No time for parliament vote on Syria strikes, says May

Prime minister insists call made in ‘national interest’ rather than due to pressure from US

Theresa May faced widespread criticism from opposition MPs on Monday for her failure to consult parliament ahead of Saturday's air strikes against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack in Douma last week. But in a statement to MPs, the prime minister said the operation could have been endangered if MPs were asked for prior authorisation.

“The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations. This was a limited, targeted strike on a legal basis that has been used before. And it was a decision which required the evaluation of intelligence and information much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with parliament,” she said.

Ms May said a “significant body of information”, including intelligence, pointed to the Syrian government’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attack, which killed up to 75 people. She said no rebel forces had access to helicopters, which are usually used to deliver the barrel bombs in which the chemicals were reported to have been delivered.

She said the attacks were carried out under the same legal basis used by Britain when it took part in Nato's intervention in Kosovo and for the creation of no-fly zones in Iraq in the early 1990s. She took personal responsibility for ordering Britain's participation in the air strikes and rejected claims that she had acted under pressure from US president Donald Trump.

“Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so. It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria – and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used. For we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere. So we have not done this because president Trump asked us to do so. We have done it because we believed it was the right thing to do,” she said.

Other actors

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn questioned the legal basis for the operation and accused the prime minister of failing to exhaust all diplomatic options before resorting to the use of force. He said that, although evidence pointed to the Syrian government's responsibility for last week's attack in Douma, other actors in the country's civil war had also used chemical weapons.

The Labour leader called for a new War Powers Act, which would impose a legal obligation on the government to get the backing of MPs before military action.

“There is no more serious issue then the life and death matters of military action. It is right that parliament has the power to support or stop the government from taking planned military action,” he said.

Few Labour MPs echoed their leader’s scepticism about the legal basis of the attacks and some openly contradicted it. Chris Leslie, one of Mr Corbyn’s harshest critics within his own party, said the air strikes were justified and that inaction had severe consequences.

“A policy of inaction would also have severe consequence and those [who] would turn a blind eye and do nothing in pursuit of some moral high ground should also be held accountable for once,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times