Planned airstrikes on Syria are being co-ordinated with Russia, it has emerged, as Theresa May reassured her Cabinet that any military response to last week’s chemical attack will not escalate into war.
The US has identified eight potential targets in Syria, it was reported on Thursday evening, as the Kremlin claimed a secure hotline for the US and Russia to communicate over their operations in Syria was “active” and being used by both sides.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expects allied forces to reveal the location of the targets in advance, to avoid bloodshed and restrict damage to legitimate military assets. According to reports in the US, the targets selected include two Syrian airfields, a research centre and a chemical weapons facility.
The dialogue between Washington and Moscow is understood to have enabled the Prime Minister to assure her Cabinet that adequate plans are now in place to restrict the fallout from any British participation in military strikes on Syria.
During a two-hour emergency Cabinet meeting, Mrs May secured the backing of ministers to join an international response “to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime”, Downing Street said.
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to President Trump about Syria this evening.
“They agreed that the Assad regime had established a pattern of dangerous behaviour in relation to the use of chemical weapons.
“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.”
Mr Trump – who had warned Russia on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” – toned down his rhetoric on Thursday by saying that a missile strike could be “very soon or not so soon at all”.
The White House said “no final decision” had been made on Syria in a statement issued after the NSC meeting, adding that intelligence was still being assessed.
The statement added that Mr Trump will talk to Mrs May and Emmanuel Macron, the French President, to discuss the next steps.
David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, who voted against military action in Syria in 2013, signalled before the Cabinet meeting that Mrs May had satisfied him adequate planning had been carried out.
He said that when David Cameron proposed military action five years ago he failed to provide the “evidence and intelligence” to justify strikes, and also did not have “a proper plan which was thought through properly”.
Mr Davis added: “Those two things I’m assured we’re going to answer today.”
Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations said on Thursday that there must be “meaningful consequences” for those who use chemical weapons, signalling Theresa May’s resolve to join the international response.
Downing Street said that the Cabinet – all of whom spoke during the meeting – “agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged”.
The Cabinet also agreed on “the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress”, helping make the legal case for taking military action without the backing of the UN.
The US is moving ten warships and two submarines into position armed with up to 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles, while Theresa May has ordered at least one British submarine to the area with a capability to fire up to 38 Tomahawks against Assad regime targets.
Before chairing the meeting of his National Security Council President Trump said: “We’re having a number of meetings today. We’re looking very, very seriously, very closely at that whole situation. We’ll see what happens, folks, we’ll see what happens…
“Now we have to make some further decisions. They’ll be made fairly soon.” He added that: “It’s too bad that the world puts us in a position like that.”
NBC reported that US officials have found chlorine and a “nerve agent” present in blood and urine samples from victims of last Saturday’s attack on Douma, Eastern Ghouta.
Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all! In any event, the United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our “Thank you America?”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 12, 2018
The Assad regime is known to have stocks of the nerve agent sarin, and has previously used a mixture of chlorine and sarin in attacks, according to US officials.
Meanwhile Mr Macron is expected to join any allied response, said he had “proof” that the Syrian Government had used the chemical weapons.
Speaking at a meeting of a UN committee on chemical weapons, Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to the UN, said: “We stand on the cusp of a nightmare – where weapons of mass destruction are used with impunity.
“It is not enough just to condemn this. We need to find a way to take meaningful action and ensure that there are meaningful consequences for perpetrators.
“We have all benefited from the international order that has kept us safe since the end of World War II. It behoves all of us to make every effort to uphold this international architecture.”
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed that Russia and the US were talking on a “deconfliction line” set up in 2015 to co-ordinate air strikes, which operates between US central command in Qatar and Russia’s equivalent in Syria.
He said: “The line exists and it is active. In general, the line is used by both sides.”
The affirmation by Mr Putin’s spokesman that communications with the United States were ongoing showed “they understand there’s danger and are trying to avoid it,” according to defence analyst Alexander Golts.
The US gave Russia around 90 minutes warning for a strike with 59 Tomahawks against the Shayrat airbase in April last year after another chemical weapons attack.
The respected Kommersant newspaper in Russia reported that Russia “is expecting to receive coordinates of the targets at which the United States is planning to launch strikes”.
Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the priority in Syria was “to avert the danger of war”. Following a closed-door meeting of the Security Council he was asked if he was referring to a war between the United States and Russia and said: “We cannot exclude any possibilities unfortunately.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, insisted that Parliament must be “consulted” on any decision to take military action.
He said: “Surely the lessons of Iraq, the lessons that came there from the Chilcot report, are that there has to be a proper process of consultation. Just imagine the scenario if an American missile shoots down a Russian plane or vice versa. Where do we go from there?”
The Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said Parliament “can and should be recalled immediately” to vote on the issue.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday evening: “President Trump just finished a meeting with his National Security team to discuss the situation in Syria. No final decision has been made.
“We are continuing to asses intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies. The President will speak with President Macron and Prime Minister May this evening.”
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