April 13, 2018 / 11:56 AM / 5 months ago

Factbox: UK ministers back action on Syria - What happens next?

LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from senior ministers on Thursday for unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria after a suspected poison gas attack on civilians.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May visits Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, April 10, 2018. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Pool via Reuters

This is what could happen next, what Britain’s options are, and what the risks are for May:

WHY IS BRITAIN GETTING INVOLVED?

On April 7 there was a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma. The World Health Organisation said on Wednesday that 43 people who died showed “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals”, citing reports from its local health partners.

May has said it is highly likely that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for the attack. She has said that use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to go unchallenged, and that those responsible must held to account.

The United States, Britain’s closest military ally, has threatened missile strikes against Assad in response to the attack. France, another long-standing military ally, has said it has proof Assad’s forces were behind the attack.

HAS THE PRIME MINISTER COMMITTED TO MILITARY ACTION?

Not yet. A statement from May’s office on the Thursday meeting said ministers agreed “it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged” and approved her plan to work with France and the United States on a response.

WHAT APPROVAL DOES MAY NEED TO ORDER MILITARY ACTION?

None, in principle. In Britain, the power to go to war is covered by the “Royal Prerogative”. That means May’s government can act on behalf of the Queen to order military action without having to seek the approval of parliament.

However, the reality is more complicated. In the last two decades Britain has put most decisions on offensive military action to a vote in parliament. This has established a convention and many lawmakers argue it would be wrong for May to engage in Syria without giving parliament a say.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Much depends on the speed with which the United States, which is expected to lead any intervention, wishes to act. President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals.

International chemical weapons experts are traveling to Syria to investigate the alleged gas attack.

May is not currently scheduled to speak publicly on Friday. The British parliament returns from its Easter break on Monday.

WILL MAY HOLD A VOTE IN PARLIAMENT?

On Wednesday the BBC said May was ready to give the go-ahead for Britain to take part in action led by the United States without seeking prior approval from parliament. Downing Street spokesmen have repeatedly declined to comment on that report.

Several lawmakers from her Conservative Party have argued that May should not seek parliamentary approval because the situation requires an urgent response. Opposition parties insist parliament should be consulted.

HOW WOULD A VOTE IN PARLIAMENT GO?

This is very uncertain. May has a slim majority thanks to a deal with a small Northern Irish party to support her Conservatives.

There is a deep distrust among voters and in parliament about foreign intervention, dating from the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq. It was approved by parliament but the Labour government’s case was later heavily criticized for relying on flawed intelligence.

In 2013, May’s predecessor David Cameron lost a vote on taking action against the Assad government after a different chemical attack - a major political embarrassment that contributed to a U.S. decision to back away from intervention.

Thirty Conservatives rebelled in that vote, and comments in recent days show there are still some divisions in the party over whether military intervention is the right approach.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner, has called for a United Nations-led inquiry into the chemical attack and said he preferred to continue pressing for a political solution rather than a military one.

However, Corbyn is at odds with some within his party, and it is unclear if he would be able to get all his lawmakers to back him in opposition to military action.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

May, a minority government leader battling to deliver Brexit and weakened by a failed gamble on a snap election last summer, faces risks whatever path she takes.

If she does not consult parliament, she risks voter unrest. There are local government elections on May 3, at which May is already expected to suffer losses.

If she does consult parliament and loses a vote, her authority and ability to govern - already stretched thin by the divisive nature of Brexit - would be undermined.

WHAT MILITARY ACTION COULD BRITAIN TAKE?

Britain has jets positioned in Cyprus which could strike targets in Syria. It also has unmanned armed aircraft operating in the region. The Royal Navy has submarines capable of firing cruise missiles at land targets.

ISN’T BRITAIN ALREADY BOMBING IN SYRIA?

Yes, but not the Assad government. Britain voted in 2015 to extend offensive operations in Iraq against the Islamic State militant group into Syria. British planes have conducted more than 1,600 strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Reporting by William James; Editing by Andrew Roche

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