Theresa May suggests UK considering military response against 'brutal' Syrian regime

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Theresa May has suggested the Government is considering joining potential military action against the Assad regime after a suspected Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed 70 people.

The Prime Minister described the attack as “barbaric” and that Britain “utterly condemns the use of chemical weapons in any circumstances”.

The Government has stressed the importance of the attack being investigated to determine who is culpable.

But Mrs May said that the regime, and its backers like Russia, “must be held to account” if found to be responsible.

Donald Trump said on Monday that a "major decision" would be made on the US response within 48 hours, adding that "nothing was off the table" following the attack in Douma, a besieged suburb of Damascus, which has sparked international outrage.

Syria what next

His comments raised the possibility of a US airstrike against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, and speculation has now turned to whether the UK could play a role in any possible action.

Speaking in Copenhagen after meeting with Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, Mrs May said Britain is “discussing with our allies what action is necessary”.

She said: “What we are currently doing, what we are urgently doing, with our allies is assessing what has taken place.

“Obviously if this is a chemical weapons attack of the sort that certainly initial reports suggest that it is, this is another example of the Assad regime’s brutality and the brazen way in which they have ignored the interests of their people.

“I think this is a reprehensible attack that has taken place. We have seen it is not only adults that have been affected but children affected by this attack as well.  

“But we assess what has taken place and we will also be discussing with our allies what action is necessary.

Syria chemical attack

“I think we are very clear that if this is a chemical weapons attack of the sort that it appears to be, from the regime that we want to ensure that those responsible are held to account.”

A residential area of Douma, one the last-remaining rebel-held areas in Syria, was struck by the suspected chemical weapons attack around 8.45pm on Saturday.

Footage from the ground showed the dead bodies of children and adults foaming at the mouth with open eyes. Many had been in a basement when the attack hit.

Mrs May described the pictures showing the aftermath of the “absolutely appalling” attack as “horrific”.

She then warned Russia that it should “look very carefully” as its support for the Assad regime.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin: Theresa May warned Russia that is should 'look very carefully' at it's support for the Assad regime

She said: “Yes, this is about the actions of his (Assad's) regime but it is also about the backers of that regime and of course Russia is one of those backers and I think that the message that we have consistently given is that those who are backing the regime need to look very carefully at the position that they have taken.

“This is a brutal regime that is attacking its own people and we are very clear that it must be held to account and its backers must be held to account too.”

Douma chemical attack

Downing Street had earlier said the attack needed to be “urgently investigated” and that Britain was “swiftly working with our allies to agree a common position”.

Number 10 stopped short of directly blaming the Syrian government for the incident but stressed “we have seen issues in the past with the Assad regime”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the Government will “look at the range of options” available in terms of a response after an investigation into the attack has concluded.

Russia, Iran and Syria all denied chemical weapons had been used, with the Kremlin warning that any military response from the West would be “absolutely unacceptable”.

UK ministers are concerned that they may be forced to hold a vote in the Commons to authorise joining any action against the Assad regime, with no guarantee of winning it.

The Government fears that Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, could oppose military action which would make the "electoral maths" challenging.

Syria chemical weapons

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, refused to be drawn on Monday on whether the Government would be willing launch an attack without consulting MPs.

Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said in February that Britain should consider joining military action against Assad's regime if there is fresh "incontrovertible" evidence he has used chemical weapons against his own people.

Asked if the Government was considering limited military action, Ms Rudd told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The Foreign Secretary is right in his comments. The UN Security Council is of course meeting today.

"What we have seen overnight is another horrific piece of activity in Syria, hurting children and families, and we need to make sure we have a strong international response."

Mr Johnson spoke to his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian on Monday about the attack in Douma.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Speaking to Le Drian, the Foreign Secretary underlined the urgent need to investigate what had happened in Douma and to ensure a strong and robust international response.”

Labour’s initial response to the attack provoked criticism because its statement, issued on Sunday evening, appeared to put the Assad regime on an equal footing with other actors in the Syrian civil war.

Mr Corbyn adopted a similar stance on Monday as he told LBC Radio: "I have condemned absolutely what he (Assad) has done, and what every other force has done in Syria."

He added: "I condemn the Syrian forces as well as other forces for what they have done in that civil war.”

Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, issued a much tougher response on Monday and said: "What has happened in Douma looks to be just the latest abhorrent attack in Syria using chemical weapons, a war crime for which the Assad regime has been found responsible in the past and which we utterly condemn.”

David Cameron, the former prime minister, lost an historic vote for action in Syria in 2013, which is widely seen to have emboldened the Assad regime.

The Government won a vote in the Commons for military action against Isil in Syria in 2015, but that does not extend to the Assad regime.

Parliament is also in recess until next week, by which time it may be too late to join any military action.

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