THE coalition government last night dramatically pulled back from the brink of immediate military action against Syria and caved in to opposition demands to give United Nations weapons inspectors more time to report on alleged chemical weapons attacks.
Today’s House of Commons vote will now not authorise direct British military involvement in Syria as the government indicated there would be fresh efforts to achieve a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution.
Despite initial expectations that MPs had been recalled to parliament today to secure cross-party backing for military intervention, the government last night said there would be another vote before the UK joins in strikes on Syria.
The move came as UN weapons inspectors returned to the site of the attack on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.
But they are able to look only at whether chemical weapons were used, not at who deployed them, and action could be taken before they have concluded their work.
Washington has said it will release further evidence of the regime’s culpability – expected to involve intercepted signals intelligence.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon urged the members of the UNSC to act together and stressed the need for the inspectors in Syria to be given time to complete their task. “The body entrusted with international peace and security cannot be missing in action,” he said.
“The team needs time to do its job, give peace a chance, give diplomacy a chance, stop fighting and start talking.”
The wording of the parliamentary motion to be voted on today was released by Downing Street last night shortly after Labour said it would oppose the government unless the UN inspectors were given time to complete their work.
First Minister Alex Salmond had earlier said the case for military action has not been made.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “The PM is acutely aware of the deep concerns in the country caused by what happened over Iraq. That’s why we are committed to taking action to deal with this war crime – but taking action in the right way, proceeding on a consensual basis.
“So this motion endorses the government’s consistent approach that we should take action in response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack; reflects the need to proceed on a consensual basis, taking account of the work done by weapons inspectors; and reflects the Prime Minister’s respect for the UN process – something he made clear to president [Barack] Obama several days ago.”
Labour claimed the Prime Minister had been forced to climb down over the use of force against Syria before the UN process had been exhausted in response to Labour leader Ed Miliband’s stance.
A source said: “We will continue to scrutinise this motion, but at 5:15pm, David Cameron totally ruled out a second vote; an hour and a half later he changed his mind.
“Ed was determined to do the right thing. It has taken Labour forcing a vote to force the government to do the right thing.”
Speaking before the government apparently changed it position, Mr Salmond urged caution over military action.
“Any resort to military action should always be approached carefully, on an evidential base, and within a clear legal framework – and only after full consideration of the aims, objectives and consequences,” he said.
“At this stage, we consider that these criteria have not been met and therefore that the case for military action in Syria – or the UK’s participation in it – has not yet been made.”
The government motion will ask MPs to agree the principle that a “strong humanitarian response” is required from the international community and “this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons”.
But it adds that the House “agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission”.
It promises: “Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place.”
The decision by the government to promise a second vote in parliament was a marked change of the bullish tone from earlier in the day when the National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, met.
“The NSC agreed unanimously that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was unacceptable – and the world should not stand by,” the Mr Cameron wrote on Twitter immediately afterwards.
The five permanent members of the UNSC failed to reach an agreement yesterday on a British-proposed resolution that would authorise the use of military force against Syria.
The draft resolution – if it were to be put to a vote – would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia and China, which have blocked past attempts to sanction president Bashar al-Assad’s regime
In a statement in the early evening Foreign Secretary William Hague made it clear that he believed a likely veto at the UN by Russia could be bypassed. He said: “This is the first use of chemical warfare in the 21st century, it has to be unacceptable, we have to confront something that is a war crime, something that is a crime against humanity.”
Labour said the inspection team’s report was “vital to make up the proper legal basis” – even though its mandate is restricted to establishing whether chemical weapons were used and not who used them.
Many senior Tory and Lib Dem MPs made it clear that they are sceptical about military action which meant that government was facing a possible defeat in the Commons.
Former Tory defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said he was concerned Britain was at risk of “getting our hand caught in the mangle” of a civil war.
Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said any proposed action “must have a clear legal basis” and warned that there must be direct involvement from the UN.
On the ground: Damascus residents living in fear
People in Damascus stocked up on supplies yesterday and some left homes close to potential targets as US officials described plans for multi-national strikes on Syria that could last for days.
United Nations chemical weapons experts completed a second field trip to rebel-held suburbs, looking for evidence of what – and who – caused an apparent poison gas attack that residents say killed hundreds of people a week ago.
Syria’s government, supported notably by its main arms supplier Russia, yesterday blamed rebel “terrorists” for releasing the toxins with the help of the US, Britain and France and warned it would be a “graveyard of invaders”.
Syrian officials say the West is playing into the hands of its al-Qaeda enemies. The presence of Islamist militants among the rebels has deterred western powers from arming Assad’s foes – but they say they must now act to stop the use of poison gas. Syria’s envoy to the UN said he had asked UN chief Ban Ki-moon to have the team of weapons experts investigate three attacks by rebel groups.
Rebel fighters and opposition activists showed the inspectors homes in the eastern Damascus suburb of Zamalka that had been hit by last week’s gas release. The experts also tested and interviewed survivors in hospital, as they did on a first trip on Monday that came under sniper attack.
Amateur video showed the convoy of white UN jeeps driving along a road, accompanied by rebels. One pick-up truck was mounted with an anti-aircraft gun. Gunmen leaned from the windows of another. Bystanders waved as the vehicles passed.
People in Damascus, wearied by a civil war that has left the capital ringed by rebel-held suburbs, braced for air strikes.
In a city where dozens of military sites are mixed in among civilian neighbourhoods, some were leaving home in the hope of finding somewhere safer.
“Every street, every neighbourhood has some government target,” said a nurse. “Where do we hide?” At grocery stores, shoppers loaded up on bread, dry goods and cans. Bottled water and batteries were also in demand.
Syrian crisis sends shock waves across Middle East
Israel ordered a special call-up of reserve troops yesterday as nervous citizens lined up at gas-mask distribution centres, preparing for possible hostilities with Syria.
With the US threatening to attack Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons, Israel fears that Syria may respond by firing missiles at Israel, a close American ally.
While Israeli officials sought to distance themselves from Syria’s stand-off with the West and believe the chances of a Syrian strike remain slim, people were clearly preparing for the possibility.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the day with his top security advisers discussing the situation. Afterwards, he sent a mixed message, urging people to remain calm, while also approving special precautionary measures.
“There is no reason to change daily routines,” he said. “At the same time we are prepared for any scenario.”
Iraq has put its security forces on high alert ahead of an expected international strike on neighbouring Syria, prime minister Nuri al-Maliki said yesterday.
“All political and security powers in Baghdad, the provinces and all over Iraq, announce the highest level of alert,” he said in a weekly televised statement which focused mainly on Syria.
Iraqi authorities are taking necessary measures to prevent “dangerous developments which may result from the Syrian crisis and the talk about an expected strike,” he said.
Iraq has reinforced security along its 422-mile desert border with Syria, making it the most heavily guarded Iraqi frontier.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government says Syria’s civil war is fuelling attacks in Iraq by al-Qaeda-linked groups. The Baghdad government, which opposes any international strike on Syria, is struggling with its own Sunni Islamist insurgency, and sectarian tensions have risen since the start of the uprising in Syria.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said yesterday that US intervention in Syria would be “a disaster for the region”, the ISNA state news agency reported.
After supporting Arab uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 as examples of what Khamenei called an “Islamic awakening”, Tehran has supported the secular president Bashar al-Assad, its main strategic ally in the area, against a two-and-a-half-year-long rebellion.
He said: “The intervention of supra-regional and foreign powers in one country will have no result other than lighting a fire and increase the hatred people have for them.
“This lighting of a fire is like a spark in a gunpowder magazine whose dimensions and consequences are unknown.”
Iran is concerned Assad could be replaced by either allies of the West or by Sunni Islamists tied to Saudi Arabia, both seen as hostile by Shi’ite Iran.
Who’s who in Security Council
The National Security Council is a Cabinet committee set up by David Cameron in May 2010 and is tasked with overseeing all intelligence and defence strategies, such as potential military action against Syria
It is comprised of ten MPs including Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Foreign Secretary William Hague, Home Secretary Theresa May, and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond.
The other members are Chancellor George Osborne, Chief Secretary Danny Alexander, International Development Secretary Justine Greening, Energy Secretary Ed Davey and Government Policy Minister Oliver Letwin.
Sir Kim Darroch is the PM’s National Security Advisor, and also a key member of the council.
Sir Kim hit the headlines last week after Reuters reported that he had attempted to persuade the Guardian newspaper to destroy secret files leaked by former CIA employee Edward Snowden. His two deputies are Julian Miller, who is responsible for foreign policy and Oliver Robbins, who oversees intelligence.
General Sir Nick Houghton, the new chief of the defence staff, is also likely to attend. Sir Nick has commanded British troops in Northern Ireland and Iraq. According to the Downing Street website, MI5 Director General Andrew Parker and MI6 Chief Sir John Sawers also attend when needed.