MPs are divided by crisis in Syria
There can be no “100 per cent certainty” about who staged the chemical weapons attack in Syria, David Cameron admitted last night as he made the case for military action amid bitter party political divisions.
The Prime Minister told MPs there is not “one smoking piece of intelligence” but insisted he was convinced by the evidence that it was “beyond doubt” Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible. Mr Cameron’s authority looked under threat when MPs voted on the Government’s motion late last night, with Labour set to oppose it in a move which ruined the Prime Minister’s hopes for a united political response to the atrocity on the outskirts of Damascus.
The Prime Minister was forced to accept the need to give United Nations inspectors time to report on the attack and for MPs to be given a further vote before authorising direct British involvement in any strike against Syria.
But the Government’s concessions did not go far enough for Labour leader Ed Miliband, who tabled an alternative motion demanding “compelling evidence” that the Assad regime was responsible.
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The emergency Commons debate came as the Ministry of Defence confirmed six RAF Typhoon jets had been deployed to Cyprus to protect UK interests and sovereign bases “at a time of heightened tension in the wider region”, although officials stressed they were not deploying to take part in strikes against Syria.
Ahead of the debate, documents published by Downing Street showed Britain would be permitted to launch a targeted strike on humanitarian grounds, even if Russia and China blocked an agreement at the United Nations. Evidence from the Joint Intelligence Committee found that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week and it is “highly likely” that Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible.
Addressing MPs recalled to the Commons for the debate, Mr Cameron said: “In the end there is no 100 per cent certainty about who is responsible. You have to make a judgment.
“There is also no 100 per cent certainty about what path of action might succeed or fail but I think we can be as certain as possible that when we have a regime that has used chemical weapons on 14 occasions, that is most likely responsible for this large scale attack, that if nothing is done it will conclude that it can use these weapons again and again and on a larger scale and with impunity. When people talk about escalation, to me the biggest danger of escalation is if the world community, not just Britain but America and others, stand back and do nothing because I think Assad will draw very clear conclusions from that.”
The Prime Minister suggested Assad may have been “testing the boundaries” with his previous uses of chemical weapons.
He said: “He wants to know whether the world will respond to the use of these weapons which I suspect, tragically and repulsively, are proving quite effective on the battlefield.”
The Syrian leader said the country would “defend itself” against any aggression.
“Threats to launch a direct aggression against Syria will make it more adherent to its well-established principles and sovereign decisions stemming from the will of its people, and Syria will defend itself against any aggression,” Mr Assad said .
The showdown in the Commons was not directly to authorise the use of the British forces in strikes against Assad but the Government’s motion stated that military action could be required as part of a “strong humanitarian response” to save Syrian lives.
The requirement for a second vote authorising British military involvement was conceded by Mr Cameron after it emerged Labour were insisting on such a safeguard last night. Mr Miliband did not rule out backing military action in a subsequent Commons vote after a chance to see and assess evidence “in a calm and measured way”.