Following a coordinated airstrike on Syria, the leaders of the UK and France, which both took part in the strike, are turning their attention to the battle for domestic support. Meanwhile, Russia, which has troops on the ground in support of the Assad regime, has responded with rhetoric, not retaliation.
Here’s what officials there are saying.
At 4 a.m. local time, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the British public to announce the UK was participating in the air strikes. There was no alternative, she declared. The strike was also in the national interest, occurring after a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil just last month. “We cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalized — within Syria, on the streets of the UK, or anywhere else in our world,” she said.
By 9 a.m. local time, she was following up her address with a press conference, where she asserted the strike was “right and legal.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour party, laid into May on Saturday. Corbyn said May should have gone to Parliament — which was already set to meet on Monday — and asked for their approval before taking military action. Worse than that, he said, the action may be illegal or prove futile.
“Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace,” Corbyn said. “This legally questionable action risks escalating further, as U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has admitted, an already devastating conflict and therefore makes real accountability for war crimes and use of chemical weapons less, not more, likely.”
He wasn’t the only one to take aim at the prime minister. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland, said, “UK foreign policy should be set by Parliament, not the U.S. President.”
Many people in the UK are still angry about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the war in Iraq on the basis of flawed U.S. intelligence in 2003. Appearing to blindly follow Donald Trump — whose visit to the UK has twice been postponed amid fears he will be met by massive protests — could be politically perilous.
Going to Parliament could have been even more politically dangerous, though. In 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to back out of a strike on Syria when Parliament voted against it, with many from his own party members voting with the opposition Labour party. It was a rare and brutal blow to a prime minister’s authority.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who last year said France would act if Syria used chemical weapons, said he has proof of the Syrian government was behind the chemical weapons attack.
“The facts and the responsibility of the Syrian regime are not in any doubt,” he said. “The red line set by France in May 2017 has been crossed.”
In striking Syria, Macron not only made good on that pledge, he’s also helping France solidify its role as a guardian of international treaties; in this case, the Chemical Weapons Convention.
So far, Russia has responded with rhetoric, not retaliation. In short succession, Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military’s General Staff warned the Kremlin may now provide Syria with more air defense systems, and the Russian Foreign Minister declared the strikes “unacceptable and lawless.” By 11 a.m. ET, Russia had succeeded in convening the Security Council. A little over three hours later, a Russian resolution condemning the strikes was defeated.
So why didn’t Russia go even further? No Russian bases were struck and no Russians were killed in the strikes, according to Moscow. President Emmanuel Macron phoned President Vladimir Putin ahead of the strikes and officials at both the Pentagon and State Department said the U.S. communicated with Russia both before and after the strikes to avoid Russian casualties. And the strikes — limited to just three sites the U.S. and its allies say are connected to Syria’s chemical weapons program — won’t swing the balance of power in Syria’s 6-year-old war.
Russia has never been particularly interested in a direct confrontation with the U.S. in Syria, though Saturday’s military action comes just two months after a combination of U.S. airstrikes hit a group of Russian military contractors fighting alongside Syrian troops. The battle, in which the U.S. says a “couple hundred” Russians were killed, appears to be the first time Russians have suffered casualties as a result of U.S. military action in Syria.
Afterward, the Kremlin sought to distance itself from the attack, saying only that several of its citizens may have been killed, but they were there of their own accord and that the contractors’ actions had not been coordinated with the Russian military.
Putin has another good reason not to retaliate: three years into its intervention, Russia is on the cusp of military success in Syria, which this strike is not going to stop. Retaliation could prompt more strikes, threatening Russia’s ability to complete its mission.
Confident the U.S. won’t launch a ground invasion, Russia may treat Saturday’s strike as a test of the Trump administration’s appetite for military action and an opportunity to measure how far Trump is willing to go.