August 26, 2013 2:42 pm

UK considers response to suspected chemical attack in Syria

David Cameron will return from his holiday on Monday evening to co-ordinate Britain’s response to the Syrian crisis amid a clamour for the prime minister to give parliament the opportunity to debate any such intervention.

William Hague, foreign secretary, said that the UK and its allies could be justified in taking military action against Syria, without the agreement of the UN. “Is it possible to respond to chemical weapons without complete unity on the UN Security Council? I would argue, yes it is,” he said.

Mr Hague said the security council had not been united and had not “shouldered its responsibilities” on Syria – reflecting the west’s frustration with Russia, a key ally of the Assad regime. “It is possible to take action based on great humanitarian need and humanitarian distress, it’s possible to do that under many different scenarios,” the foreign secretary said.

Mr Cameron, who has been on holiday in Cornwall, will chair a national security council meeting on Wednesday to discuss the UK’s options, against a backdrop of mounting speculation that missile strikes could occur as early as this week.

The prime minister is pressing the US and France to make one-off air strikes against the Assad regime as punishment for its apparent use of chemical weapons on civilians last week.

Yet he may struggle to forge a consensus, given the large number of MPs on both sides of the House of Commons who are wary about intervention in Syria.

In June, 81 Tory MPs wrote to Mr Cameron demanding a vote in the event of Britain deciding to arm the rebel forces.

A handful of cabinet ministers have warned that such action could backfire, among them are Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats; Chris Grayling, justice secretary, Justine Greening, international aid secretary, and Ken Clarke, Cabinet Office minister.

Over the weekend, Mr Cameron conducted a round of telephone diplomacy with President Obama of the US, French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Labour, the Scottish National Party and the UK Independence Party all urged Mr Cameron to put the issue to a debate and vote in the House of Commons, if necessary by “recalling” MPs, who are on their summer holidays.

Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, said Mr Cameron and Mr Hague had previously made commitments about a parliamentary recall before “further UK involvement in Syria”.

“This morning’s interview by the foreign secretary only confirmed the need, before any action is taken, for ministers to make their case to parliament,” he said.

“The foreign secretary and the prime minister do need to be open about the objectives, the legal basis, and the anticipated effect of any possible UK military action in Syria.”

Mr Hague said the government was conscious of the need to consult parliament before taking action. The foreign secretary promised in June that the coalition would not use the recess as an excuse not to put the matter to MPs.

But Labour sources said the party has had no signal yet from the coalition that any such vote is imminent. Mr Cameron said this summer that he reserved the right to act “swiftly” in Syria without a Commons mandate.

Some government figures argue that a one-off strike to retaliate against the use of chemical weapons may not require the same Commons authorisation as the long-term arming of rebel fighters.

Any military response from the UK is expected to involve missiles launched from the Mediterranean rather than via jet planes, with the 2011 campaign against Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi seen as the likely template. That campaign commenced with cruise missiles fired from US warships and a British submarine.

In Damascus, meanwhile, chemical weapons inspectors were shot at by unidentified snipers at around midday on Monday, the UN said.

The UK and US have criticised the Assad government for waiting five days before allowing inspectors to the site of the attack, saying it will make it much harder to establish what happened.

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