Britain’s joint intelligence committee (JIC) has concluded it is “highly likely” that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks in Syria last week that have prompted moves towards launching military strikes.
In an echo of the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003, Downing Street took the rare step of releasing the assessment of the JIC to support its case that the regime was responsible.
Downing Street also released a statement, based on the formal legal advice by the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, that limited military strikes to deter future chemical weapons attacks would be in line with international law.
In its assessment of the chemical weapons attack the JIC said the regime had launched at least 14 chemical weapons attacks in the past. The assessment says: “It is not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale. The regime has used CW on a smaller scale on at least 14 occasions in the past. There is some intelligence to suggest regime culpability in this attack. These factors make it highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.”
The JIC acknowledged that some of its assessment was based on “open source” evidence such as testimony from victims, doctors and video footage. But in a separate letter to David Cameron the JIC chairman, Jon Day, it said he had seen “highly sensitive” unpublished intelligence which supports their view that the regime launched the attacks to clear the opposition from strategic parts of Damascus.
The JIC assessment was released at the same time as a government statement on the legal advice from the attorney general. This said that military action would be legal “under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention”. It also said that action would be legal even without the authority of the UN security council.
The statement said: “If action in the security council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.”
A No 10 spokesperson 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 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 cabinet endorsed the recommendation from the national security council and the prime minister will set out the proposed government response in the house this afternoon.
“Ministers agreed that it is fundamentally in our national interest to uphold the longstanding convention on chemical weapons and to make clear that they cannot be used with impunity.
“Any response should be legal, proportionate and specifically in response to this attack and everyone around the cabinet table agreed that it is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict nor about trying to determine the outcome.”
Photo: A Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter escorts UN chemical weapons experts in Damascus. Photograph: Reuters
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