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

More on This Story

Syria conflict


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  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Western governments and media seem to be concentrating on "Who did it?" what they should be pondering is the fact that it happened at all. Guilty or not the Syrian government has lost control. The biggest threat to the west and Russia is that chemical weapons fall into the hands of terrorist organisations who will not hesitate to use them in our cities. Blockade Syria, nothing in, nothing out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    the UK and USA should stay out of a civil war that does not concern them. otherwise they will be dragged into a conflict they will not win. They have enough enemies in this world without making more

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    The West (namely us and the U.S.) are in some covert pact to change the political face of the Middle East forever by intervening in conflicts and allowing stable countries become unstable.
    Given time this instability will start to creep closer and closer to home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Just now
    so a possible rocket attacks on the the Syrian government. nice deterrant but wouldn't it be better just to send a team to get the chemical weapons out of the hands of both parties?
    And how exactly would you do that? Its not as if they sore them in a big wharehouse with "chimical weapons" on the door. Which is also why a missile attack will do no good at all

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    'John Kerry said the use of chemical weapons is a "moral obscenity"'

    Aye. Dreadful.
    Whereas the use of DU munitions, drones, cluster bombs, gunships, bullets, grenades, torture, is all HIGHLY moral.

    Cassus belli imflammatory rhetoric to 'frame the argument' and justify intervention in order to establish control of the oilfields for US petrochemical companies.


  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    You now have to search to comment on this HYS! As soon as the mods saw that most people on here are against any action.

    Though the Beeb are keeping older stories about Syria, they do not want to rock the govt boat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    Blair talks of 'punishing' the Syrian Government for immoral actions.
    Should he, Blair , not be punished for his immoral actions in Iraq?

    Send humanitarian aid to Syria. Take refugees.


  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    It is time that the U.S.stops being the world's policeman. The middle east has the Arab League. It is THEIR responsibility to deal with this is in their region.

    France and the UK are advised to take the same position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Contingency plans? By all means. But military action? Utter madness! In any debate in the House, Hon Members must be given a free vote and they should first sound out their constituents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    How can we trust politicians as the war in IRAQ proved (still no WMD), they will lie through their teeth as they do about almost everything else.

    As for legality, exactly who says it would be legal and who is going to believe them anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    We cannot afford to get involved.

    There is the potential for every country in North Africa/Mediterranean to start civil wars due to the poverty, political vacuums and large numbers of unemployed young men who are frustrated by their lack of life opportunities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    Britain has done well over the years to distance itself from conflict in foreign lands, distance itself from colonialism and start on a good path, now though we have enemies in Afghan, Iraq, Libya, now Syria, we really don't need the bad press, I understand we can't sit idly by, but war is not the answer, can we trust the UN, to deliver evidence? or is it just a convenience to say yes to the US?

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    The US spends $600bn a year on its military; the UK £40bn. We are told that we are withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, so just think about all those billions of £ of government expenditure no longer being pumped into our economy and the 1000s of troops that would become unemployed, imagine what that will do to our economic figures... it's not like we have an election coming up soon

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    There were two sad casualties of the Iraqi war, Dr David Kelly and Robin Cook.

    A few members of BBC staff who stood up for them were fired by a cowardly board of trustees.

    This eventually led to another casualty - Greg Dyke.

    The BBC has now sunk to the lowest depths by its biased reporting of the Syrian crisis.

    Do the right thing BBC - bring back Greg Dyke.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Well Douglas Alexander shows his hypocrisy yet again demanding this that & the other when his lot concocted evidence to justify going to war in Iraq & then refused to have an inquiry that would have exposed their lies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    This is the third HYS on Uk Military involvement on HYS in 3 days.

    It seems that in every case the Majority of posters are Against involvement..

    So they keep trying until they get the answer they want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    A limited military response on the Assad regime's military assets is highly likely, if not inevitable. The legal basis already exists outside the UN or UN security council. The Russians are mistaken in their UN veto to maintain Assad and their syr1an trade interests
    1) Protecting a civilian population 2) WMD and their use, losing control of 3) Attack against a NATO member (Turkey) shells/aircraft

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Please note the following

    Washington approving False flag chemical attack in Syria

    And why the West is so determined to obliterate Syria [Yup, you guessed it oil/LNG]

    Would any politician care to comment

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    so a possible rocket attacks on the the Syrian government. nice deterrant but wouldn't it be better just to send a team to get the chemical weapons out of the hands of both parties?

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    Iain Duncan Smith was the Opposition Leader who came from a meeting with Tony Blair being convinced as to the rightness of military action against Iraq.

    I'd be intrigued to kow what he thinks about the quality of evidence on this occasion.


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