UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the government was right to order airstrikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities, as opposition lawmakers complained about the lack of a parliamentary vote and accused her of being led by Donald Trump.
In a press conference in London after the attack, May said Britain, the US and France needed to act quickly to send a clear message to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime that the use of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated, and to ensure the operation itself was a success.
“This was not about interfering in a civil war, and it was not about regime change,” May said on Saturday. “These strikes are about deterring the barbaric use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.”
This language was aimed at heading off some of the arguments that members of parliament on all sides used when they voted against air strikes in Syria in 2013. At that time, May’s predecessor David Cameron had made it clear he wanted to see Assad overthrown. May was more equivocal when asked if this was still Britain’s policy, saying her goal was simply to stop the use of chemical weapons.
May seemed determined to resist calls for a retrospective vote on her actions, saying only that Parliament “will get an opportunity to question me” after she has made a statement on the attacks on Monday.
With the opposition Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrat parties all saying she was wrong to order the attack without consulting Parliament, and Labour and the SNP also condemning the attack itself, May will be lucky if she avoids a vote. It will be up to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to decide whether to allow an emergency debate, and he has been a strong advocate of the right of Parliament to scrutinize the government.
May doesn’t have a majority in Parliament, but the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up her government, said it backed her actions.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has opposed British military action throughout his career, described the attack as “legally questionable.” The prime minister “should have sought parliamentary approval, not trailed after Donald Trump,” he said.
It’s not clear how many of his lawmakers Corbyn will be able to take with him on this, but some expressed frustration that parliament hadn’t been consulted.
The question in any vote will be how many of May’s own Conservatives break ranks. In 2013, 30 voted against the government. This time, May’s promise that it was a limited action that has ended, added to their dislike for Corbyn’s position, could keep more of them in place.
May’s office published a summary of the legal advice about the Syria action on Saturday, which said that international law allowed Britain to act “on an exceptional basis” to “alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering.” The government said its actions met the required tests.
At the press conference, May outlined the intelligence that led Britain to join the U.S. and France in launching more than 100 missiles against Syrian government targets overnight. She said it was clear that only the Assad regime could have conducted the suspected chlorine attack on Douma that killed dozens.
She also specifically linked the use of chemical weapons to Russia, which she accused of blocking attempts to rein in Assad. May is in conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government she says is responsible for the nerve-agent attack on a former spy in Salisbury, England, last month.
“We want to re-establish that international norm that chemical weapons are banned and should not be used,” May said. Russia has blocked moves for a United Nations investigation into the Douma attack and even made the “grotesque and absurd claim that it was staged by Britain,” May said.