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U.K. Pushes Back Against More Syria Strikes as U.S. Talks Tough

Robert Hutton

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted that the strike against Syria’s alleged chemical arms infrastructure was a one-time move, even as the U.S. signaled it’s ready to punish the Middle Eastern country again if it keeps using banned weapons.

Johnson told the BBC that there was “no proposal on the table” for further strikes. Hours earlier, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that her country is “locked and loaded” for another attack if necessary.

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“The overwhelming purpose, the mission was to send a message,” Johnson said. “Finally the world has said enough is enough.” He conceded that this meant “the rest of the Syrian war must proceed as it will” and that Bashar Al-Assad would be allowed to “butcher his way” to victory.

With Prime Minister Theresa May due to face critics in Parliament on Monday, Johnson’s comments highlighted the strains even Friday night’s limited offensive produced for the trans-Atlantic allies after years of struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq. If May were to seek a mandate for a wider intervention, she’d risk the defeat that her predecessor David Cameron suffered over the same issue in 2013.

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In Arab markets, the signs that the Syria attack wasn’t going to lead to a wider fallout saw stocks advance on Sunday. Dubai’s main equity gauge climbed the most since July, and 99 percent of companies in Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul index rose.

In the U.S. the reception seems to have been positive. Trump’s approval rating rose to 40 percent, the highest level this year, in a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post.

Lawmakers Have Their Say

In Monday’s session, May will explain her decision to take part in the bombing. Though she has tried to avoid a vote on whether she was right, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow could still grant one. The signs on Sunday were that lawmakers in her Conservative Party will back her -- the government’s emphasis on the limited nature of the Syria strike makes this easier -- and that the opposition Labour Party would be more split.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has spent his political career opposing British and American military interventions and he told the BBC that the legal basis for the attack on Syria was “debatable.” He called for the U.S. to work with Russia to deliver a ceasefire in the civil war.

That puts him once again at odds with many of his party’s lawmakers. One of them, Chuka Umunna, told ITV that while May should have consulted Parliament before the bombing, he supported the strikes. “I don’t think you should hide behind the inevitable Russian veto at the United Nations Security Council as an excuse not to act,” he said. “There is a clear legal basis here. There are consequences in not acting.”

The Russia Dilemma

The strikes have also highlighted once again the division between Corbyn and the government over the role of Russia in world affairs.

To Corbyn, Russia is a potential partner. He called for a repeat of the 2013 process that saw the U.S. and U.K. back away from a punitive attack on Assad while Russia negotiated what was supposed to be the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.

“Several hundred tons of chemical weapons were destroyed as a result of that process,” Corbyn told the BBC.

He also appeared to back away from his comments to Parliament at the end of March that Vladimir Putin’s government had “a direct or indirect responsibility” for the nerve agent attack on former double agent Sergei Skripal. Although Corbyn has had private briefings on the intelligence behind the British government’s decision to blame Russia, he told the BBC he was unconvinced.

Corbyn’s office said later that his view hadn’t changed, and that his question was whether the attack was the work of the Russian government.

May’s government views Putin as a serious problem, rather than a possible partner. Russia has suggested that both the poisoning of Skripal and the chemical weapon attack in Syria might have been a false flag operation by Britain. Johnson described the first idea as “utterly preposterous and deranged” and the second as “absolutely demented.”

Nevertheless, Johnson said, “we in the U.K. do not seek an escalation. Absolutely not.” He said strong efforts had been made to communicate to Russia that the bombing in Syria was “limited to saying no to chemical weapons.”

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