The largest US air and naval strike force since the 2003 Iraq war was heading towards Syria last night as Theresa May won the backing of the cabinet to join in military action.
By – thetimes.co.uk
US-led strikes after the suspected chemical weapon attack in Douma, which left as many as 40 people dead, are expected within the next three days.
The prime minister continued yesterday to face down demands for a Commons vote on whether Britain should join the US in any punitive action against President Assad.
Senior ministers decided it “was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged”, according to the official read-out from an emergency meeting of the cabinet yesterday. It added that they “agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime”.
President Macron said that France had proof that the Syrian regime, which is supported by Russia and Iran, carried out the chemical strike on the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, last Saturday.
US officials were quoted as saying that blood and urine samples from victims, including children, had mainly tested positive for chlorine and a nerve agent.
In other developments:
•The Times understands that a Russian anti-submarine aircraft is in place at a Russian airbase in the west of Syria as the Royal Navy’s attack sub- marines, armed with cruise missiles, moved into striking range.
•The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a “high purity” strain of novichok nerve agent in Salisbury.
•Offensive cyberweapons will be used by Britain and its allies as part of any strike operation to deceive Russian and Syrian air-defence radars, sources say.
•Preparations were under way to defend Britain’s airbase in Cyprus from a possible Russian counterattack. Six Typhoon jets armed with air-to-air missiles are the primary defence of RAF Akrotiri.
Moscow called for the United Nations security council to meet today to discuss Syria, as Vasily Nebenzya, Russian ambassador to the UN, said that the “immediate priority is to avert the danger of war”.
The US is amassing ten warships and two submarines in the Mediterranean and Gulf region. The mobilisation will give Mr Trump the option for a significant military campaign against Assad. The USS Donald Cook, a guided-missile destroyer with up to 60 Tomahawk missiles, is already within range.
Three other destroyers are also close by. In addition, the USS Harry S Truman, a nuclear-powered carrier with 90 aircraft and five escort ships, which set sail from Norfolk, Virginia, on Wednesday, could be included in any action by the end of next week.
Mr Trump, who caused irritation among his own security officials on Wednesday by saying on social media that missiles “will be coming”, tried to adopt a more evasive stance yesterday, tweeting that an attack on Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all”. The White House said later that Mr Trump had met his national security advisers but had not made a final decision.
The fallout from the Douma attack has brought the most dangerous stand-off between Russia and the West of modern times. Moscow has signalled that it is likely to shoot back at US-led missiles, warships and jets if they strike against Syria. Such a move could bring the two nuclear-armed sides into direct conflict for the first time.
An information war is already raging. Russia’s foreign ministry said that it had found no evidence of a chemical weapon attack, describing such claims as “dishonest accusations”. In a sign that neither side wants the stand-off to escalate into all-out war, a communications link between Russia and the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, is being used.
Britain has already sent attack submarines, armed with Tomahawk land-attack missiles. It also has eight cruise-missile-capable Tornado fast jets at its airbase in Cyprus.
Mr Macron said in a television interview that France had evidence that chlorine at a minimum was used in the Douma attack “by the regime of Bashar al-Assad”. Asked whether a French military strike was imminent, he said: “We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective.”
Separately yesterday, the inde- pendent chemical weapons watchdog backed Britain’s findings that Mr Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter were poisoned with a novichok nerve agent, though the organisation did not cite the substance by name or say where it was from. The report, however, prompted Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, to say that the Kremlin “must give answers”.
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Read more: From 2018/04/08