Britain’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson has warned a “malign” Russia not to block international action against the Syrian regime after the suspected chemical weapons attack on the formally rebel town of Douma.
Mr Williamson, who is making his first visit to the UAE, was speaking ahead of a UN Security Council debate on Monday night called by Britain and the United States, and after Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insisted there was no evidence a chemical attack had even taken place.
In an interview with The National in Abu Dhabi, the defence secretary said: "We need to make sure that the Syrian regime's backers, such as Russia, don't block the UN from taking action, and I think it is about time that people for who have been supporting the dreadful Syrian regime to reign them in.
“We’ve had numerous assurances in the past on this matter. We don’t need assurances, we need them to act, we need to have that discussion within the United Nations, and we need to ensure very much hope other countries don’t block that discussion,” he said.
In the past Mr Williamson has been a supporter of armed intervention by Britain, voting for military action against the Assad regime in 2013 after an earlier chemical weapons attack.
That vote, which took place before Mr Williamson became defence secretary, was lost after members of the ruling Conservative government rebelled against then prime minister David Cameron.
The US president, Barack Obama, who at first described the 2013 attack as "crossing a red line”, credited in part the loss of British support for his own decision to back down over military action in Syria.
Following the suspected attack in Douma, Mr Williamson said it was important to “get the facts as soon as possible and work with allies in terms of a proper response.
“I think what we've got to do, we’ve just got to establish the facts first, and I think all the efforts need to be put in establishing the facts.”
When asked if military action might be taken following the suspected air attack by Israel on a Syrian government air base near Homs, Mr Williamson said he believed: “We've got to establish the facts first before we start discussing what are the next actions.
“We need to be having discussions with our close allies. What you’ve seen in Syria, you’ve seen two nations in terms of Russia and Iran play a significant role I don’t believe (is) to the good of Syria and the wider region. It just goes to show what a malign influence those two nations have.”
The defence secretary said Iran had played a major role in destabilising the region and were “very much to be seen in Syria.”
The UK and the UAE “have a real shared agenda not just in terms of prosperity and security but just making sure that malign influences aren’t allowed to spread,” he said.
“You’ve seen a much more assertive Iran in recent years […] we have a very long standing defence commitment to the UAE that we are very proud of. It’s a very deep commitment and we need to be looking not at the past but what we can do in the future”
While in Abu Dhabi, Mr Williamson visited two Royal Navy minehunters currently on deployment in the Arabian Gulf.
He described the presence of British warships and the opening of a new UK navy base in Bahrain this month as “incredibly important in terms of the security and the prosperity not just of the UAE and other Gulf countries but also in terms of Britain’s prosperity of keeping international waterways open.”
That commitment to regional security included Iraq and Syria and ensuring that ISIL did not re-establish itself in other areas after its recent reverses in Iraq, he said.
In Iraq, Mr Williamson said that both himself and the UK prime minister Theresa May had made clear in meetings with Baghdad “our continued commitment while the Iraqi government wishes us to support them.”
Describing Britain’s relationship with the UAE, the defence secretary observed that it “goes back an incredibly long way.” He said there “needs to be a real focus in terms of the future because it’s such an enormous opportunity.
"You’ve seen a real boom in trade both ways between the UAE and the United Kingdom, and in terms of the security side it’s a very old relationship we have, but again there is so much opportunity that we can be doing more with the UAE.”