The Foreign Secretary joined Andrew Marr to discuss the targeted missile strikes on chemical weapons facilities in Syria that took place during the early hours of Saturday morning. Although the US-led attacks were not intended to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad, and have reportedly seen no fatalities as a result, they have proved controversial, not least due to the likelihood of further strained relations with Russia. Johnson defended the government’s course of action, which was agreed at a meeting of the Cabinet on Thursday:
AM: What is the mission, and have we really accomplished it?
BJ: There’s one overwhelming reason why this was the right thing to do, and that is to deter the use of chemical weapons, not just by the Assad regime but around the world. And I think one of the most distressing things about the events of the last few years has been the contemptuous growth in the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian theatre of conflict… Finally the world has said ‘Enough is enough’, and I think it’s important that we understand the limits of what we are trying to do… This is not going to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria. One can hope it encourages the Russians to get Assad to the negotiating table in Geneva, to get a political process properly going, but that is, as it were, an extra. The primary purpose is to say no to the use of barbaric chemical weapons.
When Marr asked if the strikes meant that Assad could still continue to attack rebel forces and civilians using conventional weapons, Johnson replied ‘I’m afraid that is the unhappy corollary of all this’. He swiftly dismissed the allegations from Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the United Kingdom had faked the attacks in Syria as ‘plainly and utterly preposterous… absolutely demented’. Marr also raised the idea that the strikes had been agreed quickly in order to avoid scrutiny by Parliament. Johnson replied that ‘The imperative clearly was to get something done that was balanced, that was proportionate, that was effective in degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capability’, and added that there was ‘abundant precedent’ for such action. Jeremy Corbyn – We need a War Powers Act
However, the Leader of the Opposition made clear his unease about the strikes and castigated the Prime Minister for not recalling Parliament to vote on the issue. Corbyn argued for a ‘political process’ to avoid ‘a proxy war between the US and Russia over the skies of Syria’ and has impressed that the UK should adopt an equivalent of the US War Powers Resolution which restricts the right of the President to intervene in foreign conflicts without Congressional approval:
AM: Theresa May, we know is going to come to the House of Commons and explain why she did what she did. Would you like to see a proper debate and a vote at the end of that?
JC: Yes I would, because I think Parliament should have a say in this, and the Prime Minister could quite easily have done that. She took a decision sometime last week that she was going to work with Macron and Trump in order to have an attack on the chemical weapons establishments in Syria. She could have recalled Parliament… or she could have delayed until tomorrow when Parliament returns… There is precedent over previous interventions where Parliament has had a vote, and I think what we need in this country is something more robust, like a War Powers Act, so that governments do get held to account by parliament for what they do in our name.
On the legality of the strikes, Corbyn went on ‘If we want to get the moral high ground around the world… then we need to abide by international law, and I say to the Foreign Secretary, I say to the Prime Minister, where is the legal basis for this?’
When Marr asked what he would say if the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded that they had evidence that Assad was to blame for the chemical attack in Douma, Corbyn replied ‘I would then say confront Assad with that evidence, confront any other group that may be fingered because of that, and then say that they must now come in and remove or destroy those weapons as they did in 2013 and 2015’.
Corbyn – ‘I want to see incontrovertible evidence’ in Skripal poisoning
Corbyn has also declared that he wishes to see ‘incontrovertible evidence’ of Russia’s involvement in the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Despite mounting support for the indictment of Russia, including the revelation that Yulia Skripal’s emails were hacked by cyber specialists from Russia’s state intelligence agency – the GRU – as far back as 2013, Corbyn insisted that he needed absolute proof before he would come to any conclusions regarding Russia’s guilt:
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) April 15, 2018
JC: I want to see incontrovertible evidence of it. I am appalled and alarmed at the idea that anyone would use this nerve agent and clearly it was an attempt to murder the Skripals on British soil. That is obviously absolutely wrong. The OCPW’s job is to identify what the agent was… Sadly it is not their job to identify who made it or necessarily where it was made, and I do think we need to strengthen the role of the OPCW in the future.
AM: Do you seriously think there is any doubt about who is responsible for this?
JC: I think it’s very clear that the nerve agent itself is very similar to those that have been made in Russia… and obviously there has to be some challenge to Russia on this, and that is what is going on… If we are going to make a very, very clear assertion like that we have got to have the absolute evidence to do it.
He went on to say that the OPCW should be given ‘the powers to identify the culpability’ of various actors in such an attack and applauded them as ‘a very important organisation for the safety of all of us’.
Nicola Sturgeon – Were strikes the only option?
The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has questioned whether the missile strikes were the government’s only choice to prevent further chemical weapons abuses by the Assad regime and has argued that other courses of action were viable. Speaking to Niall Paterson, Sturgeon bemoaned that adequate time and effort had not been allowed to establish a ceasefire, and argued that the government had not fully considered the range of options at its disposal:
"When I hear the Prime Minister saying there's 'no practical alternative' [in Syria] I would question if that is really the case" – SNP Leader @NicolaSturgeon tells #Paterson pic.twitter.com/rBVK99V5UK
— Sunday with Paterson (@RidgeOnSunday) April 15, 2018
NP: Do you believe that we were wrong to strike Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons?
NS: Yes, I do, and the big question for me is, do isolated airstrikes do anything at all to alleviate the acute humanitarian suffering in Syria which predates the chemical attack last week?… There was a Security Council Resolution passed a matter of weeks ago – Resolution 2401 – that calls for a ceasefire…
NP: How effective was that?
NS: But that’s my point. I don’t think there has been the concerted patient effort by the international community… There needs to be a real commitment behind those efforts. There’s also further action that can be taken in terms of the chemical weapons programme… I think there is more action that can be taken to disrupt its supply chains, to disrupt the transport to and from it, to apply sanctions against some of the key personnel in that research centre. There are very few individuals subject to UK sanctions… so when I hear the Prime Minister saying there is no practical alternative, I would question whether that is really the case.
Sturgeon also remarked that ‘It felt like what happened on Friday night had more to do with some kind of macho standoff between Trump and Putin, and that should not be the role of UK foreign policy’. She also posited that to take such action without a vote in the Commons was a ‘serious mistake’.
Caroline Lucas – We are looking at the situation in Syria the wrong way round
And finally, the co-leader of the Green party Caroline Lucas has also come out against the airstrikes, telling Robert Peston that the UK does not do enough to invest in ‘long term peace building’:
“Right now there is a process going on at the UN with 122 other countries to introduce a Weapons Ban Treaty and the UK could not even be bothered to turn up.” @CarolineLucas accuses the UK of not investing in long term peace building. #Peston pic.twitter.com/LRMkeSjUec
— Peston on Sunday (@pestononsunday) April 15, 2018
RP: This strike hasn’t killed any innocent people, has degraded [their] chemical weapons capacity, so surely that’s a good thing?
CL: We don’t know how much it’s degraded their capacity… But the bigger point I wanted make was that we lurch from one crisis to another. We don’t invest in long term peace building, and by that I mean for example – right now, we’re talking about chemical weapons. God forbid, in 5 or 10 years time we might be talking about nuclear weapons. Right now there is a process going on at the UN with 122 other countries to introduce a Weapons Ban Treaty. The UK couldn’t even be bothered to turn up. So it seems to me that instead of being pushed into a kneejerk reaction that we don’t know [will be] a success, we should be using that time to reform the UN, properly invest in those peace building initiatives… not bomb what is already a tinderbox… We are looking at this the wrong way round.
On implementing sanctions, Lucas stated that ‘ We need to be a lot more serious about sanctioning Russia, even if that affects the EU, or indeed, us.’