UK Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to defend her decision to join US and French coalition partners in airstrikes against Syrian chemical weapons facilities on Saturday, as opposition lawmakers complained about the lack of a parliamentary vote.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has opposed British military action throughout his career, described the Syrian attack as “legally questionable.” The prime minister “should have sought parliamentary approval, not trailed after Donald Trump,” he said.
He called for a new law to to stop governments launching military action in most circumstances without the backing of MPs.
Mrs May, in a press conference in London following the strikes, said the Western coalition needed to act quickly to send a clear message to Bashar Al Assad’s regime that the use of chemical weapons won’t be tolerated, and to ensure the operation itself was a success.
“This was not about interfering in a civil war, and it was not about regime change,” Mrs May said. “These strikes are about deterring the barbaric use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.”
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson also defended Mrs May's decision to take part in the attack.
"This is not about regime change … This is not about trying to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria," he told the BBC on Sunday.
"There is no proposal on the table at the moment for further attacks because so far thank heavens the Assad regime have not been so foolish as to launch another chemical weapons attack."
"If and when such a thing were to happen, then clearly with allies we would study what the options were," he said, echoing US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who told an emergency Security Council meeting that Mr Trump told her that if Syria uses poisonous gas again, "The United States is locked and loaded."
Mrs May's comments at the press conference were aimed at heading off arguments that members of the UK parliament on all sides used when they voted against air strikes in Syria in 2013. At that time, Mrs May’s predecessor David Cameron had made it clear he wanted to see Mr Al Assad overthrown.
The prime minister was more equivocal when asked if this was still Britain’s policy, saying her goal was simply to stop the use of chemical weapons.
Mrs May seemed determined to resist calls for a retrospective vote on her actions, saying only that Parliament “will get an opportunity to question me” after she has made a statement on the attacks on Monday.
With the opposition Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrat parties all saying she was wrong to order the attack without consulting Parliament, and Labour and the SNP also condemning the attack itself, Mrs May will be lucky if she avoids a vote.
It’s not clear how many of his Labour MPs Mr Corbyn will be able to take with him on this, but some expressed frustration that parliament hadn’t been consulted.
It will be up to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on Monday to decide whether to allow an emergency debate, and he has been a strong advocate of the right of Parliament to scrutinise the government.
Mrs May doesn’t have a majority in Parliament, but the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up her government, said it backed her actions.
The question in any vote will be how many of her own Conservatives break ranks. In 2013, 30 voted against the government. This time, Mrs May’s promise that it was a limited action that has ended, added to their dislike for Mr Corbyn’s position, could keep more of them in place.
Downing Street published a summary of the legal advice about the Syria action on Saturday, which said that international law allowed Britain to act “on an exceptional basis” to “alleviate overwhelming humanitarian suffering.” The government said its actions met the required tests.
Britain joined the US and France in launching more than 100 missiles against Syrian government targets. The prime minister said it was clear that only the Assad regime could have conducted the suspected chlorine attack on Douma that killed dozens.
She also specifically linked the use of chemical weapons to Russia, which she accused of blocking attempts to rein in Mr Al Assad.