Britain and France supported limited airstrikes against Syria to avoid escalating the regional conflict and to send a wider warning to Moscow about the impact of using banned chemical weapons, leaders and officials said Saturday.
The leaders of the two countries and US president Donald Trump agreed a “limited, targeted and effective” strike against three targets near Homs and Damascus to avoid civilian casualties, said Theresa May, the British prime minister. The decision followed discussions with her advisers about the legality of the military action, she told reporters.
“This was not about interfering in a civil war,” said Mrs May. “And it was not about regime change.”
Mrs May, who did not secure approval from lawmakers before the attack, said that the targeted military action was a direct response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Al Assad. She said it was clear his regime was responsible for the attack in the rebel-held town of Douma last Saturday which left 75 people dead.
The premier will seek to justify the ordering of the strikes in parliament on Monday. Her predecessor David Cameron aborted plans to attack Syria in 2013 after he tried, and failed, to secure MPs’ backing for airstrikes. MPs have been on holiday during the run-up to the attack.
The French President Emmanuel Macron said the strikes had been limited to Syria’s chemical weapons facilities despite reports from pro-Assad commanders of attacks on other targets in the country. France released a report which said that Damascus was to blame for the poison gas attack on Douma, the last holdout for anti-Assad rebels near Damascus.
Mrs May said that early signs indicated that the airstrikes by the US, Britain and France had been successful and sent a message to the Assad regime and its allies that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated. She said that diplomatic efforts had been stymied by Russia and the three countries were left with little alternative.
“As I discussed with President Trump and President Macron, it was a limited, targeted and effective strike with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties,” she said.
Mrs May indicated that the strikes were also intended to send a wider message to Russia about “deterring the barbaric use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond”.
It followed a nerve agent attack in the British city of Salisbury last month that severely injured a Russian former spy and his daughter. The UK has blamed Russia for the attack, promoting an unprecedented global diplomatic action against Moscow and the expulsion of diplomats by dozens of countries.
France said that its immediate objectives had been met and would push ahead with planned talks with Russia to seek peace. “I think the lesson will have been learnt,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, the foreign minister, told BFM TV.
There was support from Europe including the leaders of Italy, Spain and Germany. “The military strike was necessary and appropriate in order to preserve the effectiveness of the international ban on the use of chemical weapons,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Donald Tusk, the head of the council of European Union leaders, said the EU would stand with “our allies on the side of justice” against Iran, Russia and Syria.