Belfast Telegraph

Home News UK

Demands for air strikes statement

David Cameron is facing demands for a Commons statement after Downing Street appeared to overrule Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond over air strikes against Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria.

No 10 stepped in after Mr Hammond, in Berlin for talks with his German counterpart, appeared to rule out Britain joining US air strikes against the militants on Syrian territory.

Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman insisted his remarks referred to last year's Commons vote opposing air strikes against president Bashar Assad and that nothing had been ruled out in relation to IS.

Tory MPs said that ministers must now come to the Commons to explain the Government's permission.

John Baron, a member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "This reinforces the need for the Government to state clearly its policy to Parliament given that there appears to be a disparity between the Foreign Secretary and No 10.

"The issue of air strikes in Syria is of seminal importance."

In his news conference with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Mr Hammond appeared to be clear that there was no question of British aircraft bombing targets in Syria.

"Let me be clear, Britain will not be taking part in air strikes in Syria. I can be very clear about that," he said.

"We have already had that discussion in our Parliament last year and we won't be revisiting that position."

However the Prime Minister's spokesman insisted his comments had been made in relation to last year's Commons vote.

"The point he was making was that last year Parliament expressed its view with regard to taking action with air strikes against the Assad regime," the spokesman.

"In terms of air power and the like, the Prime Minister has not ruled anything out. That is the position. No decisions have been taken in that regard."

Mr Hammond has previously reacted cautiously to the prospect of extending US air strikes against IS in Iraq across the border into Syria.

Giving evidence to the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday, he said: "The legal, military, practical, technical cultural differences between Iraq and Syria are very significant. We are dealing with very different situations in the two."

Unlike Iraq, where the US is acting at the request of the government in Baghdad, air strikes in Syria would be carried out without the permission of the regime and the aircraft involved could face opposition from Syria's powerful air defences.

Earlier Downing Street said that Mr Cameron welcomed US president Barack Obama's plan to extend air strikes against IS militants in Syria but said Britain was "not at the stage" of joining the military action.

In a televised address last night from the White House, the US president announced military plans to "degrade and ultimately destroy" IS - also referred to as Isis or Isil (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Air strikes will take place inside Syria for the first time alongside an expansion of strikes in Iraq and nearly 500 more US troops will be despatched to Iraq to assist its security forces.

The president also called on the US Congress to agree a programme to train and arm Syrian rebel groups fighting IS and the Assad regime.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "In terms of specific decisions about participation in further action, we are not at the stage of taking those decisions."

No 10 said it was vital to build support in the Middle East and pointed to the risks of going "over the heads" of regional leaders.

The spokesman added: "We are very much part of this approach, which is not just one from the United States but one that was very widely shared at last week's (Nato) summit.

"It is shared by others as well in terms of this broad strategy. There is a military component, the UK's military has already been involved and we have supported the approach that the US has been taking and we are going to act, in terms of this long-term approach, in close concert with them.

"We need to deal with Isil both in terms of Iraq and in terms of Syria so we are very supportive of that approach."

Mr Cameron chaired a meeting of the Government's extremism task force, set up in the wake of the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich.

It has previously set out a definition of Islamist radicalism and raised proposals for introducing terror and extremism behaviour orders to allow civil authorities to take action against people seeking to radicalise others, in a similar way to Asbos.

The spokesman said this morning's meeting was focused on "what more can be effective in this area".


From Belfast Telegraph