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Labour to vote against Syria attack

By Sam Lister and David Hughes

Labour has confirmed it will vote against the principle of military intervention in Syria tonight after the Government published legal advice supporting action.

Britain would be permitted to launch a targeted strike on humanitarian grounds, even if Russia and China block an agreement at the United Nations, according to documents published by Downing Street.

Evidence from the Joint Intelligence Committee found that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week and it is "highly likely" that Bashar Assad's regime was responsible.

But Labour wants "compelling evidence" before committing its support for the Government's approach.

A party source said: "We have been having increasing doubts about the opaque nature of the Government's motion.

"It does not mention anything about compelling evidence."

A No10 spokeswoman said: "The judgment of the Joint Intelligence Committee is that a chemical weapons attack did occur in Damascus last week; that it is highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible; that there is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability; and that no opposition group has the capability to conduct a chemical weapons attack on this scale.

"The Government's position on the legality of any action makes clear that if action in the UN Security Council (UNSC) is blocked, the UK would still be permitted, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, to take exceptional measures including targeted military intervention in order to alleviate the overwhelming humanitarian suffering in Syria."

The JIC found there are "no plausible alternative scenarios" to Assad's regime being behind the attack and has given the Prime Minister full access to the "limited" and "highly sensitive" intelligence.

It could not, however, come up with a "precise motivation" for the attack.

In a letter to Mr Cameron, its chairman Jon Day said: "There is little serious dispute that chemical attacks causing mass casualties on a larger scale than hitherto (including, we judge, at least 350 fatalities) took place.

"It is being claimed, including by the regime, that the attacks were either faked or undertaken by the Syrian Armed Opposition. We have tested this assertion using a wide range of intelligence and open sources, and invited HMG and outside experts to help us establish whether such a thing is possible.

"There is no credible intelligence or other evidence to substantiate the claims or the possession of CW (chemical weapons) by the opposition. The JIC has therefore concluded that there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility."

The attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus "amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity", according to the document setting out the Government's legal position.

But the legal basis for military action would be on humanitarian grounds to relieve the suffering of the Syrian population by "deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons", it adds.

That holds in international law even if the UN Security Council fails to secure an agreement on international intervention as long as there is "convincing evidence" of extreme humanitarian distress, there is no "practicable alternative" to the use of force and and action is "necessary and proportionate".

All three conditions "would clearly be met in this case", a summary of the Government's legal advice states.

The legal note states that the Syrian regime's pattern of use of chemical weapons means it is likely that the regime will seek to use such weapons again and "continue frustrating the efforts" of the United Nations to investigate.

Military strikes against specific targets would be "legally justifiable", it adds.

It states: "Previous attempts by the UK and its international partners to secure a resolution of this conflict, end its associated humanitarian suffering and prevent the use of chemical weapons through meaningful action by the Security Council have been blocked over the last two years.

"If action in the Security Council is blocked again, no practicable alternative would remain to the use of force to deter and degrade the capacity for the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.

"In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable.

"Such an intervention would be directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose."

Labour sources said that the Government's motion "does not make it clear that the vote by the security council should come after the evidence" from weapons inspectors.

He added that Labour could not support a motion which gave "in principle" support for military action.

"Our position is clear: we want to see the UN weapons inspectors' report, we want to see the evidence which is available and then we want the Prime Minister to come back to the House of Commons.

"Because they seem to be regarding it as in principle support for military action, because of its opaque nature, we are going to vote against it."

Downing Street has criticised Labour's motion - which also has the support of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru - for not including a condemnation of Assad.

The Labour source said: "The condemnation of people who use chemical weapons is beyond doubt. The use of chemical weapons is abhorrent, it is against the law, it has been against the law since 1925.

"It is the abhorrent nature of the attack that makes the case for doing it in the right way, not makes the case for doing this in the wrong way."

He claimed the aggressive - and reportedly foul-mouthed - briefings against Mr Miliband showed "the political parts of the Downing Street operation are rattled".

Labour denied that Mr Miliband had given the Prime Minister an assurance that he would support the Government during a private meeting yesterday.

"I understand that there are some people suggesting that Ed offered some support at the Wednesday afternoon meeting, that is factually incorrect," the source said.

At a meeting of Tory MPs, Mr Cameron set out the Government's position that there was "compelling" evidence that the Assad regime carried out the attack.

A senior No 10 source said the evidence came from the intelligence services but also from publicly available material including YouTube videos of the atrocity.

"In terms of this compelling evidence point, there is compelling evidence: take the YouTube video for example. Are we seriously suggesting that rows of three-year-old children frothing at the mouth and dead were somehow made to act this out?

"Experts who have looked at this video have said it is conclusive that something like sarin was used here. The idea that this was concocted in some way is ridiculous."

The theory that "rogue" units in Assad's military could have carried out the attack would not prevent the regime being responsible, the source added.

The source said: "The regime used chemical weapons, rogue or not. There is a danger here of making Assad and (Vladimir) Putin's case for them."

The JIC assessment was that it was "highly likely" the Assad regime was behind the attack, rather than using the word "compelling".

The Downing Street source said the difference was "semantics" and the JIC wrote the report before Labour's motion.

"They are saying that they think Assad did it and they think that he was responsible, that is what the conclusion of the JIC evidence for us is, it is the case that the Assad regime did this," the source said.

The Liberal Democrat leadership is understood to believe Mr Miliband has been playing politics over the issue.

Not all of the party's 57 MPs have made it back to Westminster for the vote, which could damage the Government's hopes of achieving a majority in the face of Labour opposition.

But following a meeting of the party's MPs addressed by Nick Clegg a party source said: "We are a pretty united bunch, we generally stick together."

There was "widespread support for the Government's motion" at the meeting, the source said.

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