Heated dispute in Commons over response

Labour leader accused of ‘giving succour’ to Assad by opposing military action

David Cameron: said there was not “one smoking piece of intelligence” on attack. Photograph: Reuters

David Cameron: said there was not “one smoking piece of intelligence” on attack. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, Aug 30, 2013, 01:00

British defence secretary Philip Hammond accused Ed Miliband of giving “succour” to the Assad regime as the Westminster battle over potential military action in Syria became increasingly bitter.

Mr Hammond said Labour’s decision to oppose a government bid to secure MPs’ support in principle for an armed response to chemical weapons use could encourage the Syrian government.

As MPs, recalled from the summer break to debate the crisis, prepared to vote in the Commons, anger in government ranks over Mr Miliband’s stance developed into a heated row.

Labour lodged a complaint about the prime minister’s top spin doctor after he accused Mr Miliband of potentially “giving succour” to Assad by delaying a decision on UK involvement.

It sent a letter to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood condemning the “infantile and irresponsible” comments made by director of communications Craig Oliver.

But asked about the remarks, the defence secretary repeated the allegation. “Anything that stops us from giving a clear united view of the British parliament tonight will give some succour to the regime,” he told Channel 4 News.


‘No unified opinion’
“But he has still chosen to table an amendment and ensure that we don’t have a clear, united and unified opinion from the British parliament.”

Mr Miliband’s insistence that a decision on UK involvement should await the report of UN weapons inspectors examining the attack site in Damascus forced Mr Cameron to water down his motion.

Without Labour’s support, the vocal scepticism of many Conservative MPs meant the prime minister was faced with a humiliating Commons defeat, unprecedented in the 20th century. He accepted the need for a second vote to authorise any involvement.


Alternative motion
But the concessions did not go far enough for Mr Miliband, who tabled an alternative motion demanding “compelling evidence” that the Assad regime was responsible.

Making the case for military action as he opened the debate, Mr Cameron conceded there could be no “100 per cent certainty” about who committed the chemical weapons attack in Syria.

He said there was not “one smoking piece of intelligence” but insisted he was convinced by the evidence that it was “beyond doubt” Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.

Documents published by Downing Street showed Britain would be permitted to launch a targeted strike on humanitarian grounds, even if Russia and China block an agreement at the United Nations.

Evidence from the Joint Intelligence Committee found that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week and it is “highly likely” that Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.

The Syrian leader said the country would “defend itself” against any aggression.

Mr Miliband did not rule out backing military action in a subsequent Commons vote after a chance to see and assess evidence “in a calm and measured way”. – (PA)