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May: Don't talk about the Cold War

Air strikes in Syria should act as a warning to Russia over its use of chemical weapons, Theresa May has said. Credit: PA

I have just left a press conference given by a seemingly exhausted Prime Minister - who has had little time for sleep in the past few days, according to her colleagues, such have been the around-the-clock pressures of preparing for the strike on Syria that took place in the early hours of this morning.

Her substantive points were:

  • That the bombing, led by the US and in collaboration with Syria, had two specific, limited and related aims, namely to degrade Assad's chemical-weapons capabilities and to punish him for their use;
  • A subsidiary aim, she said, was to deter any state or group from future use of chemical weapons - and she was explicit that she had Russia in mind when saying this, because of the poisonings in Salisbury, which she lays at Putin's door;
  • She deems the bombings a success, she is confident the attack has undermined Assad's ability to research, make, store and deliver chemical weapons;
  • She - and her allies - will bomb Assad again, if he launches another chemical weapons attack akin to what she believes he perpetrated in Douma last weekend, when up to 75 children and adults were killed, and countless others were injured;
  • But although she pins blame on Assad, she was explicit that she does not want the UK to become embroiled in Syria's civil and is not trying to remove him;
  • She was adamant that under the "prerogative power" she was fully entitled to send in the four Tornado jets without first consulting parliament or getting the formal approval of MPs in a vote;
  • She will give a statement to parliament on what she has done and why on Monday;
  • But she sent a very clear signal that she will resist any attempt by MPs to bind her hands and prevent her bombing again, if she deems such bombing to be in the national interest;
  • She is in no doubt that the attacks were "absolutely in Britain's national interest".

So far, so clear.

But there are uncertainties and ambiguities.

Given her statement that this attack was in part to deter others who deploy illegal chemical weapons, and her reference to Russia, I asked if she agreed with the UN Secretary General that the Cold War is back, and worse than its first incarnation because of the break down of institutional arrangements to hold it in check.

She refused to engage with me on that, and throughout the press conference she consistently avoided using the term "cold war" to describe the stand-off between the UK, US and France on the one hand and Russia, Iran and Syria on the other.

Royal Air Force personnel work on RAF Tornados at RAF Marham, in Norfolk. Credit: PA

Nor did she supply anything but platitudes in explaining how she hopes to prevent an escalation of this stand-off into a broader and more devastating conflict.

Equally it is unclear what would trigger renewed bombing by the Western allies.

Would Assad need to attack his own people with gas or nerve agents for the missiles to fly again? Or would another strike be seen as justifiable if she learned that stockpiles of the toxic weapons existed elsewhere?

She did not say, and nor would her officials be drawn.

What does not seem to trouble her, but may trouble you, is that we enter a period of heightened global instability and insecurity with unusually wide divisions between MPs and parties about how best to minimise the risks.

The leader of the official opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has been trenchant in his criticism of the strike on Syria.

He describes it as "legally questionable", he accuses her of "taking instructions from Washington" and "trailing after Donald Trump", and says she risks "escalating...an already devastating conflict".

Jeremy Corbyn has described the strikes as Credit: PA

And it is not just Corbyn and Labour who see her as reneging on successive governments' promises, made since the Iraq debacle, to involve MPs in decisions to engage in armed conflict overseas.

Next week they will attempt to limit her ability to use the military further in Syria without their consent.

We will witness an important power struggle between the legislative and executive branches of government, MPs versus cabinet and Whitehall.

It's plainly of lesser importance than somehow bringing peace and calm to war-ravaged Syria - but this question of who decides Britain's role and performance in the wider world, especially after Brexit, is not exactly trivial either.