Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry implored the UK government not to rely on “open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups” in the event of a reported chemical attack on Syria.
Thornberry, speaking in parliament during a debate on the Syrian war, asked the government to hold any response to reports of chemical weapons attacks in areas controlled by the Al-Qaeda proxy, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a US-proscribed terrorist organisation.
HTS are thought to have some 10,000 fighters in the last rebel stronghold; Idlib province, a region in Syria’s north-west along the Turkish border.
Upon reports of a potential chemical attack, Thornberry urged the UK to wait “until the chemical weapons inspectors, the OPCW [Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons], have visited those sites under the protection of the Turkish government, independently verified those reports and attributed responsibility for any chemical weapons used.
“Relying on so-called open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups is not an acceptable alternative,” she said.
In turn, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt refused to be drawn on the UK’s response to any reported chemical attack in Idlib. “I’m not prepared to say what the United Kingdom’s detailed reaction might be or give any timescale.”
Later clarifying her position in a tweet, Thornberry wrote: “…if there are reports of a chemical weapons attack in Idlib over the coming weeks – the government must ensure the reports are independently verified and that Parliament has given its approval, before escalating British involvement in the war.”
The Labour front bencher was subsequently attacked, with responses to her tweet accusing her of “not being fit to be foreign secretary” and “recycling old conspiracy theories.” Though she drew supporters.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position on previous alleged chemical attacks on opposition-held areas in Syria has been to wait for international inspectors to visit the scene.
On April 7 an alleged chemical attack on Douma, a then rebel-held suburb of Damascus, killed a reported 70 people. The attack was immediately blamed on the Syrian army by Western leaders and large portions of the press.
Syrian and Russian officials accused anti-government forces of staging the attack in order to provoke a US intervention against Syria.
The UK followed the US in military action against the Syrian government on April 14, days after the alleged event, well before the OPWC could begin an investigation into the attack. Its investigation is still ongoing.
Speculation around planned chemical attacks has become heightened as Syrian government forces and their allies begin their assault on Idlib.
Russia has repeatedly issued the same warning over the past weeks, submitting what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says are “concrete facts” about an impending false-flag chemical attack to the US government, the UN, and the OPCW. The Russian government claims that chlorine gas canisters have already been put in place in Idlib for use in the attack.
In turn, John Bolton, Donald Trump’s notorious national security adviser, warned that the US, Britain and France had agreed that another use of chemical weapons by Syria would lead to a “much stronger response” compared to previous air strikes.
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