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.

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    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: 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”.

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    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.


    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.”

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    • 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: 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?

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      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?

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        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.

Plastic bag litter falls in UK seas

A study of litter in UK seas shows the number of plastic bags has fallen, amid a rise in other types of plastic rubbish.

The authors say this could be due to several things – the introduction of charges for plastic bags across Europe, manufacturing changes and shifts in ocean dynamics.

The research found a rise in the proportion of fishing debris.

Some of the plastic debris is likely to be coming from outside the UK.

The reduced proportion of plastic bags in marine litter was found from 2010 onwards. There was a drop of around 30% from the pre-2010 period compared with afterwards.

If charging is a potential contributor, the downward trend could suggest that policies can affect the amount and distribution of certain marine litter items on short timescales. But in their scientific paper, the researchers add that this point is controversial.

A change in the composition of plastic bags, which may speed up the rate at which they decompose, could also be another factor.

Co-author Thomas Maes, who is a marine litter scientist at the government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), said: “It is encouraging to see that efforts by all of society, whether the public, industry, NGOs or government to reduce plastic bags are having an effect.

“We observed sharp declines in the percentage of plastic bags as captured by fishing nets trawling the seafloor around the UK compared to 2010 and this research suggests that by working together we can reduce, reuse and recycle to tackle the marine litter problem.”

A UK levy of 5p per bag was introduced in 2015.

The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, looked at plastic debris on the seabed off UK coasts over a 25-year period. It compiles the results of 39 separate boat surveys that trawled for plastic between 1992 and 2017.

Bags, bottles and fishing related debris were commonly observed across all areas.

There was no significant trend over time in the percentage of seafloor trawls that contained any plastic litter or in the total plastic litter items found across the long-term datasets.

However, statistically significant trends were found for fishing debris such as nets and lines. The researchers suggest that better training and action by the industry could help reduce the amount of fishing-related items found on the sea bottom.

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