Syria crisis: UK draws up contingency military plans

The body of a victim of a suspected chemical weapons attack is lowered into a grave in Hamoria, Damascus (21 August 2013) The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons and blames rebel fighters

The UK is drawing up contingency plans for military action in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, Downing Street has said.

No 10 stressed any action would be "proportionate", lawful and follow agreement with international allies.

David Cameron will also announce later whether Parliament is to be recalled, amid growing pressure from MPs.

A chemical attack is reported to have taken place on Wednesday near Damascus, killing more than 300 people.

Syrian rebels say the Assad government was responsible, but Syria's foreign minister Walid Moualem said on Tuesday this was a "total lie" and accused the US of using it as an "inaccurate excuse" to intervene in the two-year military conflict in the country.

'International law'

Mr Cameron has returned to London, having cut short his summer holiday to deal with the crisis.

A No 10 spokesman said the UK was considering a "proportionate response" to the attack and was considering a "range of evidence" including that from UN weapons inspectors who visited five sites around Damascus on Monday.


Whitehall officials say no firm decision is likely to be taken on how Britain will respond to last week's alleged chemical attack in Syria until at least Wednesday.

That is when David Cameron will be chairing a session of the National Security Council, attended by military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers. It follows intense consultations between London and Washington, with Downing Street keen to stress the two countries are acting in concert.

Any military response, if it's decided on, is most likely to be confined to a one-off or limited guided missile strikes on selected Syrian military targets using Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US Navy warships stationed hundreds of miles away in the eastern Mediterranean.

US vessels there are reported to have about 400 such missiles onboard, while a Royal Navy submarine in the region can also carry cruise missiles.

But Russia, Syria and Iran have all issued strong warnings against any Western military action.

But Downing Street stressed that no decisions had been taken on any response amid discussions with international partners and any action would be "within a strict legal framework" and "within international law".

Mr Cameron is to chair a meeting of the National Security Council - attended by military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers - on Wednesday, while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has cancelled a visit to Afghanistan.

It is understood the most likely military response to Wednesday's suspected chemical weapons attack would be a one-off or limited guided missile strikes on Syrian military targets fired from US Navy warships.

The Labour Party and several Conservative MPs have insisted the prime minister must explain to Parliament the objectives and legal basis for any UK involvement or co-operation before it happens.

Although the Commons voted on UK military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, there is no legal obligation for the government to get parliamentary approval before committing British forces.

The prime minister has the final say on deploying British troops in conflicts, using Royal Prerogative powers.

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said it was right to consider all options but he was "not prepared to write the government a blank cheque" with regards to committing British forces and MPs must be allowed to vote on any proposed steps.

Residents gather around a convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of UN chemical weapons experts at one of the sites of an alleged poison gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya on 26 August 2013 UN chemical weapons inspectors spent nearly three hours in the suburb of Muadhamiya in western Damascus on Monday.
Image taken from amateur video footage, a UN inspector, right, speaks to a man about the alleged chemical weapon attack at a makeshift hospital in Muadhamiya, Damascus, on 26 August 2013 The inspectors visited two hospitals and interviewed survivors, eyewitnesses and doctors over last week's suspected chemical attack near the Syrian capital.
Still from amateur video posted online shows a presumed UN staff member measuring and photographing a canister in the suburb of Muadhamiya in Damascus on 26 August 2013 Amateur video was posted online apparently showing a UN inspector measuring and photographing a canister.

"Is it a broad objective of changing the civil war or trying to remove (President) Bashar al-Assad or is it a more limited objective of trying to degrade his capability to use these weapons with impunity?" he asked.

Parliament is due to return from its summer recess on Monday but more than 60 MPs have signed a motion calling for a one-off session before that to discuss the crisis.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said he did not believe the action being discussed would have much effect on the Assad government's military capability and would further strain relations with Russia, a key ally of Syria.

"Intervention in the Middle East in the past has not exactly been in our best interests," he told the BBC News Channel.

Mr Cameron spoke to a number of foreign leaders over the bank holiday weekend, including US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French and German counterparts.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has said the use of chemical weapons is a "moral obscenity" which cannot be ignored but Russia has said there is no evidence an attack had taken place or who was responsible.

'Fabricated' footage

Moscow has warned any intervention without a UN mandate would be "a grave violation of international law".

The UN Security Council is made up of 15 states, including five permanent members - China, Russia, France, the US and the UK - who have the power to veto any resolution.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the BBC it would be possible for the UK and its allies to respond without the UN's unanimous backing.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said enduring controversy over the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 should not stop politicians from helping the Syrian people.

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Map showing the areas where the alleged chemical attacks took place in Syria
  • 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held eastern districts of the Ghouta, the agricultural belt around Damascus
  • 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of "chemical shelling" in Ein Tarma area of the Ghouta
  • 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of the Ghouta
  • Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
  • Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
  • Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta but denies chemical weapons use
line break

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  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Why UK is leading or outspoken in these issues - we need to sort out our own internal problems before spending another billions pound project in foreign soil

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    The PM cuts short his holiday to deal with the crisis.

    Crisis - what crisis. Tragic though the loss of life in Syria is, it is nothing to do with us. It is a sectarian civil war best sorted out by the Muslim world. Afterall, would we have welcomed foreign intervention in Northern Ireland during The Troubles? I doubt it

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Just noticed but this particular story has dropped off the news page almost as soon as it was published. Perhaps a tad cynical but does someone not like the HYS comments which, as far as I can see, are predominantly against any intervention?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    Britain and the US should not intervene without backing from the UN security council but if the alleged chemical attacks are proven to be true then Russia and China should not be allowed to stop the UN from intervening. personally i question the need for the UN anymore though, we should not be stopped from doing the right thing in this day and age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Some people on here seem to be 'anti-war' but 'pro-genocide'? I don't want miltary action but if the Govt started using chemical weapons on my family I would hope somebody would be brave enough to try and stop them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Stay out of Syria! These politicians do not reflect the views nor interests of the British people. We need to oust the lot of them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    For those of you saying "it's not our fight" and "it's just about oil" and other sceptical slogans, have you watched the video of the aftermath? The one with the little girl lying on the ground having spasms? Does that not outrage you?
    I've never agreed with John Kerry until now, anyone who is not outraged by that needs to check their moral compass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    Syria has acted with impunity to date on civilian casualties.

    It is true military action won't solve the underlying causes, will complicate the situation etc, but a stand MUST be taken against a regime using chemical weapons.

    However how do we prove it was the Syrian regime, and not agents provacteurs, for unfathomable reasons ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Have we learned nothing? We have no more money for spending over here but we have money to support groups who maybe aline themselves to al-qaeda. Look Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, etc. the message leave alone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Stay the hell out of Syria and let these people sort out their own problems.This is a war of evil against evil so we should not be taking sides
    Religion again at the root of the problem, causes more wars than anything else and wee willie haig being tough and rattling his sabre does nothing to help. We get involved in too much in the ME

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    None of our Dam Business. - Another war or finance our NHS properly I know what I would choose

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Not only is intervening in this war highly dangerous to our forces and civilians, how much will it cost our stretched budget?
    I bet mobilising the U.K.'s war machine will cost more than the savings made recently on slashing the size of it's personnel.
    How much more of our money are this sham government going to squander?

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    What has this got to do with us?

    The war in Syria has been going on for well over two years now and have you seen anybody (liberals, human rights activists, right-wingers, frontline soliders, the public) demanding any sort of military action? You can't try and pipe up public support for war, when the side we're meant to be backing are shooting at UN inspectors and beheading kids on camera.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Given all the feedback you have had on this subject, are you - the BBC - going to start broadcasting the views of the many thousands of licence payers? How else are those in power going to get it into their lead-lined heads that we DO NOT WANT INTERVENTION IN SYRIA!!
    We have had the BBC News on in our office - not one jot on public reaction in the UK. from you. Shame!

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I cant understand what difference it makes how people are killed be it bombs guns or poison. Your just as dead whatever the method. How our government can now justify getting involved when they couldn't weeks ago is beyond me. Its time we realised its not our place to police the world. Let the Arab nations step forward to bring some order to the country. They have the armies & resources to do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    I don't have a violent molecule in my body but after watching kids convulsing and foaming at the mouth I really want to punish the perpetrator. Of course we don't yet know who did it for sure. But if I did and I saw them on the street I wouldn't be able to contain my anger.
    We have to respond to this horror.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    The Oil War rolls on. Western intervention is inevitable - US-backed insurgency already underway to destablise Russia-backed Assad regime & create cassus belli ('chem weapon red line').
    Deir ez-Zor oil fields must be secured & given to western oil comapnies (SOP as in Iraq).
    Only Iran left to go.
    The oil must flow...

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    does this country never learn anything??? we are not the worlds police force. we failed in qwait/iraq/afganistan. why aare our leaders contemplating even more loss of life and wasting of money we haven't even got.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I'm don't get involved in these debates but we should stay out of Syria unless backed by the UN (inc Russia).
    We are at risk of Syria using chemical weapons if we intervene and that people will cause utter chaos in the whole region.
    I don't see why Syria would use these weapons in the first instance anyway knowing the backlash it would cause. Rebels needing help from western world would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Those who want to defend the Syrians should be the first on the front lines, it is cowardly to send others to do your dirty work. Our soldiers should be on our shores defending the country against imminent attack that is likely to happen. It should be possible to join our TA and know that you won't be used abroad in illegal wars.


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