LONDON (ViaNews) – As the relationship between Britain and Russia plunges to new depths – if it were a marriage, they’d be in court now, fighting over the CD collection – more and more commentators are wondering about the real purpose of Saturday’s air strikes on Syria.
With two of the three leaders involved in the raids beleaguered in their own countries – Macron is doing better, but his economic reforms mean his popularity is fragile – the speed of the reaction to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons is causing concern that the potential for improved personal popularity may have been a factor in the decision to go ahead with the attacks.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounced the moves in the Guardian, calling them ‘both wrong and misconceived.’ He felt that they were either an empty threat, bombing buildings already disused will have little impact on Assad’s regime, he argued, or they could lead to a serious escalation in hostilities between Russia and the West.
With Vladimir Putin and his political operations already unpopular in Britain following the Salisbury nerve agent attacks – an event which the Russian President denies any involvement – launching a bombing raid is likely to appeal to Theresa May’s hard-line supporters.
However, a number of concerns exist surrounding her decision. Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s Shadow Security Minister expressed his doubts surrounding the legality of Theresa May’s actions without the agreement of Parliament. Suggesting that the decision was of dubious legality, he told listeners of Radio Four’s Today programme on Monday that the Prime Minister should either have waited for Parliament to resume after the Easter Recess or called MPs back early for an emergency debate. Whilst the Government is likely to try to encourage Speaker John Bercow to create time for such an event in the coming days, MPs from all parties feel that such an opportunity should have been granted before sending in the air force.
However, current practice suggests that the Prime Minister does have the right to act unilaterally in circumstances such as those developing in the Middle East.
But it is known, from Churchill and before to Margaret Thatcher with the Falklands, that the public generally support positive, military actions, at least in the early days of foreign turmoil. They are seen as signs of strength and promote the country’s position on the world stage. When the real targets are the current pantomime villains, the Russians, popularity seems an even more likely outcome.
However, as Tony Blair knows only too well, presumptive actions and words can come back to haunt the protagonists. His call that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within forty-five minutes was both unproven and a key factor in sending British troops into a costly and unpopular war.
There are parallels with the current situation. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson claimed recently that scientists at Porton Down had told him that the nerve agents deployed against Sergei and Yuliya Skripal were sanctioned by the Kremlin. Subsequently, of course, Porton Down scientists denied that they had made such a statement, and Boris Johnson, under heavy criticism for inflaming the already highly sensitive relations, tried to defend himself on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend.
His allegations had been released in an interview with the German media outlet Deutsche Welle. Johnson stated at the weekend that he had not said that weapon had been issued by the Russians, simply that Novichok, the nerve agent, was one developed in Russia and stockpiled during the old Soviet Union days. On such sensitivities, lives could be lost.
Theresa May might have gained some support among the Daily Mail reading public. That paper has launched a series of speculative observations that Russia’s revenge might include the launch of cyber-attacks on home computers and the NHS. However, the reaction from other political leaders should be a cause of concern to her.
Liberal Democratic leader Vince Cable feels that she took the decision not to consult Parliament because she was afraid she would fail to win a vote and would then have to either let down Britain’s Trump inspired American allies or try to engineer further diplomatic measures against the Assad regime.
However, Macron, May and Trump are seeking to push through UN resolutions to strengthen opinion and sanctions against President Assad. Such action, while supported in principle, has raised doubts over the motivation behind the air strikes among political opponents.
‘Theresa May had a chance to try and persuade parliament but bottled out of it through weakness,’ he claimed, while Jeremy Corbyn feels that the constant ‘Russia bashing’ can only make matters worse. In his Guardian article, he called for a ‘shift from the rhetoric of endless confrontation with Russia.’
Of course, the trigger for the bombing raids carried out by the US, Britain and France was the chemical attack against his own people President Assad initiated. Russia’s response seems no more measured than the hastiness of these actions. To claim that the event did not occur, and was a fabrication led by, most likely, British secret agents, smacks of the worst pages of a Dan Brown thriller.
Theresa May will face MPs when they return to work. She will state that acting without parliament’s authority was necessary because it was in the national interest to so do. But both politicians and the public are more cynical these days. There are many, particularly in the labour party but also on May’s own conservative benches, who would prefer that sanctions in Syria come through the legitimacy of the UN, rather than from national leaders whose motives might be called into question.
A return to a cold war scenario between Russia and the West is something many fear could be the unwanted outcome of hard-line posturing.