Analysis: UK missiles aimed at Syria had the Kremlin in their sights
The UK says it has attacked Syria for one reason: to prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons. But the deterrence element isn’t just aimed at Assad. It’s a message to Vladimir Putin.
The strikes were “to protect innocent people in Syria from the horrific deaths and casualties caused by chemical weapons but also because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said in the early hours of Saturday morning.
She went on to explain how she came to decide strikes were needed now.
“We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised – within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else,” she said.
She was specifically linking Syria’s use of weapons against its citizens, to the UK govenment's firm belief that Russia poisoned ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March.
On Friday the UK released details of intelligence indicating that Russia had poisoned the Skripals with a nerve agent it developed in secret to circumvent international chemical weapons controls. It claimed President Vladimir Putin was “closely involved” in the program.
Two weeks ago UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said “a feeling has suddenly crystallised, when years of vexation and provocation [by Russia] have worn the collective patience to breaking point”.
On Saturday Johnson said the world was “united in its disgust for any use of chemical weapons, but especially against civilians”.
There is no doubt he was referring to Skripal as well as Syria.
May has seen a bump in political fortunes thanks to her firm response to the Skripal affair. She can – and will - use this goodwill to justify the Syrian strike.
It will be sorely needed. In bombing Syria, May is going against the wishes of her country.
A YouGov survey released on Thursday found just 22 per cent of Britons backed a missile strike on Syrian military targets with 43 per cent opposed. That was despite the majority believing the Syrian government had carried out a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
May notably did not ask for parliamentary approval for the attack – not required, but a strong convention – which could lead to a backlash in Westminster.
How May and her pacifist political opponent Jeremy Corbyn deal with the wake of this strike will be crucial.
Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon put it concisely: “the question that the PM has not answered is how this action taken without parliamentary approval will halt [chemical weapons] use or bring long term peace”.