Britain has little appetite for using military against Assad

Political reality is that Theresa May can offer only verbal support to the US over Syria

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson: cancelled a planned visit to Moscow on Sunday, apparently in deference to his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

British foreign secretary Boris Johnson: cancelled a planned visit to Moscow on Sunday, apparently in deference to his US counterpart, Rex Tillerson. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

 

As Washington’s closest European ally, Britain has voiced strong support for Donald Trump’s missile attack on a Syrian airbase, describing it as an “appropriate response” to the use of chemical weapons in rebel-held Idlib. But Theresa May has yet to offer more than verbal support, and shows no appetite to join in any further military action against Bashar al-Assad.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson warned on Monday that the United States could launch further air strikes against Syria. But May’s official spokesman refused to be drawn on whether Britain would support such attacks, insisting that the prime minister’s focus is on finding a political solution.

The prime minister, who is on a short walking holiday in Wales, has not spoken to Trump since he ordered the firing of 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat airbase, north of Damascus. She spoke on Sunday night, however, to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and the two leaders made clear their preference for diplomacy over military action.

“They noted that the foreign secretary is working closely with his Canadian counterpart as part of diplomatic efforts to line up G7 and like-minded support for a clear international position on the way ahead, in support of the US secretary of state’s visit to Moscow. And they agreed to continue this close co-operation as we build support for a political solution to end the conflict and bring lasting peace and stability to Syria,” May’s spokesman said.

Ridiculed

JohnsonRex Tillerson

It might also have cast a spotlight on the policy divergence between Britain and the US, not only on Syria but towards Russia, against which London wants to see tougher economic and political sanctions.

May’s apparent reluctance to consider British participation in attacks against Assad reflects the political reality that she would struggle to win parliamentary support for such a step. David Cameron failed to win a majority in parliament for attacks on Assad in response to an earlier chemical weapons attack in 2013, prompting Barack Obama to draw back from US airstrikes.

Two years later, MPs backed a British military operation against Islamic State in Syria but there is no discernible appetite in parliament to get involved in a war against Assad. If anything, the expansion since 2013 of Russia’s military presence in Syria in support of Assad has made direct western involvement in the conflict a riskier proposition than before.

And warnings against sabre rattling over Syria in Monday’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph echo a broader Conservative diffidence on the issue which will help to stay the prime minister’s hand.