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Theresa May Has Linked The Airstrikes In Syria With The Salisbury Poisoning

At a press conference, the prime minister described how an "international norm" about the use of chemical weapons was being eroded.

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Updated on

The UK has joined the United States and France in carrying out airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities near Damascus and Homs, with Theresa May linking the decision to the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in Salisbury last month.

The prime minister said in a press conference on Saturday that the strikes were the "right thing to do", as diplomatic efforts to investigate the regime's use of chemical weapons have been "repeatedly thwarted both on the ground and in the United Nations" by Russian vetoes.

However, she was criticised by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said the action was "legally questionable". Labour released a letter Corbyn had sent May, asking her to publish the legal advice on bombing that she had received from the attorney general.

Number 10 later released a summary of its legal position – which said that grounds had been met that allowed the UK "to take measures in order to alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering".

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that four RAF Tornados launched missiles at a base near Homs, where it thought the Assad regime is stockpiling items to make chemical weapons. A spokesperson told the BBC the facility was "located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation".

"My message to people about this is that this is about the use of chemical weapons. We have for nearly 100 years now had a generally accepted position in the international community, because chemical weapons are illegal, their use is illegal, they’re banned, and that has generally been accepted," May said in response to a question at the end of the press conference.

"We have seen that international norm being eroded. It’s been eroded in a number of ways; as I say, we’ve seen a nerve agent used on the streets of a city here in the United Kingdom, but we have seen the Syrian regime continuing to use chemical weapons," she added.

May pointed out that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime said it would dismantle its chemical weapons after international condemnation of a chemical attack on civilians in August 2013, and that Russia had guaranteed this was taking place. "That commitment has not been met," she said.

She declined to say whether she would order further strikes if this were to happen again, saying "nobody should be of any doubt of our resolve on
this issue".

When asked why she did not seek parliamentary approval, May said that the UK acted in a time scale that would give a "very clear message" to the Syrian regime, adding that "for operational security reasons, it was right that we acted in the way that we did".

She will deliver a statement in parliament on Monday, and will invite MPs to ask questions.

Defence secretary Gavin Williamson described the strikes as "highly successful", telling Radio 4: "Our service personnel have played an important role in terms of degrading the ability of the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons in the future, but also it sends a clear message to the Syrian regime that they cannot continue to use chemical weapons with impunity."

RAF Tornados launched Storm Shadow missiles at a regime chemical weapons facility fifteen miles west of Homs, Syria. See images and video here: https://t.co/uSI3loV6Q0 https://t.co/Rd85WLScSR

In an earlier statement, May said it was not a decision she had taken "lightly".

She said: "This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.

"It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

"And while this action is specifically about deterring the Syrian Regime, it will also send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity."

The Prime Minister @theresa_may has made a statement on Syria: https://t.co/bBfYyowUIo

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May's statement was welcomed on Twitter by foreign secretary Boris Johnson and some other Conservative MPs.

Welcome the news of UK military strikes against major chemical weapons facilities in Syria alongside our US and French allies. The world is united in its disgust for any use of chemical weapons, but especially against civilians

The PM does not require specific parliamentary authorisation to fulfill her primary responsibility to protect our national interest. Parliament will rightly probe her explanation of the reasons for her decision but there is no need for a vote.

I understand the deep concerns about the use of force but chemical weapons are a grave threat to all humanity. We cannot look the other way & continue to see these vile agents being deployed with impunity including here in Britain.

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However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace. This legally questionable action risks escalating further, as US defence secretary James Mattis has admitted, an already devastating conflict and therefore makes real accountability for war crimes and use of chemical weapons less, not more likely.

“Britain should be playing a leadership role to bring about a ceasefire in the conflict, not taking instructions from Washington and putting British military personnel in harm’s way.

“Theresa May should have sought parliamentary approval, not trailed after Donald Trump. The Government should do whatever possible to push Russia and the United States to agree to an independent UN-led investigation of last weekend’s horrific chemical weapons attack so that those responsible can be held to account.”

BuzzFeed News understands that Corbyn yesterday received a briefing on privy council terms on intelligence around the Douma attack.

His words were echoed by the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, who said: “Riding the coattails of an erratic US President is no substitute for a mandate from the House of Commons.

“The Prime Minister could and should have recalled Parliament this week and sought the approval of MPs before proceeding."

He added: “Liberal Democrats stood ready to assess the evidence and objectives for any action and, if it were properly planned and justified, to support a military response.

"At this moment our thoughts are with British and allied troops. But the Government’s decision fatally undermines the integrity of this mission. It shows a weak Government putting short term political expediency before democracy and in so doing further diminishing the standing of Britain in the world.”

Initial responses from some Labour and SNP MPs also criticised May for not seeking parliamentary approval for the strikes.

Parliamentary approval should have been sought https://t.co/LdCQkpHFjs

The OPCW was to begin its investigation today. As an elected representative of the people of Ashton Under Lyne I was frozen out of the decision our PM has made to bomb Syria. I am still concerned as to how our action will stop the use of chemical weapons&bring peace #SyriaStrikes

Air strikes have not resolved situation in Syria so far - nothing I’ve heard persuades me they will do so now. An international strategy for peace must be pursued - not a course that risks dangerous escalation. UK foreign policy should be set by Parliament, not US President.

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This is not a brave or strong decision by the Prime Minister. If anything, her handling of the whole affair shows how weak she really is. Parliament needs to step up to the plate & fill the void of leadership, and hold this minority government to account. A sad time for politics.

The Syrian regime later showed a video of its leader, Bashar al-Assad, walking into his offices. The caption said: "A morning of steadfastness."

صباح الصمود.. رئاسة الجمهورية العربية السورية


Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Alan White at alan.white@buzzfeed.com.

Hazel is a breaking news reporter and curation editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Hazel Shearing at hazel.shearing@buzzfeed.com.

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