Downing Street has today confirmed that Britain’s armed forces are drawing up contingency plans for military action in response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria - and Westcountry-based sailors and commandos could be in the vanguard.
It was widely reported yesterday that Britain is planning to join forces with America and launch military action against Syria "within days" in response to the gas attack believed to have been carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's forces against his own people.
That notion was further fuelled by Prime minister David Cameron cutting short his holiday in Cornwall to return to London as the situation escalates.
This morning Downing Street confirmed the move.
Last night it was reported that Parliament is expected to be recalled by the end of the week, as Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg move to ensure MPs are consulted on any potential military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Downing Street is expected to make a final decision today on whether to recall parliament.
Totnes Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston last night commented on Twitter, saying: "Glad to hear rumblings that Parliament will be recalled but this has to allow genuine debate and opportunity to reject action with free vote."
Mr Cameron had already interrupted his holiday for talks with Barack Obama, the US president, François Hollande, the French president, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. After discussions via a secure telephone line over the weekend, all the leaders agreed on the need for a "serious response". Government sources confirmed that military action was among the options "on the table" but said no decisions had been taken.
The Prime Minister, however, is believed to have abandoned hope of securing any further meaningful response from the UN amid opposition from Russia.
Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph claimed that Royal Navy vessels were being readied to take part in a possible series of cruise missile strikes, alongside the United States, as military commanders finalise a list of potential targets.
The vessels are said to include the Devonport-based Type 23 frigate HMS Montrose and an unnamed nuclear submarine – almost certainly HMS Tireless, which left Plymouth last month and was reportedly spotted off Gibraltar on Saturday.
The ship, along with the Devonport-based assault ship HMS Bulwark and members of Plymouth-based 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, are part of the Cougar 13 training deployment, which began exercising in the Mediterranean earlier this month.
The Telegraph reported Government sources as saying talks between the Prime Minister and international leaders, including Mr Obama, would continue, but that any military action that was agreed could begin within the next week.
Support for the move has come from former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, who, writing in The Times, called for "sharp, quick, specific and punishing" action against the Syrian regime. He said that although he would "hate" an action that was not sanctioned by the United Nations, it was better than letting that body be further damaged by failure to respond to what could be the most "egregious breach" of human rights since it was founded.
As preparations gathered pace, Foreign Secretary William Hague warned the world could not stand by and allow the Assad regime to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people "with impunity". Britain, the US and their allies must show Mr Assad that to perpetrate such an atrocity "is to cross a line and that the world will respond when that line is crossed," he said.
British forces now look likely to be drawn into an intervention in the Syrian crisis after months of deliberation and international disagreement over how to respond to the bloody two-year civil war.
As pressure mounted on the Prime Minister to recall Parliament, Dr Wollaston said as there was no threat to UK national security, Parliament should be consulted to act as a brake to any "headlong rush" into an escalation of the situation. "I sense that we are on a headlong rush into escalating this conflict and I think Parliament can act as a natural brake to that," she told BBC Radio 4's The World At One yesterday. "I feel very gravely concerned about the potential implications of a further escalation. The issue for Parliament to debate is whether there should be military action in the first place.
"I think very many people around the country would feel gravely concerned about that decision being taken by a very small number of people without the opportunity for them to have a say through their MP. If our national security is at threat, we expect the Government to make decisions rapidly on our behalf. But that isn't the case here – this is a complex ethical issue with grave risks of further escalation. In that context it is absolutely right for Parliament to debate this issue."