Theresa May will hold a crunch Cabinet meeting on April 12, 2018, in which she and her ministers will decide whether to join military action in Syria.
The prime minister will seek her Cabinet’s approval to join with Donald Trump’s US in launching airstrikes against the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad, the war-torn country’s disgraced president.
May wants to launch airstrikes without first securing parliamentary approval, the BBC reports, in a move which would be opposed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and numerous other opposition MP across the House of Commons.
This means Britain is on the cusp of joining the US in another military foray in the Middle east. Here’s how we got here.
“Abhorrent” chemical attack shocks the world
The West is preparing to respond to a chemical attack which left at least forty people dead and hundreds more receiving treatment in the Syrian city of Douma on April 7, 2018. Douma is just a few miles outside the country’s capital, Damascus, and is controlled by rebels who want to overthrow President Assad.
The attack was the latest chapter in a civil war which has ravaged Syria since 2011. The conflict has left over 500,000 Syrians dead and around 6.1 million displaced, according to UN and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights data.
Prime Minister May, President Trump, and other western leaders believe Assad is almost certainly behind the attack. May described the attack as a “shocking, barbaric act” which cannot go “unchallenged” by Britain and its allies. The Assad regime denies being responsible for the attack.
British submarines are reportedly being moved within “missile range” of Syria with military action set to begin as early as April 12, 2018, if May secures the backing of her government ministers.
Doesn’t May need the permission of MPs?
Contrary to what many believe, the UK prime minister is not legally obliged to seek parliamentary approval before launching military action. In fact, they don’t even need to inform them.
The root of this misconception is the 2003 Iraq invasion. The then-prime minister Tony Blair asked Parliament to vote in favour of invading Iraq. This created an informal convention which was followed by David Cameron, who a decade later decided against taking action in Syria after MPs voted it down. Prime ministers may decide to look for parliamentary support to give their military action political authority. After all, going to war is one of the riskiest and most controversial decisions a prime minister can make.
However, this is nothing more than a convention. In 2011, for example, MPs didn’t get to vote on intervening in Libya until after the intervention had already got underway, meaning it was too late to vote it down anyway.
Does the public want another war?
If May does intend on ignoring convention, it will not be with the broad support of the British public. A YouGov poll released April 12, 2018, finds that just 22% of Brits support military action in Syria, while 43% oppose it.
Labour leader Corbyn previously told the BBC he supported a parliamentary vote before any action. It “should always be given a say on any military action,” Corbyn said. “We don’t want bombardment which leads to escalation and a hot war between the US and Russia over the skies of Syria.”
Speaking today, Corbyn questioned how airstrikes would improve the situation in Syria. “More bombing, more killing, more war will not save life,” he told reporters.
Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, signaled he supports military action against Assad but said it would require the support of MPs with “some strong conditions around it.”
The SNP’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald, has warned that airstrikes “will not provide the long-term solutions needed to end the war.”
What would the ramifications be?
The Syrian conflict is one of the greatest challenges facing the world, not least because it is so fiendishly complex.
President Assad may be opposed by Britain, the US, France and other western nations, but is supported by Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This means Syria has effectively become a proxy battleground for tensions between the West and Russia, which have been at the worst since the height of the Cold War.
A war of words is already underway. On April 11, 2018, President Trump told Putin to “get ready” for US missiles.
“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!'”Trump tweeted April 11, 2018. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Russia had warned the US that any missiles fired into Syria would be shot down and its launch sites targeted.
Worryingly for Britain, one of the launch sites pinpointed by Russia could be a British military base in Cyprus, The Times reports. Eight cruise missile-armed Tornado fighter-bombers located at RAF Akrotiri, on the southern coast of Cyprus. These bombers are set to contribute to airstrikes and could be at risk of Russian retaliation.
Russia has already moved war vessels from to a base on the Mediterranean coast, within range of a US warship, according to satellite imagery of the region.
What is clear is that risk of war between nuclear-armed states is now at its highest for a generation. The decisions May’s government makes in next few days could be among the most important made by any UK government.