British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Saturday she had authorised British forces to conduct precision air-launched cruise missile strikes on Syria to degrade its chemical weapons capability, saying there was no alternative to military action. Four Royal Air Force Tornado jets using Storm Shadow missiles had taken part in the attack on a military facility near Homs where it was assessed Syria had stockpiled chemicals, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
The strike, conducted with the United States and France, was “limited and targeted”, designed to minimise any civilian casualties, May said. The MoD said the initial indications were that the precision weapons and meticulous target planning had “resulted in a successful attack”.
“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change,” May said in a statement.
She said the strike was a response to significant evidence including intelligence showing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the attack using chemical weapons in Douma in Syria last Saturday that killed up to 75 people including children.
May added 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 UN 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.
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. US President Donald Trump said he was prepared to sustain the response until the government of Assad stopped its use of chemical weapons.
Russia, which intervened in the war in 2015 to back Assad, has denied there was a chemical attack and has accused Britain of helping to stage the Douma incident to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.
Chemical weapons targets
Britain’s defence ministry said “very careful scientific analysis” had been applied to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals while minimising any risk of contamination to surrounding areas.
“The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk,” the MoD said in a statement.
May said while the strike was targeted at Syria, it sent a message to anyone who used chemical weapons. Britain has accused Russia of being behind last month’s nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, southern England, a charge Moscow has rejected.
“This is the first time as prime minister that I have had to take the decision to commit our armed forces in combat – and it is not a decision I have taken lightly,” she said.
“I have done so because I judge this action to be in Britain’s national interest. We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world.”
Many politicians in Britain, including some in May’s own Conservative Party, had called for parliament to be recalled from a break to give authority to any military strike.
May is not obliged to win parliament’s approval before ordering military action, but a non-binding constitutional convention to do so has been established since a 2003 vote on joining the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had said Britain should press for an independent UN-led investigation into the suspected chemical attack in Douma rather than wait for instructions from Trump on how to proceed.