U.K.’s defense secretary echoes U.S. caution over Syria response

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that Britain backs President Barack Obama’s insistence on "conclusive" evidence that Syria used chemical weapons before moving forward with any military intervention. The defense leader said on Thursday that Britain’s physiological samples, which led them to declare that they believed sarin gas had been used in Syria, was "compelling ...

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that Britain backs President Barack Obama's insistence on "conclusive" evidence that Syria used chemical weapons before moving forward with any military intervention.

The defense leader said on Thursday that Britain's physiological samples, which led them to declare that they believed sarin gas had been used in Syria, was "compelling but not conclusive" and did not meet courtroom-worthy standards required to muster international support for a military response.

"For that evidence to have any chance of being admitted in court, it would need to have been collected under controlled conditions, secured through a documented chain of custody to the point where it was tested," Hammond told a small group of defense reporters at the British Embassy in Washington. "We do not yet have samples that meet that standard of evidence."

British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that Britain backs President Barack Obama’s insistence on "conclusive" evidence that Syria used chemical weapons before moving forward with any military intervention.

The defense leader said on Thursday that Britain’s physiological samples, which led them to declare that they believed sarin gas had been used in Syria, was "compelling but not conclusive" and did not meet courtroom-worthy standards required to muster international support for a military response.

"For that evidence to have any chance of being admitted in court, it would need to have been collected under controlled conditions, secured through a documented chain of custody to the point where it was tested," Hammond told a small group of defense reporters at the British Embassy in Washington. "We do not yet have samples that meet that standard of evidence."

The unknown chain of custody for that evidence, Hammond said, may impede a quick response. But while the evidence continues to be analyzed, Britain was pressing to build international legal support and authority for a military intervention, if needed. Short of that, London is already seeking legal alternatives to acting without United Nations approval, he said.

The purity of the evidence that Bashar al-Assad’s forces employed chemical weapons is particularly important to convincing Russia to end their support for the regime and support a U.N. Security Council authorization of the use of force. It is also important for Arab allies in the region that likely would be called upon to join an international intervention.

For the British public, however, Hammond said the Iraq war looms large, fueling a nationwide skeptical streak about the prospect of going to war on inconclusive intelligence.

"We in the U.K. are particularly sensitive to this. There is a strong sense in U.K. public opinion that we went to war in Iraq on the back of evidence that proved not to be correct — what in British political space is called ‘the dodgy dossier,’" he said, of the Bush administration’s claim of Iraq’s imminent use of weapons of mass destruction.

Hammond said he does not know what evidence the United States may possess in addition to what Britain has shared, but that he would discuss it with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, later on Thursday.

"I don’t think there is a gap between us," Hammond said of the evidence. "I think we’re now in a place where we both recognize that there is compelling but not conclusive evidence that chemical weapons have been used."

"We need hard evidence. The kind of evidence that would be admissible in court," about what, when, where, and by whom, said Hammond. "We don’t yet have evidence that would pass our own legal systems tests."

In the meantime, Britain will continue to pressure the Syrian regime to allow in U.N. inspectors to establish "definitively" if chemical weapons had been used. [The team, however, has a goal to determine if chemicals were used, not necessarily the custody chain.

Hammond showed no movement toward providing direct lethal aid to the Syrian rebels.

"No decision to provide lethal aid has yet been made," he said. No options are off the table, either, but Britain is giving all it can, he said.

"We are currently providing support to the [rebels] right up to the maximum level that we can without crossing the line into lethal aid." Britain most recently provided armored 4×4 vehicles, body armor, and night vision goggles. 

Hammond also defended Obama’s "red line" over the use of chemical weapons and the international community’s right to deliberate over a larger military intervention in Syria. An estimated 70,000 Syrians already have died in conventional fighting.  

"Use of chemical weapons is specifically illegal under international law. It is a war crime, and therefore it takes the level of culpability of the regime to a new level. It crosses a new threshold."

If the U.N. is unable to pass a resolution, Britain is preparing other legal frameworks to act on its own, if needed.

"We are exploring other options under British interpretation of international law, under the doctrine of humanitarian necessity, which may allow us scope to act," he said. That unilateral determination was Britain’s justification for military action in Bosnia, he said.

Hammond reiterated that due to sensitivities of "the neighborhood" and Russia, Middle Eastern countries must take a role in any military response, as well as in helping crafting a political future for a Syrian opposition that the West can support. 

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.