strikes
- Opposition leader says air strikes “legally questionable”
- French PM also defends his country’s military action
Ms May faced down her domestic critics as France’s Prime Minister defended the “proportionate” response to the use of chemical weapons.
European Union foreign ministers united to say they understood the need for the air strikes and called for a new push for a political solution to the war in Syria.
British Royal Air Force jets joined American and French warplanes and ships in hitting targets in Syria early on Saturday in response to a reported chemical attack by the Syrian Government in the town of Douma.
The British Government is not legally bound to seek MPs’ approval for military strikes, although it is customary to do so.
Ms May told members in the House of Commons that consulting them would have been impractical, both because Parliament was on a spring break until Monday and because some of the intelligence behind the decision was classified.
“We have always been clear that the Government has the right to act quickly in the national interest,” Ms May said, calling the military action “not just morally right but also legally right”.
“We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised, either within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or elsewhere,” Ms May said, linking the chemical attack in Syria with the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter last month with a military-grade nerve agent in the English city of Salisbury.
Syria and Russia have both denied that Syrian Government forces carried out the Douma gas attack, suggesting it may have been staged to implicate them.
The suspected gas attack killed dozens and thrust Syria’s conflict into the headlines. (AP: Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets)
Ms May said the presence of helicopters and the use of barrel bombs pointed the finger of blame squarely at the Government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
She accused Syria, aided by Russia, of trying to block an investigation into the gas attack being undertaken by the international chemical weapons watchdog.
“The Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area,” she said.
“And a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is underway, supported by the Russians.”
After-the-fact debate set for British Parliament
In an unusual move, the British Government said it would seek an emergency House of Commons debate on the air strikes so legislators could have their say.
Yet an after-the-fact debate — which may not include a vote — is unlikely to satisfy angry opposition politicians.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, called the air strikes “legally questionable” and accused Ms May of “following Donald Trump’s lead”.
He said Britain should introduce a War Powers Act to ban military action without Parliament’s approval.
Ms May rejected the claim.
“We have not done this because President Trump asked us to do so,” Ms May said.
“We have done it because we believe it was the right thing to do — and we are not alone.”
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also justified the military action in a speech on Monday to the National Assembly, France’s Lower House of Parliament.
Mr Philippe told politicians that France’s “riposte” was “proportionate” and sent a strong, clear message to dissuade Syria’s Government from using chemical weapons.