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.

line break
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 163.

    This is not as easy as the chest-thumpers on here seem to think.

    I find the images of gassed kids sickening and I really would like to be able to do something about it.

    But I don't want to make it worse in the process.

    To be honest, I haven't the foggiest what is the best action, but one thing I know - those being killed are our part of our global society and we cannot turn our backs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    I appreciate it is not pretty but how many of the Arab League, Russians, are sharing your compassion, why must it always be the West that pays the bill and takes in the refugees and the blame. I am fed up being the good guy and being hated for it.
    Let the Islamic community and those who have prolonged this issue step up and show compassion because my pockets are empty

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Starting to get tired of reading these headlines. We know what we have to do and that is take on the Syrians head on.

    They have destabilised the entire region and must be deal with head on.

    Deploy the tanks and infantry in a long line and sweep the entire country until all opposition is removed. Permanently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.


    Nothing wrong with drones. They're just a platform to release missiles... no different to a fighter jet or naval missile. What's more the risk of losing personnel on our side is reduced. The effects are often instant and do not leave widespread suffering in the same way as is seen with gas attacks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    I wonder if this is the same intelligence agency's that said Sadam had WMD's, don't get me wrong if these weapons have been used then something has to be done, be it politic or military. But I do wonder?????

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    This is Iraq/Libya all over again!.It's Tony Blair’s fault. Having fooled me into believing that Sadam could deploy chemical weapons in 45 minutes I cannot believe Western politicians who declare that the 'new Sadam', Assad, used chemical weapons against his people. He has no need to use them so long as he retains the support of Russia, China and Iran. He would lose support using chemicals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    Has no-one noticed that the attack took place in Damascus? An area of the country that is LOYAL to Assad? Brutal dictator, yes, I'm not arguing with that, but whatever else he may be, I'd expect Assad to be a rational human being. The rebels on the other hand? There are some, scary, scary people among them - nutballs, in fact. Dave, you've been endowed with a brain. Use it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Whilst everybody must abhore this use of chemical weapons, why haven't foreign Governments, particularly the US and our own (the UK), not threatened and used military action before now to stop the death and injury caused by (so called) conventional (accepted!) weapons to thousands of civilians in Syria since its internal conflict began?
    Too little and too late for so many!

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    What is the point in being part of the UN if no-one can remember what the "U" stands for? There must be a united response from the rest of the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    71. Craig
    If a child in a classroom runs around with fly spray spraying other children, you'll tell him off and take it off him.

    Fine. So what happens when your child is in someone else's classroom many miles away, you don't speak his/her language or share his/her religion or culture, and there are people far better placed than you to intervene?

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    The trouble is USA and UK lost a lot of credabibily when they decided to invade Iraq without UN mandate. However it did do a lot to boost Tony Blair's international image which is what Cameron/Hague seek to do now.

    All image, no substance polititians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I will support war only if the mandate and support is given by the United Nations. Anything else just turns us into a target for every nutter on Earth and gives Cameron and Hague the excuse they want to justify the totalitarian surveillance regime they've introduced in GCHQ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Here we go again an unelected government led by and unelected pm holding the hand of the usa and entering into ANOTHER conflict lets see the 100% proof it was the dictator assad, so many factions in that area it could have been.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    "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."

    Yes it should. The UK electorate were lied to on the "evidence" that led to the invasion of Iraq and we have yet to be told what the "undeniable proof" is that Assad has used chemical weapons.

    Once bitten, twice shy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    125. snewall
    Something has to be done. I can't watch TV pictures of any more women and children being gassed and slaughtered. Maybe some of you can. How is it nothing to do with us?


    This has NOTHING to do with us because AMERICA is the puppet master. Have you not learned anything?

    Do yourself a favour...Open your eyes to reality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Heard that Tony Blair is all for an invasion of Syria. That's my mind definitely made up. We should stay out and let the Syrians sort it out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    Tell Dave, if he commits the UK to another foreign war he will lose the next election. See how quickly he backs off. Sadly, I suspect this is less about the Syrian people and more about Dave thinking he can improve his party's chance of a majority in 2015

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    Well... wotamess! We gave them the means to build/manufacture nerve/chemical weapons. What did we expect them to be used for... peacemaking?

    As with all politically-inspired humanitarian crises, I see no good strategy re interfering, and even less strategy re exiting.

    Ploughshares are better than rattling sabres imo.

    Exit strategy? Exit strategy? Exit strategy? None.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    98. The Great BfB (great name!)

    "Before you make your mind up, remember, no country really wins a war."

    Dead right. Global corporations and banks are the only winners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    This is the politics of the madhouse from our elites no more British troops should be put in harms in the ME. We have the Gib situation Hague. Syria is a very complicated place with many ethnic & religious differences. As the BBC reported the other there are civil wars within civil wars going on there it is no place for our troops. We the public must stop our elites they are incompetent.


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