LONDON (REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Theresa May authorised precision air-launched cruise missile strikes against Syria on Saturday (April 14) to degrade its chemical weapons capability, saying there was no alternative to military action.
The air strikes by Britain, France and the United States sent a “clear message” against the use of chemical weapons, Mrs May said on Saturday.
“This collective action sends a clear message that the international community will not stand by and tolerate the use of chemical weapons,” Mrs May said at a press conference.
She said that at an emergency Cabinet meeting in London on Thursday, “we agreed that it was both right and legal to take military action” after hearing legal advice.
“I believe that the action taken will have significantly degraded the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons,” she said.
“While the full assessment of the strike is ongoing, we are confident of its success,” she added.
“We have hit a specific and limited set of targets,” she said.
Asked why she had proceeded without consulting Parliament, Mrs May cited operational security consideration.
“It was right to take the action that we have done in the timing that we have done,” she said.
Mrs May said she would address Parliament on Monday about the strikes.
Mrs May declined to say whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay in power and said talks with allies would continue on finding a political solution to the civil war.
When asked if Syria’s Assad could remain leader as long as he refrained from further use of chemical weapons, Mrs May said:“This was about, as I have said and you have recognised, this was specifically about the use of chemical weapons.”
“There is a wider question on the future political solution for Syria and that is a matter that we will continue to pursue in diplomatic and political channels with our international partners and allies,” Mrs May said.
Four Royal Air Force Tornado jets from the Akrotiri base in Cyprus fired Storm Shadow missiles at a military facility near Homs where it was assessed that Syria had stockpiled chemicals, Britain's Ministry of Defence said.
Britain joined the United States and France in what Mrs May cast as a "limited and targeted" strike after intelligence indicated Syrian President Assad's government was responsible for an attack using chemical weapons in Douma.
Mrs May said the missile strike, designed to minimise civilian casualties, was not an attempt to topple the Syrian government.
"This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change," Mrs May said in statement made from her country residence at Chequers just minutes after US President Donald Trump announced the strikes from the White House.
By launching strikes without prior approval from Parliament, Mrs May dispensed with a non-binding constitutional convention dating back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
She said speed was essential and that military action was in the national interest.
Mrs May, whose government is propped up by a small Northern Irish party, said Britain and the West had an obligation to deter both Mr Assad and others from using chemical weapons after the poison gas attack in Douma near Damascus killed up to 75 people, including children, last Saturday.
Britain has accused Russia of being behind last month's nerve agent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, southern England - a charge Moscow has denied.
"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," Mrs May said.
"We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised - within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world."
Mrs May said Britain and its allies had sought to use every diplomatic means to stop the use of chemical weapons, but had been repeatedly thwarted, citing a Russian veto of an independent investigation into the Douma attack at the UN Security Council this week.
"So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime," she said.
The Western missile strikes demonstrate the volatile nature of the Syrian civil war, which started in March 2011 as an anti-Assad uprising, but is now a proxy conflict involving a number of world and regional powers and a myriad of insurgent groups.
Mr Trump said he was prepared to sustain the response until the Assad government stopped its use of chemical weapons.
Russia, which intervened in the war in 2015 to back Mr Assad, has denied there was a chemical attack and has accused Britain of helping to stage the Douma incident to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.
Britain's Defence Ministry said "very careful scientific analysis" had been applied to maximise the destruction of stockpiled chemicals while minimising any risk of contamination to surrounding areas.
"The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk," the MoD said in a statement.
It said initial indications were that the precision weapons and meticulous target planning had "resulted in a successful attack".
A ministry spokesman declined to give further details on the attack or the number of missiles launched.
Many politicians in Britain, including some in Mrs May's own Conservative Party, had called for Parliament to be recalled from holiday to give authority to any military strike.
"This is the first time as Prime Minister that I have had to take the decision to commit our armed forces in combat - and it is not a decision I have taken lightly," she said.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote on air strikes against Mr Assad's forces in 2013 when 30 Conservative lawmakers voted against action, with many Britons wary of entering another conflict after intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya failed to bring stability to the region.
A YouGov poll for The Times newspaper this week indicated that only a fifth of voters believed that Britain should launch attacks on Syrian military targets and more than two-fifths opposed action.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a fervent anti-war campaigner, had said Britain should press for an independent UN-led investigation into the suspected chemical attack in Douma rather than wait for instructions from Mr Trump on how to proceed.
Former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband, now head of humanitarian relief group the International Rescue Committee, said military action needed to be part of a wider political strategy.
"Bombing cannot substitute for diplomacy," he said.