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U.K. Cabinet Ministers Back Response To Syria Chemical Attack

NOEL KING, HOST:

British Prime Minister Theresa May got the backing of her Cabinet on Thursday to cooperate with a possible U.S.-led strike on Syria. A joint strike which could include the U.S. and France would be coming in response to an apparent chemical attack that killed civilians, including women and children in the rebel stronghold of Douma. Julian Lewis is a British MP who is chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. He's also a member of the ruling Conservative Party, and he's with us now. Good morning, sir.

JULIAN LEWIS: Good morning.

KING: Should the U.K. be joining the U.S. in possible military action in Syria?

LEWIS: It depends what action is proposed and what effect we want to have with it. And I should say, although I do chair the Defense Committee, there are a range of views on the committee so I'm just speaking for myself this morning.

KING: Fair enough.

LEWIS: So if the action that's proposed is something that will punish the chemical weapons attack and leave it at that, then it is possible to support it. The danger is that it proves what we call a thin end of a wedge and that we end up effectively backing one side, the opposition side, in the Syrian civil war. And if I think there's a sufficient danger of that, I personally would vote against it.

KING: Is there a suggestion that you've heard that you think sounds like a reasonable idea?

LEWIS: Well, the suggestion that I've heard from some people is that we ought to try and use the new technology, the cyber offensive capabilities in which both the United States and the United Kingdom are investing billions of dollars in order to see if we can punish Assad if we're satisfied that he did this chemical attack, as he probably did. So if we could punish him in some way, really hurt him economically, hurt him financially, hurt him and his cronies, hurt the infrastructure on which he relies, I am much more skeptical about the blunt instrument of airstrikes.

KING: Sir, just to be clear, you're calling for a cyberattack on Syrian officials, do I have that right?

LEWIS: I believe that if we're talking about punishing Syrian officials in some way, a cyberattack, if we are in a position to mount one - and we ought to by now be able to do that - would be an ideal way to inflict pain whilst avoiding escalation into an all-out confrontation between Russia and the West.

KING: Does Parliament need to be consulted before action is taken?

LEWIS: Constitutionally, no, they don't. But I think it sends out a rather bad signal if a government doesn't feel confident enough to have such a course of action as this debated in advance. And it suggests that the government fears that it would hear some arguments that it would be uncomfortable with in the course of such a debate, even though it would probably be successful in winning the vote.

KING: And as you've said, there are many, many opinions even among your particular committee. In the few seconds we have left, it's a tough question, but where do you see this conflict going?

LEWIS: Well, it all depends on what measures the allies intend to take. If they end up serving as the military arm of the opposition, then we're making the same mistake we made in Iraq in 2003 and especially in Libya in 2011, and we shouldn't do that.

KING: MP Julian Lewis is chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Thank you, sir.

LEWIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "BEYOND DIALOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.