David Cameron has firmly rejected pressure to go back to Parliament in a fresh attempt to seek MPs’ approval for British involvement in military action in Syria, following the Prime Minister’s dramatic defeat last Thursday.
Downing Street said the PM had “absolutely no plans” to force a new vote, while Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he “could not foresee any circumstances” in which MPs would be asked to rethink their opposition. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons that circumstances would have to change “very significantly” for the issue to be revisited.
Meanwhile, Number 10 indicated that Britain is not expecting its military bases - such as RAF Akrotiri on Cyprus, less than 200 miles from Syria - to be used by allies in any air strikes in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman declined to say whether intelligence assets such as information from the defence listening post on Cyprus would be put at the disposal of the US, but said that the UK had not received any requests from allies for the use of bases “and nor are we expecting any”.
The Prime Minister has come under pressure from senior Conservatives not to rule out a second vote on Syria in the light of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that Washington has obtained evidence from blood and hair samples of sarin gas use against civilians by the Assad regime. Congress is expected to vote next week on proposals from President Barack Obama for a punitive military response, possibly involving missile strikes on selected regime targets.
London Mayor Boris Johnson said the Government should call a fresh debate if there was “new and better evidence that inculpates Assad”, while former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “I think it’s very important in this rapidly moving situation that we don’t rule anything out. It may be, after lengthy and careful consideration, Congress affirms its support for the president’s plans and, in the light of that, our Parliament may want to consider this matter further.”
But Mr Cameron’s spokesman told reporters: “Parliament has spoken and that is why the Government has absolutely no plans to go back to Parliament.”
And Mr Clegg said: “We’re not going to keep asking the same question of Parliament again and again. We live in a democracy, the executive cannot act in a way which clearly is not welcome to Parliament or the British people, so we’re not proposing to do so.”
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander was this evening also expected to pour cold water on the prospect of a second Commons vote when he addresses a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Fresh vote hope
Earlier, his shadow cabinet Chuka Umunna appeared to be holding open the door for a fresh debate, saying that Labour would act “as a responsible opposition” in considering any proposal to reopen the issue if Mr Cameron changed his mind about ruling out military action.
But a senior Labour source cautioned against any expectation of a re-run vote, saying: “The use of force by the UK has been ruled out by the Government. The PM made clear immediately after the vote that the UK will not take part in military action in Syria.”
An ICM poll for the BBC found that 71 per cent of voters thought MPs were right to stop the British Government participating in an international military response, while 20 per cent thought they were wrong.
Asked whether allies might be offered the use of British military facilities for any attack on Syria, the PM’s spokesman said: “Parliament made it clear that it doesn’t support British military action, so we will fully respect that. There are no plans to provide military assistance if allies choose to pursue a military response. We have not received any requests for help and nor are we expecting any.”
On intelligence-sharing, he added: “We have a close intelligence relationship with a number of our allies, and a particularly close one with the US. One of the features of it is that we don’t comment on the details of that relationship.”
Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was convinced Assad’s regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb on August 21, which Mr Kerry said had claimed the lives of 1,429 civilians.
“I have been presented with concrete information and without going into details, I can tell you that personally I am convinced, not only that a chemical attack has taken place... I am also convinced that the Syrian regime is responsible,” Mr Rasmussen told a press conference in Brussels.
“It would represent, I would say, a very dangerous signal to dictators all around the world if we stand idly by and do not react.”
But Russia - a long-standing ally of Assad - made clear it did not accept US claims to have evidence proving the regime’s culpability.
Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing. And when you ask for more detailed proof they say all of this is classified so we cannot show this to you.”
Mr Cameron’s spokesman said that the Prime Minister will continue to press for a diplomatic solution to the two-year Syrian civil war when he meets world leaders including Mr Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in St Petersburg later this week.
The PM put efforts to revive the Syrian peace process at the heart of his chairmanship of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland earlier this year, but a proposed conference to bring the warring parties together in Geneva for talks on a transitional government has yet to materialise.
“We will continue to work with international partners in all the institutions in order to try to find the political solution that is needed to bring an end to the conflict in Syria,” said the PM’s spokesman. “The G20 this week offers a potential opportunity for further discussions.”
Assad ‘regional war’ warning
Mr Assad today warned of the danger of “a regional war” in the Middle East if the US and France launch a military strike on Syria.
Asked how Damascus would respond to any strike, the Syrian President told French newspaper Le Figaro: “The Middle East is a powder-keg, and today the spark is getting closer. One must not talk only about the Syrian response, but also about what could happen after the first strike.
“No-one can know what will happen. Everyone will lose control of the situation once the power-keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk exists of a regional war.”
Mr Assad warned of “negative repercussions” against France’s interests unless President Francois Hollande gives up his support for the “terrorists” seeking to oust him.
And he again denied responsibility for the August 21 chemical weapon attack, saying: “Whoever makes accusations must provide proof. We have challenged the US and France to put forward a single piece of proof. Mr Obama and Mr Hollande have been incapable of doing so.
“I do not say whether the Syrian army possesses such arms or not. Suppose that our army wished to use weapons of mass destruction, is it possible that it would do it within a zone where it is itself present and where soldiers have been injured by these weapons, as found by UN inspectors who visited them at the hospital where they are being treated? Where is the logic?”
France: Syria’s ‘massive use’ of chemical agents’
Meanwhile, the French government has alleged there was a “massive use of chemical agents” by the Syrian regime in last month’s attack - and warned of other strikes of a similar nature in the future.
The government published a nine-page synopsis today from the French intelligence service about Syria’s chemical weapons programme that found that at least 281 deaths could be attributed to the attack in areas outside Damascus. The analysis based that count in part from dozens of videos culled by French intelligence services.
President Francois Hollande has backed a call from President Barack Obama for a military strike against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in retaliation for the attack.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hosted lawmakers, his defence and foreign ministers, and intelligence and security officials to discuss Syria.
France’s parliament is to debate Syria on Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. The French constitution doesn’t require such a vote for Mr Hollande to be able to authorise military action.