UK parliament must examine merits of military action in case of further
chemical weapons attacks in Syria
To avoid a repeat of the ‘rushed’ 2013 vote which failed to secure parliamentary support, the government must consider the value of a pre-emptive vote on a UK military response to future chemical weapons attacks in Syria, allowing MPs time to properly scrutinise any proposal.
Conservative MPs Crispin Blunt and Johnny Mercer have co-authored a report arguing that the UK government should consider tabling a pre-emptive motion authorising military action in Syria in support of the United States, in case the Assad regime carries out further chemical weapons attacks.
They argue that a debate would provide the opportunity for the government to detail why it believes action may be necessary, how non-military options have been exhausted, what the policy aims are, and how they can be achieved through military action. If these criteria are met, such a motion could be supported by parliament.
They argue that the government’s case should address questions about:
- The threshold for military action: The government should clearly stipulate what actions by the warring parties would trigger a UK military response.
- The intelligence implicating those responsible for the use of chemical weapons: The government should publish a comprehensive declassified report on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and invite the Intelligence and Security Committee to examine its classified evidence and report to parliament before any debate. A high burden of proof is important to deter ‘false flag’ attacks designed to draw outside powers into the conflict.
- The legality of the proposed action: The government should publish a detailed summary of its legal position and argument as far in advance as possible.
- The limitations of the military action: The government should aim to prevent mission creep or escalation by other parties by limiting targets to those clearly linked to the use of chemical weapons, as opposed to wider command and control centres or other infrastructure. It should also commit to returning to the House for approval of any change in mission.
- The wider strategy for UK policy in Syria: The government should set out how the proposed military action affects its wider strategy in Syria. The report argues that significant investment is needed in the UK’s diplomatic capacity if the Foreign Office is to play a more significant role in facilitating a political settlement.
The report, How Britain should respond to chemical weapons attacks in Syria, published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), notes that deterring the use of chemical weapons is a clear priority for the international community, but that diplomatic mechanisms for doing so have failed to prevent their ongoing use in Syria.
International initiatives launched in the wake of the 21 August 2013 Sarin attack in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus succeeded in securing Syria’s accession to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the removal of all declared chemical weapons – amounting to 1,300 tonnes - by June 2014. But the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) subsequently reported traces of sarin and VX nerve agent at an undeclared military research site in May 2015, and the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) between the UN and OPCW identified Syrian government forces as being responsible for a chlorine attack in Qminas on 16 March 2015.
More recently, on 4 April 2017 a chemical attack was carried out in Khan Sheikhoun, resulting in dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. Medecins Sans Frontieres and the OPCW stated that patients’ symptoms and bio-medical samples indicated exposure to a sarin-like substance.
This trend in the use of chemical weapons shows no sign of abating. On 26 June 2017 the White House press secretary issued a statement accusing Bashar-al-Assad of planning another chemical attack, and warning of US military retaliation.
Russia has so far vetoed most attempts to deter such attacks through the UN Security Council, suggesting that military action by individual states – notably the US, France and UK – may be necessary to deter further attacks.
In the UK, while military action is a royal prerogative, the August 2013 vote on military action in response to the Ghouta attack has established a convention that parliament must be consulted in future. The 2013 vote failed, the report argues, due to being rushed, with intelligence and legal considerations only published on the day of the vote. As a result, the government failed to provide any clarity about its position and failed to convince MPs about the need for military action.
Blunt and Mercer note that a pre-emptive vote would be ‘unprecedented’, but argue that it would afford the government sufficient time to make a clear and thorough case for its proposed action, and would allow parliament to adequately deliberate and debate the issues at stake.
Crispin Blunt MP said that, “It would probably be impossible to get parliamentary authority for UK reprisal action within the likely timeframe of a US military response to a chemical weapons attack in Syria. Pre-emptive parliamentary authority would send a deterrent message in itself, help address the complex legal and strategic questions involved, as well as enable limitations on military action to prevent escalation and mission creep.”
Johnny Mercer MP said, “The crossing of Obama’s red line in 2013 by the Syrian regime posed challenges to the international community that we are still yet to comprehensively address. I hope that this paper gives genuine food for thought as to how we as a country can back up what we say with what we do and highlight a clearer path as to when we may or may not intervene after the bruising experiences of Iraq.”
Notes to editors
Download the pdf here: How Britain should respond to chemical weapons attacks in Syria
Crispin Blunt MP and Johnny Mercer MP are available for commented. To arrange an interview please contact Skandar Keynes on 020 7219 2254 or [email protected]
This paper, like all ECFR publications, represents the views of its authors, not the collective position of ECFR or its Council Members.
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