The Prime Minister is seeking to reassure colleagues that the UK is not on the verge of dragged into the bloody Syrian civil war by joining a planned US-led attack, a senior Government source said last night.
“This is about stopping the use of chemical weapons and has nothing to do with regime change in Syria,” the source said.
Mrs May won the backing of the Cabinet for RAF jets and submarine-launched cruise missiles to strike Syrian targets in response to the alleged deployment of chemical weapons on the town of Douma which killed an estimated 75 civilians.
Some insiders expect the US-led offensive to come this weekend after the Prime Minister discussed details of the plan with US President Donald Trump in a phone call late on Thursday night.
Theresa May confirms that Britain’s Armed Forces will solely target Assad’s chemical weapons
But the Prime Minister used a speech to ministers at an emergency “war Cabinet” meeting in Downing Street on Thursday to insist her aim in the action was to signal that use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.
She reminded ministers that the international community had outlawed chemical warfare in 1918 in the aftermath of horrific clashes in the First World War.
“What we are seeing that international norm that has lasted nearly 100 years being eroded,” she told the Cabinet.
The Prime Minister’s comments come after Russia issued a chilling warning that any US attack on Syria could escalate into a full-scale war.
Syrian child receives medical treatment after gas attack
As preparations for American-led strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime were intensifying, the Kremlin’s ambassador to the United Nations urged Western allies to pull back from the crisis.
Vassily Nebenzia also accused Britain, France and the US of only being interested in ousting the Syrian tyrant and hemming in his country.
“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” Mr Nebenzia said after talks at the UN Security Council on the diplomatic crisis following the alleged chemical weapons strike on the Syrian town of Douma.
“We continue to observe dangerous military preparations for an illegal act of force against a sovereign state in what would constitute a breach of international law,” he said.
“We call on the leadership of these states to immediately reconsider.”
In a swipe at nations threatening military reprisal for the chemical attack, the ambassador added:
“The sole thing they have an interest in is to oust the Syrian government and more broadly to contain the Russian Federation.
His outburst followed talks between US President Donald Trump and Theresa May to thrash out their response to the Douma attack.
Following a phone call between the two leaders late on Thursday night, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“They agreed to keep working closely together on the international response.”
As international tensions increased yesterday, the head of the UN admitted that East-West relations were at their lowest ebb for a generation.
“The Cold War is back – with a vengeance,” said UN secretary-genral Antonia Guterres.
He urged all states in the dispute to “act responsibly in these dangerous circumstances.”
He added: “Increasing tensions and the inability to reach a compromise in the establishment of an accountability mechanism threaten to lead to a full-blown military escalation.”
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, said President Trump had yet to make a final decision about military strikes.
“Our President has not yet made a decision about possible action in Syria. But should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree,” Ms Haley told the UN Security Council.
“All nations and all people will be harmed if we allow Assad to normalize the use of chemical weapons,” she said.
Earlier this week, President Trump warned Russia that “missiles are coming” for the its Syrian ally Bashar Assad’s regime.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson yesterday said it was “very important that the use of chemical weapons should not go unchallenged”.
Asked on a BBC radio show if the UK was being dragged along by the US, he said: “We will be working with friends and partners to make sure, if we possibly can, that the use of chemical weapons does not go unchallenged, that we deter further humanitarian catastrophes caused by the use of such weapons.”
But the political row over Mrs May’s push for airstrikes without a vote in Parliament intensified yesterday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “Further UK military intervention in Syria’s appalling multi-sided war risks escalating an already devastating conflict.
Theresa May reminded ministers that chemical warfare was banned in 1918
“The Government appears to be waiting for instructions from President Donald Trump on how to proceed. But the US administration is giving alarmingly contradictory signals.
“Even US defence secretary James Mattis has said we ‘don’t have evidence’ and warned further military action could ‘escalate out of control’.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott claimed RAF crews could inadvertently end up aiding terrorist groups fighting against Assad in Syria.
Ms Abbott said: “The real danger is that what starts out as a justified punishment for the use of chemical weapons ends up with the Royal Air Force serving as the air arm of the Jihadi extremist rebels in Syria.
“We believe there needs to be a co-ordinated international drive to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement. That’s what has to happen.”
Senior Tory backbencher John Baron also called for caution.
In an article for the think tank Politeia, he wrote: “It is unclear whether military action would have any practical or chastising effect – the damage caused to the Syrian airbase by the American attack in April 2017 was apparently quickly repaired, with aircraft using the runway just a few hours later, and chemical weapons continue to be used in Syria.”
He added: “Our past interventions have had a tendency of dragging us ever deeper in. Attempting to prevent future chemical attacks is one thing, but the Prime Minister and Presidents Trump and Macron have not ruled out attempting to topple President Assad wholesale.
“This seems unlikely, given the strong Russian and Iranian support for his régime, but if achieved his overthrow could usher in still more violence in Syria.”