Syria crisis: Robust response needed, David Cameron says
- 30 August 2013
- From the section UK Politics
A "robust response" to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria is needed despite UK military involvement being ruled out, the prime minister has said.
David Cameron was defeated in the Commons as MPs rejected a motion on the principle that military action could be required to protect Syrian civilians.
Despite the result of the vote, the US said it would continue to seek a coalition for military intervention.
And France said the vote did not change its resolve about the need to act.
Russia - which has close ties with the the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - welcomed the UK's rejection of a military strike, while Germany has ruled out participation in any action.
Washington said it remained committed to a possible strike and would seek to build a coalition of those in favour of possible military action.
President Obama convened the US National Security Council earlier, according to the AFP news agency.
The White House believes President Assad's regime was responsible for the chemical attack on 21 August which it says killed 1,429 people in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus - a figure far higher than previously reported.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the Syrian forces carefully prepared for the attack days in advance.
UN weapons inspectors have finished their investigation in Syria and are expected to deliver their preliminary findings to secretary general Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.
Mr Cameron said it was a "regret" that he had been unable to build a consensus on the response to the suspected chemical weapons attack.
However he insisted the UK remained "deeply engaged" on the world stage.
The UK government's defeated motion had called for military action if it was backed up by evidence from the weapons inspectors.
In Syria, the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen said he had spoken to people inside President Assad's administration who were "cock-a-hoop" at the UK vote. "They believe it counts as a victory for them," he added.
"We will defend ourselves," Dr Bassam Abu Abdullah from the Syrian Information Ministry said, warning of danger "not only on the Syrian people but... the whole region" if the US decided to attack.
In an interview at Downing Street, Mr Cameron said it was important to listen to Parliament's decision.
And despite MPs voting against military action, he said: "I think it's important we have a robust response to the use of chemical weapons and there are a series of things we will continue to do."
Mr Cameron added: "We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organisations we are members of - whether the EU, or Nato, or the G8 or the G20 - to condemn what's happened in Syria.
"It's important we uphold the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons."
There had been suggestions from ministers, including Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond, that Britain's rejection of military action would harm its relationship with the US.
Mr Hammond warned against the vote allowing Britain to "turn into a country that prefers to turn its back".
"We must stay engaged with the world," he told the BBC.
Mr Cameron, though, said he would not have to apologise to President Barack Obama.
"I was faced with three things I wanted to do right and do in the right way," he said.
"First of all, to condemn absolutely and respond properly to an appalling war crime that took place in Syria. Secondly, to work with our strongest and most important ally who had made a request for British help. Thirdly, to act as a democrat, to act in a different way to previous prime ministers and properly consult Parliament.
"I wanted to do all those three things. Obviously politics is difficult - that involved going to Parliament, making an argument in a strong and principled way but then listening to Parliament.
"I think the American people and President Obama will understand that."
In other developments:
- The BBC witnessed the aftermath of an incendiary bomb attack on a school playground in northern Syria which left scores of children with napalm-like burns
- The US said it would act in its "best interests" in dealing with the Syria crisis, following UK rejection of military intervention
- French President Francois Hollande said all options were being considered, and has not ruled out a strike within days
- UN weapons inspectors visited a hospital in a government-controlled area of Damascus
- The Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to Lebanon because of a "heightened risk of anti-Western sentiment" linked to the possibility of military action in Syria. The BBC understands that the families of British diplomats are being evacuated
- Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans - architect of the so-called "responsibility to protect" doctrine - accused the UK of "making things up as it goes along". He blamed the government's "mishandling of the politics" for what he said was a "disappointing" vote against intervention
- The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there was "no doubt" President Assad's forces carried out the chemical attack
Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC: "I think ill thought-through military action would have made life worse, not better, for the Syrian people."
He accused the government of not learning the lessons of Iraq, adding MPs had "sent a message" that British forces would not be deployed "without going through the United Nations and without ensuring we have regard to the consequences in the region".
Earlier he said Mr Cameron was guilty of "reckless and impulsive leadership".
And the prime minister faced criticism from his own side, with former shadow home secretary David Davis accusing him of making a "shaky argument" for intervention.
"There was feeling of rushing to action," he told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme. "It's more important to get this right than to do it on a 10-day timetable".
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown has been critical of the decision to not take part in military action, saying the UK was "hugely diminished".
More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and at least 1.7 million refugees displaced.
The violence began when anti-government protests during the Arab Spring uprisings were met with a brutal response by the Syrian security forces.
President Assad's regime has blamed foreign involvement and armed gangs for the conflict.
How could a potential strike be launched?
Forces which could be used against Syria:
•Four US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan - are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations
•Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes
•Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region
•French aircraft carrierCharles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean
•French Raffale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE