Theresa May has summoned an emergency meeting of the Cabinet to discuss the crisis over Syria as Donald Trump signalled the United States was ready to launch air strikes against the regime of Bashar Assad.
The Prime Minister called senior ministers to gather in Downing Street on Thursday after declaring “all the indications” were that the regime was responsible for a chemical strike on its own people last weekend.
Mrs May has said Britain will co-ordinate its response to the incident in the rebel-held town of Douma – where at least 40 people are reported to have been killed – with the US and France.
But in a sign of his growing impatience for action, Mr Trump tweeted a warning that air strikes were imminent, saying the missiles “will be coming”.
At the same time Mrs May is under pressure to give Parliament the chance to vote before committing UK forces to any new action in Syria, amid fears it could draw the West into direct conflict with Assad’s main backer, Russia.
Speaking during a visit to Birmingham on Wednesday, Mrs May again said the use of chemical weapons by the regime “cannot go unchallenged” as she reaffirmed her intention to continue working with the UK’s “closest allies”.
“We have been working to get an understanding of what happened on the ground. We are rapidly reaching that understanding,” she said.
“All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible and we will be working with our closest allies on how we can ensure that those who are responsible are held to account.
“The continued use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.”
Russia has warned against military action and said it will shoot down rockets fired at its ally.
In a tweet responding to the threat, President Trump said: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria.
“Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’. You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkinhad, warned that the federation’s military will shoot down US rockets and “even the sources that launched the missiles”.
Later however, US defence secretary General James Mattis suggested that discussions about military action were still ongoing
“We’re still assessing the intelligence, ourselves and our allies. We’re still working on this,” he said.
Mr Trump’s decision to announce in highly inflammatory language on Twitter that missile strikes are imminent, rather than retaining an element of surprise, raised eyebrows among military chiefs.
General Sir Richard Barrons, a former commander of Joint Forces Command, said Russia’s warnings that launch platforms could be targeted in response to air strikes meant “they are going to try and sink ships, sink submarines and shoot aircraft out of the sky – that’s war”.
Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said the Government must seek the support of Parliament if it was to join any action against the Assad regime.
“Parliament should always be given a say on any military action,” he told the BBC.
“What we don’t want is bombardment which leads to escalation and leads to a hot war between Russia and America over the skies of Syria.”
His call for Parliament to be given a say on military action was echoed by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats as well as a number of Conservative MPs.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said: “The use of chemical weapons is a clear red line, and there must be consequences for crossing it.
“There must be a debate and vote in the House of Commons ahead of any military action.”
The attack in Douma happened late on Saturday amid a resumed offensive by Syrian government forces after the collapse of a truce with the Army of Islam rebel group.
Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said poison gas was used on the rebel-held town near the capital, an allegation strongly denied by the Assad government.
Families were reportedly found suffocated in their homes and shelters, with foam on their mouths.
Reports suggested that more than 500 people, mostly women and children, were taken to medical centres with breathing problems, foaming at the mouth and with burning sensations in the eyes.
It comes almost exactly a year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people.
That assault prompted the US to launch several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.