Arab League backs allies’ judgment that Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for Damascus chemical attacks
Britain and the US are finalising plans to launch limited punitive military strikes at the end of the week against the regime of Bashar al-Assad over the “abhorrent” use of chemical weapons near the Syrian capital, Damascus, last week.
As the Arab League threw its weight behind the allies’ judgment that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attack, the US and Britain paved the way for intervention, saying it would be a response to a violation of international law and not aimed at regime change.
General Sir Nick Houghton, chief of the defence staff, will outline a series of arm’s-length options for targeted attacks against Syria during a meeting on Wednesday of the UK’s national security council (NSC).
Houghton, who is expected to reiterate the military’s misgivings about entering the conflict, is expected to tell ministers the UK could assist US forces with cruise missile strikes launched from submarines, warships and aircraft against targets such as command and control bunkers.
David Cameron announced a recall of parliament on Thursday to allow MPs to formally debate the proposed intervention.
The Commons is expected to endorse military action – with a few rebels on all sides – after Ed Miliband indicated on Tuesday that Labour will reluctantly support the government motion, which will closely refer to international law.
Cameron said any use of chemical weapons was “morally indefensible and completely wrong,” adding that any action taken “would have to be legal, would have to be proportionate. It would have to be specifically to deter the future use of chemical weapons”.
Without spelling out any detailed plans, he signalled limited action. “This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict … it is about chemical weapons. Their use is wrong, and the world shouldn’t stand idly by.”
However, a YouGov survey for the Sun showed that 74% of Britons oppose deploying troops to Syria while 50% oppose attacking with long range missiles from ships. Just 25% are in favour.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, warned against a rush to war, saying he feared the consequences could be “beyond description and horrible”.
In a Telegraph interview, the Church of England leader, who visited the region in June, said MPs must be certain of the “facts on the ground” before proceeding and consider the possible ramifications across the wider Arab and Muslim world. “I have had a lot of conversations with people in the region … [there is] just a sense that this a terribly, terribly dangerous time,” he said.
Barack Obama and Cameron discussed the crisis by phone on Tuesday evening. Sources said they discussed the latest thinking but no military decisions were made.
Jo Biden, the US vice-president, has become the most senior member of the Obama administration to blame the Syrian government for the attack.
Addressing a group of veterans in Houston, he said there was “no doubt who was responsible for this heinous use of chemical weapons in Syria: the Syrian regime”.
He added that “those who use chemical weapons against defenceless men, women and children … must be held accountable”.
The next step towards military strikes – which could be launched between late on Thursday, following the vote at Westminster, and the end of the weekend – is expected to be taken on Wednesday when John Kerry, the US secretary of state, releases more information linking the Assad regime to the chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta area east of Damascus.
Kerry is expected to say there is definitive proof linking the regime to the attack on the basis of “open sources” such as evidence from international doctors, a judgment that only the regime could have launched such a large attack, and intercept intelligence of Syrian communications from, among others, the Israelis.
Kerry’s judgment is expected to be followed by a decision by Obama on the exact form of a military strike, which will be designed to deter the future use of chemical weapons by Assad or other regimes.
The White House made clear that the action would not be designed to widen the Syrian conflict or overthrow the regime. Spokesman Jay Carney said: “The options we are considering are not about regime change.” He later added: “There has to be a response to that clear violation of international norms.”
The rest of the international coalition that will either take part in the military action or offer diplomatic support was coming together rapidly on Tuesday night.
In Paris, François Hollande said: “France is ready to punish those who took the decision to gas the innocent.”
France “will not shirk its responsibilities” Hollande told a meeting of French ambassadors. He is due to chair a meeting of his security cabinet on Wednesday, bringing together his ministers of defence, foreign affairs and the interior with France’s top generals, to finalise preparations for the country’s role.
The Arab League meanwhile blamed Assad for the gas attack and voiced regional support for action. After an emergency meeting in Cairo, the league said it held the Syrian government “fully responsible for the ugly crime” and demanded that perpetrators face international trials.”
Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria withheld their support for the statement however, reflecting the largely sectarian fault lines in the Arab world deepened by the Syrian conflict.
In Damascus, the UN inspection of suspected sites of chemical attacks was held up for a day following Monday’s sniper attack on one of the inspectors’ vehicles. A press statement said: “a comprehensive assessment determined that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team.”
The UN investigation in Syria is due to last a further six days according an earlier understanding with the Assad government, though it could be extended by mutual agreement. However, Washington, London and Paris have all made it clear that they would not wait for the UN report to take action based on their own intelligence findings.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear that Israel would not take part in military action but would respond with force if it was the target of Syrian reprisals.
“The state of Israel is prepared for any scenario,” Netanyahu said after talks with his security officials.
Cameron is expected to be able to brief MPs on a joint British, US and French decision on military action when he makes a statement to MPs at 2.30pm on Thursday. This will follow a morning meeting of the full cabinet which is expected to endorse a recommendation from the NSC.
The White House made clear that Obama is gearing up for a military response when it said it was “preposterous” to suggest the Assad regime was not responsible for the attack. UK and US sources say that without a UN security council resolution, the allies need to provide definitive proof of regime involvement to provide legal cover for a military strike.
Carney gave a taste of the Kerry statement when he said: “The regime has already used chemical weapons in this conflict against its own people on a small scale. It has maintained firm control of the stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria. It has the rockets and the rocket capability that were employed in this chemical weapons attack and it was engaged in an assault against these neighbourhoods prior to the use of chemical weapons and in the aftermath of the use of these chemical weapons. You would have to be credulous indeed to entertain an alternative scenario.”
In a sign that Barack Obama believes he has the legal authority, independently of Congress, to launch a strike, Carney said that allowing the chemical weapons attack to go unanswered would be a “threat to the United States”.
The White House indicated that the allies would sidestep the UN after Russia, which has the power of veto, denounced the gathering momentum towards western armed intervention, predicting it would have disastrous consequences across the region. The deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted that the west was behaving towards the Islamic world “like a monkey with a grenade”.
On Tuesday Russia began evacuating its nationals wishing to flee Syria in anticipation of air strikes, providing space on a cargo plane which had been delivering food aid to the Mediterranean city of Latakia.
Carney said the work of weapons inspectors now was Damascus was “redundant” because it has already been established that chemical weapons were used by Syria on a large scale.
He declined to say whether the US Congress would be required to authorise any military strike, or be recalled as has happened in Britain’s parliament, but insisted the White House was consulting with leaders in the House and Senate and communicating with the chairmen of relevant congressional committees.
Legally, the UK and the US indicated they were relying on the Geneva protocol of 1925 which banned the use of chemical weapons after their deployment in the first world war.
Using similar language to Cameron, Nick Clegg said: “If we stand idly by we set a very dangerous precedent indeed where brutal dictators and brutal rulers will feel they can get away with using chemical weapons. What we are considering is a serious response to that. What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime,[or] trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another.”
Miliband indicated that, in the light of the careful wording by the PM and his deputy, Labour could support a government motion. He said: “The use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians is abhorrent and cannot be ignored. When I saw the prime minister this afternoon I said to him the Labour party would consider supporting international action, but only on the basis that it was legal, that it was specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons and that any action contemplated had clear and achievable military goals. We will be scrutinising any action contemplated on that basis.”
Although the White House has not formally announced it is planning military action, administration officials appear to have been sanctioned to brief on the types of military force being contemplated. Reports citing unnamed figures in the administration indicate the US is contemplating an attack, and are likely to be limited missile or long-range air strikes.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, General Martin Dempsey, told Congress last month that even “limited standoff strikes” against Syria would require hundreds of aircraft, ships and submarines and could cost billions of dollars.
While such action would “degrade regime capabilities” and lead to defections, Dempsey told the House Foreign Affairs committee, there was a risk of retaliatory attacks and “collateral damage impacting civilians”. He also warned of “unintended consequences” of any military intervention in the complex civil war.