British jets in ‘successful’ strike on chemical weapons base in Syria as Theresa May denies aim is ‘regime change’

British jets fired missiles at a Syrian military base suspected of holding chemical weapons ingredients on Saturday in the UK’s first military action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

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Theresa May, the Prime Minister, said the “limited and targeted strike” was part of joint action with France and the United States in response to Syria’s latest alleged chemical weapons atrocity.

“There is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” Mrs May said in a televised statement.

“This is not about intervening in a civil war. It is not about regime change.

“It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties,” she said.

Mrs May said “a significant body of information including intelligence” pointed to Syrian government responsibility for a suspected chemical attack in Douma last Saturday.

She said the strikes would “send a clear signal to anyone else who believes they can use chemical weapons with impunity”.

“This is the first time as prime minister that I have had to take the decision to commit our armed forces in combat – and it is not a decision I have taken lightly.

“I have done so because I judge this action to be in Britain’s national interest,” she added.

Britain’s defence ministry said in a statement that four British Tornado jets had fired Storm Shadow missiles at the base 15 miles west of Homs at 0100 GMT.

The ministry said the facility was “a former missile base… where the regime is assessed to keep chemical weapon precursors”.

“Initial indications are that the precision of the Storm Shadow weapons and meticulous target planning have resulted in a successful attack,” it said.

“Very careful scientific analysis was applied to determine where best to target the Storm Shadows to maximise the destruction of the stockpiled chemicals and to minimise any risks of contamination to the surrounding area.

“The facility which was struck is located some distance from any known concentrations of civilian habitation, reducing yet further any such risk,” it added.

Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, said in the statement that the strikes were a “legal and proportionate” response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

Polls in recent days have shown public wariness of military intervention in Syria, with Britain still haunted by its participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq.

A YouGov poll in The Times conducted this week found that 43 percent of voters opposed strikes in Syria, with 34 percent unsure and only 22 percent supportive.

Stop the War last night held protests outside Downing Street.

Mrs May cleared the way for British participation in airstrikes on Thursday when the Cabinet gave its unanimous backing for the UK joining the international response to last week’s gassing of civilians in Douma, near Damascus.

The Prime Minister had ruled out a parliamentary vote on military action when MPs return from their Easter recess on Monday.

A dozen Tory MPs were openly demanding a Parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria when MPs return from recess next week including Ken Clarke, the former chancellor.

However the Government believed that military intervention was a decision for ministers under the powers of Royal Prerogative.

Cabinet sources have disclosed that Mrs May began Thursday’s meeting by telling ministers that since the end of the First World War 100 years ago the international community has upheld the rule that “chemical weapons are abhorrent and should never be used”.

The Prime Minister said that in recent years in Syria there had been “an erosion of that international norm” and it was vital to act “to ensure that that norm is restored”. She added that when chemical weapons are used it must not go “unchallenged”.

A Government source said that while Mrs May did not mention the Salisbury chemical weapons attack in her address to the Cabinet, “she is clear that it is part of that erosion”.

British lawmakers voted down taking military against Damascus in 2013, in what was widely viewed as an assertion of parliamentary sovereignty on the use of force.

But they backed action in Iraq the following year, and again in Syria in 2015, strictly limiting strikes to Islamic State (IS) group targets.

Britain continues to support the US-led coalition targeting IS jihadists in Iraq and Syria, and has conducted more than 1,700 strikes.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had on Friday accused the government of “waiting for instructions” from US President Donald Trump on what to do over Syria.

“Further UK military intervention in Syria’s appalling multi-sided war risks escalating an already devastating conflict,” he said.