Michael Fallon, the UK Secretary of State for Defence, The Sunday Times, 09.04.2017
The barbaric gas attack that killed nearly 100 innocent civilians and children in Syria’s Idlib province last Tuesday was immoral and illegal.
After the horrors of chemical attacks in the Great War, the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases was banned by the Geneva Protocol in 1925. However, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has a history of using such weapons against its people. It flouted international law in 2013 by gassing nearly 1,500 people to death outside Damascus.
Yet despite agreeing later that year to destroy its chemical weapons, Syria has again been caught in the act. Airstrikes are never undertaken lightly but this is a wholly unacceptable situation. Something had to be done to stop more people dying.
So, in his first test as commander-in-chief, President Trump made the right call by resorting to careful and narrowly focused military action. The Americans believed there were no peaceful means of stopping Assad using gas against his population. Given repeated Russian blocking in the UN security council, the US was determined to act.
By sending Tomahawk missiles to attack the airfield, aeroplanes and equipment believed to be involved, it has sent a strong signal to the Syrian regime to think twice before using gas in future.
The British and American governments have been in close contact at all levels before and after the strikes. The prime minister was informed in advance of the strike taking place.
The US defence secretary, James Mattis, called me to share their assessment of the regime’s culpability. Together we reviewed the options they were considering. He called me again later to advise me of the president’s decision and give us advance warning of the strike in the early hours of Friday morning.
Justified and appropriate though US action was, it was also necessarily limited. We now need a long-term solution to this conflict. That depends on three conditions.
First, the departure of Assad. Someone who uses barrel bombs and chemicals to kill his own people simply cannot be the future leader of Syria. Assad must go and the search for stability begin.
Second, urgent agreement on a new political settlement. This terrible war has gone on for six long years. Hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions displaced. Syria remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Only a negotiated political transition can end this terrible conflict.
The UK, alongside the US, has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts. Only last week the prime minister set out details of a £1bn jobs, education and humanitarian package to support the most vulnerable victims of the Syrian conflict. So far the UK has pledged more than £2.4bn in response to the crisis in Syria and the region, our largest ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.
Today we call on all parties to get back to the table and get a deal done. That deal must lead to a representative government in which Assad will play no part. Not easy, but not impossible. In Iraq we reached a political settlement representing Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. In recent talks the opposition groups have approached the negotiations with sufficient seriousness, resolve and pragmatism. Now the regime and its backers must show the same commitment. Which brings me to my third point.
Russia must show the resolve necessary to bring this regime to heel. The Russians have influence in the region. They helped broker the original deal to put chemical weapons out of commission. This latest war crime happened on their watch. In the past few years, they have had every opportunity to pull levers and stop the civil war.
It’s time for Russia to be part of the solution and engage constructively with the UN-mediated peace talks. Together we can bring an end to the needless suffering of the Syrian people.
But Assad’s principal backer is Russia. By proxy Russia is responsible for every civilian death last week. If Russia wants to be absolved of responsibility for future attacks, Vladimir Putin needs to enforce commitments, to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal for good, and to get fully engaged with the UN peacekeeping progress.
We can end the needless suffering of the Syrian people, but only if Moscow too gets the message of Thursday night’s strikes.
Sir Michael Fallon is the secretary of state for defence of the United Kingdom