May v Corbyn: row over law on Syria bombing

Strike out: A YouGov poll taken before the strike found that only 22% of Britons supported it.

Was Theresa May right to strike Syria without Parliament’s permission? The prime minister has defended her decision, saying that “quick” action was needed. But many MPs are unhappy.

As the dust settled on last week’s suspected chemical attack in Syria, Theresa May moved fast. On Tuesday, she spoke to the presidents of France and the US, promising a joint response. On Thursday, she summoned her ministers and got them to agree. On Saturday, the three nations rained missiles on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.

One thing May did not do is consult Parliament. The houses were in recess, and her team argued that it would be impractical to recall MPs. She authorised the strike alone, ignoring calls from opposition parties — and some of her own MPs — to make her case to Parliament and let it decide. She is now facing a backlash.

Yesterday, as MPs returned to Westminster, the prime minister defended her actions. She called Syria’s use of chemical weapons “a stain on our humanity”, and stated that diplomatic efforts to halt such attacks have been “thwarted”.

“The speed with which we acted was essential… to maintain the vital security of our operations,” May continued. “The government has the right to act quickly.” MPs then got to ask her questions, but they did not vote on whether the strike was right.

Officially, May did not need Parliament’s permission. But since Tony Blair held a vote on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, prime ministers have sought approval from MPs for military action. The idea is that the use of force is a very serious decision, and it must be scrutinised.

Saturday’s strike has an extra complication. The UK was not acting out of self-defence, nor with a green light from the United Nations — the usual justifications for war. The government says that, under international law, it was allowed to intervene in Syria to reduce the “humanitarian suffering” of its people.

The opposition disagrees. Labour argues that the concept of “humanitarian intervention” is vague and not enshrined in law. It adds that the strike did not immediately stop any suffering anyway. The strike was “legally questionable”, said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The law is fuzzy, and both sides have been backed up by legal experts. But Labour cites this controversy as another reason why a full discussion was needed.

Up for debate

Labour is right, say some. Military action is too important to be left to the prime minister, especially when it is legally dubious. Yet May refused to listen to Parliament. The reason is clear: she feared she would lose a vote. She was cowardly and irresponsible.

Nonsense, reply others. Going to war is one thing; May only ordered a one-off strike. She couldn’t wait for MPs’ opinions — and her decision was based on intelligence that she couldn’t share with them anyway. Leaders must be free to act decisively against war crimes.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust the prime minister to make the right decisions for the country?
  2. Should the UK intervene more deeply in Syria?


  1. You are in Parliament, and you have just heard Theresa May defend her strike. Prepare one question to ask her.
  2. As a class, hold a debate on the strike. Take it in turns to stand up and express your opinion in 30 seconds. Then hold a vote: Was the strike right?

Some People Say...

“A Parliament is nothing less than a big meeting of more or less idle people.”

Walter Bagehot

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On April 7, Syrian humanitarian workers reported a “chlorine gas attack” in the rebel-held city of Douma. Over 70 people, including many children, have died in what most nations believe was an attack by the Syrian government. The regime denies this, as well as the many previous chemical attacks of which it stands accused. Chemical weapons are banned under international law.
What do we not know?
Whether more such attacks will happen. The UK, the US and France said that they destroyed “the heart” of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, but some have questioned whether the buildings they destroyed were really that important. Meanwhile, international chemical experts are in Syria to determine what happened in Douma, but they have not yet been let into the city.

Word Watch

Both houses of Parliament regularly take breaks, known as recesses. They tend to coincide with school holidays.
The same goes for the French and US presidents. However, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump have also faced fierce criticism at home for ordering the strikes alone.
Sought approval
There is an exception. In 2011, David Cameron carried out air strikes on Libya in what he described as an emergency. He did obtain Parliament’s approval, but after the strikes.
The criticism of “humanitarian intervention” is that it allows states to set the standards for intervention themselves. In other words, they can abuse the system.
Corbyn has proposed a law that would force prime ministers to ask Parliament’s permission for military action. This would resemble the US’s War Powers Act, which gives Congress a lot of power over military decisions (but which presidents often ignore). See’s article in Become An Expert.
Lose a vote
David Cameron lost a vote on striking Syria in 2013, to his great embarrassment. May has a smaller majority than he did.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.