Syria Air Strikes: Everything You Need To Know

Theresa May launched air strikes in Syria over the weekend. Here's what different legal experts and politicians are saying about it.

Syria Air Strikes: Everything You Need To Know

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

Today Parliament returns after its Easter break and there’s one small matter up for discussion: war. Specifically, war with Syria. On Friday night Britain, France and the United States joined forces in a coordinated airstrike on military, storage and research targets in Syria.

Why Now?

It all came about after Trump began tweeting that he would hit back at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a suspected chemical attack the week before which killed more than 40 people.

What Do We Know About The Chemical Attack?

The suspected chemical attack took place in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria on April 7th. France have said on record that it has ‘proof’ that ‘chemical weapons were used – at least chlorine’ by Assad’s regime. However, the Syrian government denies this and their most prominent ally, Russia, has gone as far as to say that the whole thing was ‘staged’ with the help of the UK.

What’s Russia Got To Do With It?

It is well known that Russia and Iran have both supported Assad’s regime with military forces. Indeed, within 90 minutes of the strikes the Russian ambassador to the United States warned that there would be ‘consequences’ for the allied attacks against Syria.

Theresa May took the decision to join the strikes after holding an emergency Cabinet meeting last week but without calling Parliament back for a vote beforehand. This was despite the insistence that there should be a vote from the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. As a result, many MPs, particularly those who have previously voted against military action in Syria, are unhappy. It’s worth noting that, contrary to received wisdom, the Prime Minister is actually under no legal obligation to get the permission of Parliament before taking such action.

Should Theresa May Have Consulted Parliament?

That said, going ahead without a vote is not necessarily a good look for May who has, wittingly or not, reinforced her image as an autocrat (remember when she said there would be no vote in Parliament over the final Brexit deal and was then forced to walk it back).

May is obviously aware of this because she wrote an op-ed for The Sun in which she stressed the support for taking such action in Syria from leaders across Europe and the rest of the world. She wrote ‘the action has been backed by a succession of world leaders from Germany’s Angela Merkel and EU President Donald Tusk to Malcom Turnbull of Australia and Justin Trudeau of Canada’.

Indeed, the Government also published a policy note about the action in Syria over the weekend. It referred to legal advice and argued that governments can take military action under exceptional circumstances ‘in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering’.

The bottom line in the eyes of many, however, is this: the Prime Minister undertook the very serious decision to send British forces into action and committed our country to military action. She might not have been compelled by law to seek the approval of Parliament but, nonetheless, the very fact that she didn’t has opened her up to criticism.

What’s Jeremy Corbyn Saying About It?

Corbyn who has long been anti-interventionist when it comes to foreign policy has been vocal in his disapproving of the Prime Minister. He is now waging his very own political war on the morality and legality of May’s decision. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday, Corbyn called for a War Powers Act to be implemented.

A War Powers Act would mean that Prime Ministers were obliged to get the approval of MPs before signing off any military action. Since we went to war in Iraq back in 2009 there has been an unofficial precedent that MPs are given a vote before any British forces are deployed, the idea being that there is always a democratic check on any military action taken on behalf of our country.

What Did Boris Johnson Say?

Speaking on the same programme, the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reinforced the limited nature of the air strikes as an ‘appropriate’ response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. He said ‘it’s important that we understand the limits of what we are trying to do. This is not going to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria; one can hope it encourages the Russians to the negotiating table in Geneva, to get a political process properly going – but that is, as it were, an extra. The primary purpose is to say no to the use of barbaric chemical weapons’.

So, Was It Legal?

Since yesterday, however, the Labour Party have released contradictory legal advicewhich, they say, casts a shadow over whether the Government’s legal case for the strikes is as water tight as they’ve made it out to be. In it, Dapo Akande, Professor of Public International Law and Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict said the Government’s position was ‘significantly flawed’.

When Will The Prime Minister Speak To MPs?

Penny Mordaunt, the Secretary of State for International Development, has defended the Prime Minister. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme she said that it is right that the Prime Minister ultimately made the decision to take military action because the decision should not be ‘outsourced’ to ‘people who do not have the full picture’.

Theresa May is due to give a statement in the House of Commons at some point today in which she will defend her decision and, undoubtedly, face tough decisions from MPs on both sides.

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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