British Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at 10 Downing St. in central London on Aug. 29.
(Photo: Leon Neal, AFP/Getty)
LONDON - Britain's government says the legal conditions have been clearly met for taking action against Syria for allegedly launching a chemical attack against its people.
However, the opposition Labor Party has said it wants to see "compelling evidence" of the Syrian regime's guilt before siding with Prime Minister David Cameron's governing coalition in a parliamentary vote.
Labor Party leader Ed Miliband said Thursday he was "determined we learn the lessons of the past, including (on) Iraq," where much ballyhooed evidence of weapons of mass destruction was subsequently deemed to be false.
The potential roadblock to war comes as Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that it is "highly likely" that Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime was responsible for the alleged chemical attack on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds. A document released by the JLC forms the British government's first published evidence indicating culpability for the attack.
Another separate document released by Downing Street on Thursday that sets out the government's legal position says, "military intervention to strike specific targets" would be "legally justifiable."
The independent Doctors Without Borders group says at least 355 people died in the attack. Syria's regime has denied using chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone and was quoted by Iranian state TV as saying that "military action will bring great costs for the region" and "it is necessary to apply all efforts to prevent it."
According to state TV, Rouhani said both Iran and Russia would work in "extensive cooperation" to prevent any military action against Syria. The Iranian president also called such military action an "open violation" of international laws.
Britain can go to war without the express consent or backing of Parliament but in the wake of the Iraq War in 2003 there have been calls for the government to always seek the approval of Parliament.
On Wednesday, Cameron reversed an earlier to decision to hold a single formal parliamentary vote that would specifically seek authorization for British action. He bowed to opposition demands that a second vote by Parliament be required, but only after U.N. investigators conclude their findings.
Downing Street said that the back down reflected the government's "desire to proceed on a consensual basis," but the move followed threats by the Labor Party not to support a possible strike.
Labor lawmakers are insisting that the U.N. inspectors be given more time to deliver their report to the U.N. Security Council.
Separately, a British draft resolution authorizing "necessary measures" to protect Syrian civilians was delivered to the Security Council in New York on Wednesday, where it was discussed. Russia has said it will use its veto power on any resolution.
Members of Parliament, called back from their summer break, began debating the issue Thursday.
Ahead of Thursday's first parliamentary vote - due to take place around 10 p.m. local time/5 p.m. ET and being described as a vote of "principle" - the British government received a letter from the Syrian government seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis.
"We implore you to communicate through civilized dialogue rather than a monologue of blood and fire," the letter said, according to the BBC, which obtained a copy. The open letter was sent by the Syrian parliament speaker who also invited British MPs to send a delegation to the Mideast nation.
The U.N. inspection team will be leaving Syria by Saturday as its two-week mandate comes to an end, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said Thursday. Ban, peaking in Vienna, said all opinions should be heard before anyone makes decisions on how to react to the alleged attacks.
President Obama said Wednesday he has concluded the Syrian regime is behind the attack. However, it's not clear if Western powers will wait for the U.N. experts' findings before launching a possible punitive military strike.
A yet-to-be-released report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats - including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime's chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
The officials, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence report publicly, said intelligence linking Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack is no "slam dunk."