May Has Trump, Brexit, Spy Tension to Consider on Syria Response

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May has plenty to mull as she decides whether to sign up to multinational military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following suspected chemical weapon attacks on civilians.

From parliamentary precedent and Britain’s global standing after Brexit to plain old party politics, here’s a breakdown of some of the issues.

Overseas Pressure

May spoke to Donald Trump by phone Tuesday. Both leaders condemned Assad’s “vicious disregard for human life,” and “agreed not to allow the use of chemical weapons to continue,” according to a White House readout of the call. She also spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, who said later that a response would come “in the coming days.”

May is unlikely to join in the megaphone-style diplomacy of Trump, who warned Russia on Wednesday “to get ready” because missiles would be coming at Syria. “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” he said on Twitter.

Post-Brexit Standing

Britain’s departure from the European Union has invoked hand wringing about its place in the world as it forges a path outside the world’s biggest trading bloc, especially as relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia are at an historic low after the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Salisbury last month.

The international show of support for the U.K. following that attack was viewed as a significant political win for May, and standing with key allies including the U.S. and France now will be central to her long-term calculations.

Evidence Matters

“If evidence is found” or “if confirmed” have been uttered repeatedly by May over the past few days, suggesting she won’t rush into military action unless she’s convinced of Assad or his backers’ guilt.

Different Views

Conflicting reports on May’s intentions in two national newspapers Wednesday suggest there’s not yet a consensus about the best way to proceed. That’s also the view of Stewart Wood, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker and former Downing Street staffer.

“The contradictory messages coming out of No. 10 about Theresa May’s willingness to take part in immediate military action against Assad suggest she has yet to make up her mind,” he said. “It also suggests a court around her that has divided views, with both factions convinced they can speak for her and bring her round to their views.”

Party Politics

A cautious leader, May might want a mandate from Parliament for military intervention -- an emerging convention dating to the vote on the Iraq War in 2003 -- particularly as her predecessor, David Cameron, was defeated by 13 votes in his 2013 effort to deploy military forces to Syria.

Even so, she has been urged by several influential members of her Conservative Party including Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, and former Cabinet minister Dominic Grieve, to ignore it in light of the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

An added wrinkle is that lawmakers are on vacation until April 16. With Trump seemingly intent on a rapid response, will May recall them for a vote, or use so-called emergency powers to strike first and ask for Parliamentary approval later?

Iraq Shadow

Since Labour lawmakers led the defeat of Cameron over Syria, there has been a shift in mood among the party’s rank-and-file, many of whom have criticized leader Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign-policy positions and accused him of being too close to Russia amid the furor over the poisoned former spy.

That makes it more likely that May would win a vote for military action this time, and help her to highlight the difference with Corbyn ahead of local elections in May. But the vote outcome is not a foregone conclusion, and the Labour leader’s urging of caution resonates with Britons wary of military intervention since intelligence was exaggerated in the run up to the Iraq War.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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