The UK Response to Chemical Attacks in Syria: Feedback Sought from Walthamstow Residents

Following the horrific use of chemical weapons by President Assad against civilians in Eastern Ghouta last weekend, there has been much speculation as to what action the world will take to challenge this latest breach of international human rights law. For seven years now, Syrians have been stuck between the brutality of the murderous death cult of ISIS and President Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs to repress those who oppose his dictatorship. This has led to seven million Syrians fleeing their homes as well as the deaths of half a million innocent people.  

Along with many other MPs I have repeatedly challenged the Government to work with international agencies including the UN to protect civilians and hold Assad – and his Iranian and Russian backers- accountable for these actions. Separately to this, in 2015 following parliamentary scrutiny of the proposed action I also supported extending air strikes by UK forces into Syria against ISIS which targeted their wealth in oil and training camps – each of the strikes undertaken by UK forces have been documented here and are responsible for substantially diminishing the capabilities of ISIS.

During this same time period the international community has not been able to agree how to tackle the behaviour of President Assad and so he has continued to act without consequence. These latest chemical weapon attacks and the horror and barbarism they represent highlight the impact of this on the people of Syria.

I want to be clear the above analysis does not justify or provide support for the action taken by the Prime Minister. It highlights the importance of securing democratic consent for UK involvement in military action, irrespective of the actions of the American or French Governments and for seeking a long term political solution to this crisis to secure peace and safety for all the Syrian people.  

Instead of recalling parliament on Friday 13th April ahead of any proposed action, the Prime Minister and Cabinet chose to involve UK military in air strikes in Syria unilaterally, using the prerogative of the executive to justify this decision. Consequently, as parliamentarians we have had no access to any details as to why those sites were targeted, how the Government believe this intervention in Syria will aid in securing long term peace and security for civilians or why the Prime Minister felt she did not need to secure democratic consent.  

This is in direct contrast to previous interventions- including the decision to extend air strikes in 2015 when we were able to debate this matter as evidence was presented to parliament, briefings were offered to MPs about the intentions behind a course of action and a clear process set out for holding Ministers accountable if civilian casualties were to occur.  

Whilst this action has now happened, many of you have raised with me differing questions and concerns. The Prime Minister has agreed to face parliament when it returns on Monday 16th April. As a backbench MP I will only be able to ask a single question in this session and so I have set up a short poll for Walthamstow residents to feedback on which of these questions they wish to see prioritised. Below I have also compiled a short round up of what we know so far as a background brief for Walthamstow residents. 

Please note to participate in this ballot you must be a resident of Walthamstow.  I will consult this poll ahead of any parliamentary debate on Monday and will keep this poll open until this debate begins.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria by President Assad has been well documented. On July 23, 2012 the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jihad Makdissi confirmed Syria had chemical weapons and in 2013 there were a number of allegations of chemical attacks by Syrian Forces. In August 2013, the UN went on to investigate and concluded that chemical weapons were used on a “relatively large scale” and that the victims included civilians.

The Russian government put forward a plan agreed by the UN Security Council for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to inspect and destroy Syrian chemical weapons. In 2014 all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Regime were removed by the OPCW.

However, in 2015 the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism issued a report finding that the Syrian regime was responsible for a third attack using chlorine gas in Idlib province on March 16th, after the Syrian Government had claimed to have given up all their chemical weapons. On April 4th 2017 chemical weapons were used in an attack that killed dozens of people in Syria’s northern Idlib province. The attack is believed to have been perpetrated by the Syrian government, due to the type of aircraft in the area at the time.

On Saturday 7th April 2018 Syrian opposition activists, rescue workers and medics reported 40 people were killed by a chemical attack on Douma, which was the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region. The World Health Organisation state that upto 500 people sought treatment for the symptoms of being exposed to chemical weapons at their facilities in the region. 

At 2am on the morning of Saturday 14th April 2018, 100 missiles were launched by UK, American and French forces against three sites in Syria. These have been reported to be a scientific research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby to Homs. This followed Russia blocking action at the UN Security Council to investigate these latest chemical attacks at the UN. Russia has argued that the chemical attacks were in fact ‘staged by the United Kingdom’. 

Ahead of this attack, both Russian and Syrian forces were warned of the likely targets to enable them to evacuate troops from these sites. Specifically, Russian state news agency TASS reported that none of the missiles fired by the three Western nations struck areas near its naval and air bases in Syria. Those bases come under the protection of Russian air defense units. In response, yesterday Russia sought to convene an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council where it failed to secure support for a resolution condemning this action - Only Russia, China and Bolivia voted in favour of the draft resolution with the rest of the world community rejecting the resolution. 

The UK Ambassador Karen Pierce told the UN Security Council that Britain, France and the United States will pursue a diplomatic solution "so long as Syria halts its chemical weapons program and destroys its weapons stockpiles" among other conditions. The Government has also now published their legal case for this action. You can find this here. No other detail has been given by the Government of any alternative strategy for addressing these concerns, including the possible use of sanctions against Russia and Iran. For example, imposing sanctions on the Russian state banks – who have also been Assad’s bankers- could help force Russia to use its influence over Assad to engage with the United Nations in finding a political solution to the war in Syria.

The questions from which you can choose to pose to the Prime Minister are as follows: 

  1. If the Prime Minister believes there was a case for UK involvement in air strikes against President Assad's chemical weapons facilities, why did she not recall parliament on Friday 13th April to make this to the nation instead of making it behind closed doors to her cabinet?
  2. How does the Prime Minister believe taking part in air strikes in Syria against president Assad but not seeking a political settlement will do anything to actually end this conflict?
  3. What is the Prime Minister doing to hold Russia and Iran to account for supporting President Assad?
  4. Will the Prime Minister publish the intelligence on which the case against President Assad for these attacks is based?
  5. Can the Prime Minister pledge that she will not take any further military action without consulting parliament?
  6. Given she states she recognises the horror they face, why is the Prime Minister refusing to help Syrian refugees stuck in Europe?
  7. Will the Government push for sanctions against Russian State bankers VTB until the Russians use their influence on President Assad to prevent further civilian casualties?

 To vote please click here.