PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

Prime ministers don’t choose the decisions that face them. But they have to judge which way to jump.

In 2013, Theresa May’s predecessor tried and failed to get approval for military action against President Assad. There was international alarm, then as now, about his suspected use of chemical weapons.

But MPs rejected David Cameron’s plan and he didn’t try again to persuade Parliament it was necessary.

This time, she has avoided that particular obstacle by taking action alongside the US and France while MPs are away.

  • US and allies launch strikes on Syria chemical weapons sites
  • Four RAF fighters bomb Syria ‘stockpile’
  • Syria strikes: Latest updates

    The prime minister will give a statement to MPs on Monday, and she’ll have to be prepared for irritation from many different sides.

    But part of the government’s likely attempt to limit the political fallout will be emphasising time and again that the overnight attacks were limited, both in scale and in purpose. Government sources are stressing this morning that the attacks were strictly intended to target President Assad’s ability to create and use chemical weapons.

    The government has not made a decision and has no desire to become embroiled more widely in the messy and complex Syrian civil war. Ministers clearly would rather that the Syrian leader was ousted, this military action is not part of a plan to do that.

    This is direct response to the attacks on civilians in Douma, a military reprimand for the suspected use of chemical weapons that break the international rules.

    But for all that the government hopes the attacks will be no more, and no less than that, conflict is messy, not politically clinical. If the strikes fail to take out Assad’s chemical weapons systems, do the three allies try again? That doesn’t seem to be the current plan.

    But if the logic of the strikes is to prevent more chemical attacks taking place it can’t be completely ruled out. And if chemical weapons are used again in Syria, would the UK take part in a similar punishment?

    If the government believes the principle must be upheld, then again, the logic suggests the same kind of punishment would be meted out another time. What happens if, as warned, there is some form of retaliation from Russia?

    By the government’s admission these strikes are not part of a broader effort to change the dynamic in the Syrian war, but without a wider strategy what will really change? Just because Theresa May does not want to be dragged into longer term involvement in Syria it doesn’t mean that it won’t happen.

    The decision to act was in her control. What happens next is not within her grasp.

Syria air strikes: Theresa May statement in full

Last night British, French and American armed forces conducted co-ordinated and targeted strikes to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deter their use.

For the UK’s part, four RAF Tornado GR4s launched Storm Shadow missiles at a military facility some 15 miles west of Homs, where the regime is assessed to keep chemical weapons in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

While the full assessment of the strike is ongoing, we are confident of its success.

Let me set out why we have taken this action.

  • UK confident of successful mission, says PM
  • US and allies launch strikes on Syria
  • Live updates: Western powers strike Syria targets
  • Nicola Sturgeon: Air strikes risk dangerous escalation
  • Syria ‘chemical attack’: What we know

    Last Saturday, up to 75 people, including young children, were killed in a despicable and barbaric attack in Douma, with as many as 500 further casualties.

    We have worked with our allies to establish what happened. And all the indications are that this was a chemical weapons attack.

    We have seen the harrowing images of men, women and children lying dead with foam in their mouths.

    These were innocent families who, at the time this chemical weapon was unleashed, were seeking shelter underground in basements.

    First-hand accounts from NGOs and aid workers have detailed the most horrific suffering, including burns to the eyes, suffocation and skin discolouration, with a chlorine-like odour surrounding the victims.

    And the World Health Organisation has received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian heath facilities on Saturday night with “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.

    We are also clear about who was responsible for this atrocity.

    A significant body of information, including intelligence, indicates the Syrian regime is responsible for this latest attack. I cannot tell you everything. But let me give an example of some of the evidence that leads us to this conclusion.

    Open source accounts allege that a barrel bomb was used to deliver the chemicals.

    Multiple open source reports claim that a regime helicopter was observed above the city of Douma on the evening of 7th April.

    The opposition does not operate helicopters or use barrel bombs.

    And reliable intelligence indicates that Syrian military officials co-ordinated what appears to be the use of chlorine in Douma on 7th April.

    No other group could have carried out this attack. Indeed, Daesh for example does not even have a presence in Douma.

    And the fact of this attack should surprise no-one.

    We know that the Syrian regime has an utterly abhorrent record of using chemical weapons against its own people.

    On 21st August 2013, over 800 people were killed and thousands more injured in a chemical attack also in Ghouta.

    There were 14 further smaller scale chemical attacks prior to that summer.

    At Khan Shaykhun on 4th April last year, the Syrian regime used Sarin against its people, killing around 100 with a further 500 casualties.

    And based on the regime’s persistent pattern of behaviour and the cumulative analysis of specific incidents, we judge it highly likely both that the Syrian regime has continued to use chemical weapons since then, and will continue to do so.

    This must be stopped.

    We have sought to do so using every possible diplomatic channel.

    But our efforts have been repeatedly thwarted both on the ground and in the United Nations.

    Following the Sarin attack in eastern Damascus back in August 2013, the Syrian regime committed to dismantle its chemical weapon programme – and Russia promised to ensure that Syria did this, overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

    But these commitments have not been met.

    A recent report from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has said that Syria’s declaration of its former chemical weapons programme is incomplete.

    This indicates that it continues to retain undeclared stocks of nerve agent or precursor chemicals – and is likely to be continuing with some chemical weapons production.

    The OPCW inspectors have investigated previous attacks and on four occasions decided that the regime was indeed responsible.

    And on each occasion when we have seen every sign of chemical weapons being used, any attempt to hold the perpetrators to account has been blocked by Russia at the UN Security Council, with six such vetoes since the start of 2017.

    Just this week, the Russians vetoed a draft resolution that would have established an independent investigation into this latest attack – even making the grotesque and absurd claim that it was “staged” by Britain.

    So we have no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own will not be any more effective in the future than it has been in the past.

    Over the last week, the UK government has been working intensively with our international partners to build the evidence picture, and to consider what action we need to take to prevent and deter future humanitarian catastrophes caused by chemical weapons attacks.

    When the cabinet met on Thursday we considered the advice of the attorney general, the national security adviser and the chief of the defence staff – and we were updated on the latest assessment and intelligence picture.

    And based on this advice we agreed that it was both right and legal to take military action, together with our closest allies, to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use.

    This was not about interfering in a civil war.

    And it was not about regime change.

    As I discussed with (US) President Trump and (French) President Macron, it was a limited, targeted and effective strike with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

    Together we have hit a specific and limited set of targets. They were a chemical weapons storage and production facility, a key chemical weapons research centre and a military bunker involved in chemical weapons attacks.

    Hitting these targets with the force that we have deployed will significantly degrade the Syrian regime’s ability to research, develop and deploy chemical weapons.

    A year ago, after the atrocity at Khan Shaykhun, the US conducted a strike on the airfield from which the attack took place. But Assad and his regime haven’t stopped their use of chemical weapons.

    So last night’s strikes by the US, UK and France were significantly larger than the US action a year ago, and specifically designed to have a greater impact on the regime’s capability and willingness to use chemical weapons.

    And this collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons.

    I also want to be clear that this military action to deter the use of chemical weapons does not stand alone.

    We must remain committed to resolving the conflict at large.

    The best hope for the Syrian people remains a political solution.

    We need all partners – especially the regime and its backers – to enable humanitarian access to those in desperate need.

    And the UK will continue to strive for both.

    But these strikes are about deterring the barbaric use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.

    And so to achieve this there must also be a wider diplomatic effort – including the full range of political and economic levers – to strengthen the global norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons which have stood for nearly a century.

    Although of a much lower order of magnitude, the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK in recent weeks is part of a pattern of disregard for these norms.

    So while this action is specifically about deterring the Syrian regime, it will also send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity.

    There is no graver decision for a Prime Minister than to commit our forces to combat – and this is the first time that I have had to do so.

    As always, they have served our country with the greatest professionalism and bravery – and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

    We would have preferred an alternative path.

    But on this occasion there is none.

    We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere.

    We must reinstate the global consensus that chemical weapons cannot be used.

    This action is absolutely in Britain’s national interest.

    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.

    That is what our country has always done.

    And that is what we will continue to do.

Syria air strikes: UK confident of successful mission, says PM

The UK is “confident” that air strikes carried out by Britain, the US and France on suspected chemical weapons facilities in Syria have been successful, the PM has said.

Theresa May also said it had been “right and legal” to take action.

Military bases near the capital Damascus and the city of Homs were targeted, after an alleged chemical attack on the Syrian town of Douma.

Jeremy Corbyn called it “legally questionable” in a letter to Mrs May.

Syrian state media said there had been a “violation of international law”.

  • US and allies launch strikes on Syria
  • Live updates: Western powers strike Syria targets
  • Theresa May: Syria statement in full
  • Syria air strikes: Were they legal?

    Speaking in Downing Street, Mrs May said the “limited and targeted strikes” had degraded Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons.

    “This collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons,” she said.

    Drawing a link with the recent nerve agent attack 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.”

    She also said she would make a statement to Parliament on Monday and give MPs a chance to ask questions.

    Mr Corbyn said MPs should have been consulted before the strike and called on Mrs May to “publish in full the legal justification and basis for” the action.

    The Labour leader added that weapons inspectors were on their way to verify the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

    Analysis

    By Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

    Whitehall officials say the aim of launching strikes against Syria has been to deal a big enough blow to the Assad regime that it deters it from using chemical weapons again – but not so big as to alter the course of the Syrian conflict or draw retaliation from Russia.

    Planners took the view that the limited US missile strike on Shayrat airbase a year ago had failed to dissuade the Assad regime from using poison gas.

    Before the green light was given by the prime minister for RAF participation in today’s attack, the defence secretary spent time with the attorney general going over the legality of the targeting in precise detail.

    I am told that the lessons of the Chilcot Report – into the mistakes made over the Iraq invasion of 2003 – have been uppermost in people’s minds. Decisions, phone calls and sign-offs made over the last few days may one day have to be scrutinised by lawyers.

    Russia too has been a major factor in choosing which targets to attack. Planners believe that the best way to mitigate against any Russian retaliation was to warn them in advance and avoid hitting any Russian positions in Syria.

    The Ministry of Defence (MoD) said eight Storm Shadow missiles had been launched by four RAF Tornados at a former missile base, 15 miles west of Homs – where it is thought President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been stockpiling items used to make chemical weapons.

    A spokesperson said the facility was “located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation”, and scientific analysis was used to “minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area”.

    A Nato meeting will be held on Saturday where Britain, France and the US will brief allies on the action taken in Syria.

    PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

    By Laura Kuenssberg, BBC political editor

    Prime ministers don’t choose the decisions that face them. But they have to judge which way to jump.

    In 2013, Theresa May’s predecessor tried and failed to get approval for military action against President Assad. There was international alarm, then as now, about his suspected use of chemical weapons.

    Read the full blog here.

    Addressing a press conference on Saturday, Mrs May said she believed the strike action had been “the right thing to do” and was “absolutely in Britain’s national interest”.

    “This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” she said.

    “It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”

    She said the UK government “judged it highly likely” that Syria had been using chemical weapons, and it was “clear” the Assad regime was responsible for the “despicable and barbaric” attack on civilians on 7 April.

    Evidence suggested a barrel bomb and a regime helicopter had been used, she added. “No other group could have carried out this attack.”

    • President Trump statement in full
    • Nicola Sturgeon: Air strikes risk dangerous escalation
    • Syria ‘chemical attack’: What we know

      Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Britain, the US and France had played an important role in “degrading the ability of the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons”.

      Reporting from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the BBC’s Jonathan Beale said the Tornados left the airbase in the early hours of Saturday.

      He added the cruise missiles had been fired “well away from Syrian airspace” and were out of the range of the regime’s air defences.

      It was assessed that the Syrian regime had been using the military base near Homs to “keep chemical weapon precursors, stockpiled in breach of Syria’s obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the MoD said in a statement.

      Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin of Russia – Syria’s key ally – said he “condemns the attack in the most serious way”.

      And Syria’s official Sana news agency called the Western action “a flagrant violation of international law”.

      “The American, French and British aggression against Syria will fail,” it said.

      ‘Erratic president’

      In the UK, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mrs May had not answered how the action, “taken without parliamentary approval, will halt their [Syria’s] use” of chemical weapons, “or bring long term peace”.

      Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable also said MPs should have had a vote on the action, adding: “Riding the coat-tails of an erratic US president is no substitute for a mandate from the House of Commons.”

      But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party said Mrs May had “the full authority” to order the air strikes and it rejected “any suggestion that she was not entitled to do so”.

      What did the UK use?

      The RAF sent four Tornado GR4 aircraft from Cyprus each armed with two Storm Shadow Cruise Missiles.

      The Tornado has been one of the mainstays of the RAF since first entering service in 1980 and the aircraft were used to enforce no-fly zones in Iraq.

      Weighing in at 2,866lb (1,300kg), measuring 16.7ft (5.1m) in length and with a range in excess of 150 miles (240km), the “bunker busting” Storm Shadow has been described by the air force as “arguably the most advanced weapon of its kind in the world”.

      The range means that none of the GR4s would have been required to cross into Syrian airspace to launch the assault.

Syria air strikes: Were they legal?

The justifications put forward by the US, UK and France for the air strikes in Syria have focused on the need to maintain the international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, to degrade President Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and to deter further chemical attacks against civilians in Syria.

Prime Minister Theresa May argued that the UK has always stood up for the defence of global rules and standards in the national interest of the UK and of the organised international community as a whole.

Legally, this position returns the world to the era before the advent of the UN Charter. The Charter allows states to use force in self-defence and, arguably, for the protection of populations threatened by extermination at the hands of their own government. The use of force for broader purposes of maintaining international security is also possible. However, such action is subject to the requirement of a mandate from the UN Security Council.

This arrangement tries to balance the need of states to preserve their security in the face of an actual or imminent attack through self-defence when strictly necessary with the need to ensure that force cannot be used as a routine tool of international politics. Hence, international law since 1945 precludes military strikes in retaliation – to teach other states a lesson, as it were – or by way of reprisal. Reprisals are acts that are in principle unlawful, but they can be excused because they aim to force a state back into compliance with its international obligations.

Hence, in 1981 Israel was condemned by the UN Security Council when it attacked the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. Israel had argued that it might contribute to the production of weapons of mass destruction in the future. A US attack against an alleged chemical weapons facility in Sudan in 1998 in response to US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania was also criticised.

In this instance, the three states mounting the air strikes have taken it upon themselves to force Syria into compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the Convention in 2013 as part of the diplomatic settlement that followed the failure of the UK, and the US, to go through with threatened air attacks after gruesome chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta. The Convention prohibits the production, possession and use of chemical weapons. No fewer than 192 states have signed.

Syria was also subjected to additional duties contained in mandatory Security Council resolution 2118, reinforcing these obligations and providing for the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile. In an impressive example of international co-operation, also involving Russia, this was largely achieved a year later, by September 2014.

Russian veto

However, since then, there have been some 40 recorded instances of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has the ability to dispatch fact-finding missions to determine whether such weapons have actually been used.

A special joint mechanism was set up by the OPCW and the Security Council with a mandate to assign responsibility for such uses. However, after the mechanism pointed the finger at the Assad government last year, Russia vetoed its renewal.

An attempt to establish a new mechanism empowered to determine responsibility for the latest use of chemical weapons in Douma failed this week, again due to a Russian veto in the Security Council. Russia’s own proposed investigatory mechanism, which was opposed by the Western states and others, would have lacked that power.

The three states intervening in Syria now argue that there was no prospect of obtaining a mandate from the Council to confront chemical weapons use by Syria. In striking Syria, they claim to have fulfilled an international public order function of defending the credibility of the prohibition of the use of chemical weapons in general terms, and enforcing Syria’s obligations in particular.

  • Syria air strikes: Live updates
    • Will Western strikes sway Syria’s Assad?

      This argument is somewhat reminiscent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, supposedly to enforce Baghdad’s disarmament obligations imposed by the Security Council in the absence of clear Security Council authorisation. Moreover, in April of last year, President Trump launched 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian air-base at Shayrat. It was claimed that the installation had been involved in a chemical attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun, again to restrain further chemical weapons use.

      The blockage in the Security Council on Syria opens up space for this kind of argument. The Chemical Weapons Convention provides for referral of grave instances such as the Douma attack to the Security Council for enforcement action. But the Council could not even agree on a mechanism to establish responsibility, not to speak of more decisive action to repress future uses of such weapons.

      The claim of the three states involved to act instead of the Council, as the world’s enforcement agent of a highly important international rule, is of course being resisted by some. Russia has already asserted that the attacks flagrantly violate the prohibition of the use of force. The UN secretary general has also emphasised the need to respect the primacy of the Security Council.

      Humanitarian suffering

      The arrogation of the functions of the Council by a group of states claiming to act in the common interest therefore reflects the reality of the present, little Cold War between Russia and the West. The breakdown of the consensus that facilitates the operation of collective security necessarily results in unilateral acts.

      In addition to the general interest in maintaining the obligation to refrain from chemical weapons use, Mrs May also referred to the protection of civilians from further chemical attacks to alleviate further humanitarian suffering. This, in fact, is a stronger and more persuasive legal argument in favour of the strikes.

      In 2013, when the use of force was expected after the Ghouta attack, the UK expressly invoked the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. A good argument has been made that states can act in cases of overwhelming humanitarian necessity that cannot be addressed by any other means to protect populations in danger of imminent destruction. The application of this doctrine is not restricted to uses of chemical weapons against civilian populations. However, given the uncontrollable and indiscriminate effect of chemical weapons, their use against civilians offers perhaps the clearest trigger for the application of this doctrine.

      PM has chosen which way to jump on Syria

      Syria ‘chemical attack’: What we know

      It could also be argued that the attacks aim to preserve the national security of the states involved in the attacks, by way of an extensive right to self-defence.

      Every state may defend itself, under some circumstances even before an armed attack aimed at it has landed on its territory. But the attack must be imminent, leaving no choice of means and the response must be proportionate to the attack.

      In the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003, there was the famous 45-minute claim concerning Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. Laying the ground for an argument of anticipatory self-defence against a strike that might come in the future, the UK argued that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction might reach UK military bases in Cyprus with minimum warning.

      But there was no evidence that Baghdad was contemplating such an attack and the argument was abandoned. Similarly, there is no suggestion in this instance that Syria was preparing to launch an attack against the US, UK or France.

      Marc Weller is Professor of International Law in the University of Cambridge and the editor of the Oxford University Press Handbook on the Use of Force in International Law.

Syria air strikes: Will West’s attack sway Syria’s Assad?

This was a heavier strike than a year ago – three targets rather than one.

Then, the US acted alone; this time it was joined by its French and British allies.

More than double the number of weapons were fired against Syrian targets than last year – a little more than 120 in all.

But the fundamental question remains the same.

Was this enough to achieve what the Americans say was their goal – to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons again?

  • US and allies launch strikes on Syria
  • Syria ‘chemical attack’: What we know

    Assad’s effective victory

    Since April a year ago Syria’s torment has not ended. But two fundamental things have changed.

    Firstly, the Assad regime has effectively won its war and terrorising civilians has played a key part in its strategy.

    President Assad may not control all of Syrian territory. But backed by Russia and Iran, there is nobody that can really stand against him. It is shortages of manpower, equipment and capacity that prevent him re-establishing wider control.

    Secondly, relations between Washington and Moscow – and between Russia and the West more generally – have deteriorated significantly, to the extent that senior international officials are now talking of a new Cold War.

    This was the context in which President Trump determined to send his punitive message to the Assad regime. And this is the context in which they will have received it.

    Will they be cowed or defiant? Will public bluster conceal a more fundamental re-think on the part of Mr Assad? Might Russia, whatever its spokesmen say, have a stern word with the Syrian leader? And if they did, would it have any effect?

    • Syria war: Fall of Eastern Ghouta pivotal moment for Assad
    • Eastern Ghouta devastation seen from space
    • Why is there a war in Syria?

      Trump’s distraction

      Watching this crisis unfold from the United States, I found it both perplexing and in many ways worrying.

      There seemed to be a lack of focus and clarity on the part of the Trump administration. Hardly surprising, perhaps, when the president himself was increasingly bogged down in his own domestic difficulties as allegations and recriminations about alleged past affairs and misbehaviour returned to haunt him.

      At times he seemed more likely to strike out at the US justice system than at President Assad. Indeed over the past week, while much of the rest of the world worried about what Mr Trump might do about Syria, the media here has been dominated, absorbed and fascinated, in equal measure, by Mr Trump’s difficulties almost to the exclusion of all else.

      President Trump’s rhetoric suggested a major military strike against the Assad regime. In the event what has taken place falls far short of that. So what conclusion might Moscow and Damascus draw?

      • Trump lawyer under criminal investigation
      • Six claims about Trump in Comey book
      • The president and the porn star: Why this matters

        Soft targets

        The Pentagon seems to have gone out of its way to avoid both civilian and “foreign” casualties – for that read “Russians”.

        The three targets hit were chosen both for their central role in the chemical weapons programme but also because the risk of collateral damage was smallest.

        The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff noted at a subsequent briefing that the US had a list of other targets which it did not choose to strike this time. The clear message is that if the Assad regime resorts to chemical weapons again then more strikes will follow.

        But again, since last April there have been a number of other alleged chemical weapons attacks, generally using chlorine gas. But until now the US did not strike again. So what message did this send?

        Now the hope is that Mr Assad will change his behaviour. But what about the wider Syrian conflict? This brutal war shows no sign of ending. Many have pointed out that it is barrel bombs, artillery and bullets that are responsible for the overwhelming bulk of the deaths and mutilations in Syria, not chemical weapons, and yet it is these that prompt Western action.

        There is a good measure of truth in this sentiment, though for historical and cultural reasons chemical weapons have a particular horror in the West in the wake of their use in World War One. The treaty banning them is an important disarmament agreement and its weakening threatens to unwind years of progress.

        But the wider question is to what extent these latest strikes change the picture in Syria? Do they bring the conflict any closer to an end? Sadly the answer is almost certainly no.

        Only a short while ago – much to his generals’ horror – Mr Trump spoke about pulling all US troops out of Syria. Only days later he seemed to be threatening a major military intervention. There has been no consistency in the Trump administration’s position.

        There is simply no clear strategy to help bring the war to an end. Indeed one of the arguments for keeping US troops in Syria to bolster their local allies like the Kurds, was in fact to keep the Assad regime and its Iranian backers off-balance.

        Constraining Iran is about the only unifying theme in the Trump administration’s approach, but even this has not been raised to the level of a coherent strategy. In his statement after the strikes the President again asserted that the US was not seeking an indefinite presence in Syria.

        His hope was clearly that as others shouldered the burden (who?) the US might walk away. But this was followed by a catch-all statement about the intractability of the region and its problems, which hardly suggests a desire for a long-term engagement.

        If these are the signals coming from Washington, then why should Russia worry?

        Russia’s rise

        It has, through its military, and political support for the Assad regime, re-established itself as a significant diplomatic actor in the region. Russia, of course warned the US and its allies not to strike Syria. So in the wake of this attack what might Russia do?

        In Syria itself, it might seek to further undermine Washington’s already weak position but it is not going to war with the Americans – such fears, barring some extraordinary disaster, were always, probably, far-fetched.

        US Defence Secretary James Mattis has already hinted at Russia’s likely response noting that “we fully expect a significant disinformation campaign over the coming days by those who have aligned themselves with the Assad regime”.

        Indeed this campaign has in many ways already begun, with the Russians – who now have forces in the area where the recent chemical attack is alleged to have occurred – insisting first that there was no sign of a chemical attack and then, more recently, that the whole thing was staged by foreign agents to discredit Mr Assad and Moscow.

        This is the same Russia that is accepted by most Western governments to have been behind the attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury, using a nerve agent. It is the same Russia that has tried to influence the US and other recent elections. It is President Putin’s Russia that has seized part of Ukraine. One could go on. The misinformation battle has already been joined.

        The new Cold War

        There is indeed a new sort of Cold War developing. It may not risk nuclear annihilation, but because of that it is in many ways more direct and unpredictable, with Moscow taking much greater risks than it might have done in the past.

        Russia is not a global superpower like the Soviet Union. It no longer has an ideology that gathers support from liberation movements around the world. It is fundamental a middle-ranking regional power with a significant nuclear arsenal and a relatively weak economy. But it knows how to wield influence and how to conduct information warfare. And Mr Putin is determined to defend Russia’s interests – as he sees them – wherever he is able.

        Mostly this means in Russia’s near-abroad, that is countries close to its borders that have been traditional Russian spheres of interest – such as Georgia or Ukraine. Syria is almost an honorary member of the near-abroad, affording Russia an entry point to regain its influence in a region that still matters. Russia’s star is rising and Washington’s influence is in many ways on the wane.

        And this matters. For instability in the region is growing. The ripples from a previous US administration’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq are still spreading. Iran was the principle benefactor of that decision. It has become a formidable regional player.

        Its growing influence in Syria risks a major conflict with Israel. Recently, Israel is believed to have struck at a Syrian base which was home to an Iranian facility.

        Tensions are rising. The region’s many fault-lines risk merging.

        And the US, British and French attacks over-night have inevitably thrown another pebble into the pool.

Syria air strikes: Trump hails ‘perfect’ mission

US President Donald Trump has hailed an overnight military strike on Syria as “perfectly executed”, adding “Mission Accomplished”.

The US, UK and France bombed three government sites, targeting what they said were chemical weapons facilities.

The strikes were in response to a suspected deadly chemical attack on the town of Douma last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he condemned the Western strikes “in the most serious way”.

Russia, Syria’s main ally, had threatened military retaliation if any Russian forces had been hit.

He added: “So proud of our great military”, saying that after extra funding it would be “the finest our country has ever had”.

In a Friday evening address to the nation from the White House, he had said: “The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.

“The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons.”

The wave of strikes is the most significant attack against President Bashar al-Assad’s government by Western powers in seven years of Syria’s civil war.