LONDON (Reuters) – Britain struck Syria with air-launched cruise missiles on Saturday to cripple President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities and prevent what Prime Minister Theresa May cast as a global slide towards their greater use.
Four Royal Air Force Tornado jets from the Akrotiri base in Cyprus fired Storm Shadow missiles at a military facility near Homs where it was assessed that Syria had stockpiled chemicals, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.
May said the strike was “limited and targeted” and came after intelligence indicated that Syrian military officials had co-ordinated a chlorine attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7.
Missile attacks by the United States, France and Britain had been aimed at deterring Assad’s further use of chemical weapons and were not an attempt to topple the Syrian government, May said. The mission had been a success, she said.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” May said in a statement made from her country residence at Chequers just minutes after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the strikes from the White House.
May later told reporters in her Downing Street office that the Western missiles struck a chemical weapons storage and production facility, a chemical weapons research center and a military bunker involved in chemical weapons attacks.
By launching strikes without prior approval from parliament, May dispensed with a non-binding constitutional convention dating back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. She said speed was essential and that military action was in the national interest.
“It was both right and legal to take military action,” May said, adding that she would update parliament on Monday.
The Western missile strikes demonstrate the volatile nature of the Syrian civil war, which started in March 2011 as an anti-Assad uprising but is now a proxy conflict involving a number of world and regional powers and a myriad of insurgent groups.
Assad, May said, should not doubt the resolve of Britain, France and the United States but made clear that the strike was a specific response to the Douma attack which killed up to 75 people, including children.
May dismissed as “grotesque and absurd” a claim by Russia, which intervened in the war in 2015 to back Assad, that the Douma attack was staged by Britain. But she declined to give any signal about the future of Assad.
May’s office issued a statement detailing what it said was the justification for military action under international law, saying Assad had used chemical weapons since 2013 and the blocking of United Nations action by Russia and other allies of Syria left no alternative to “truly exceptional” use of force.
“Such an intervention was directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the action was the minimum judged necessary for that purpose,” Downing Street said.
“RIGHT AND LEGAL”
May referred specifically to last month’s nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the southern English cathedral city of Salisbury that she has blamed on Russia. Moscow has denied any involvement.
“We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere,” May told reporters in Downing Street.
She said almost a century of global acceptance about not using chemical weapons had been eroded in Douma and Salisbury.
May said Britain and its allies had sought to use every diplomatic means to stop the use of chemical weapons, but had been repeatedly thwarted, citing a Russian veto of an independent investigation into the Douma attack at the U.N. Security Council this week.
“So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” she said.
BOMBS DON’T BRING PEACE
The small Northern Irish political party that props up her government said May was justified in taking such action though it said wider intervention in Syria would be counter-productive.
However, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a fervent anti-war campaigner, called the strikes “legally questionable” and said May should have recalled parliament from a holiday and “not trailed after Donald Trump”.
“Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace,” he said. “Britain should be playing a leadership role to bring about a ceasefire in the conflict, not taking instructions from Washington and putting British military personnel in harm’s way.”
Many politicians in Britain, including some in May’s own Conservative Party, had backed his call for parliament to give the authority for any military strike.
A YouGov poll for The Times newspaper this week indicated that only a fifth of voters believed that Britain should launch attacks on Syrian military targets and 43 percent opposed action.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote on air strikes against Assad’s forces in 2013 when 30 Conservative lawmakers voted against action, with many Britons wary of entering another conflict after intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya failed to bring stability to the region.
Cameron, though, gave his support of May on Saturday.
“As we have seen in the past, inaction has its consequences,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, William James and William Schomberg; Writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Toby Chopra