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.