Syria’s chemical red line has been crossed – what next?

Barack Obama's decision to begin providing Syrian rebels with arms is triggering intense debate in Whitehall and Westminster about whether Britain will follow suit.

Policymakers and parliamentarians are striving to establish what actions the US government will actually take as it steps up its military assistance to Syria's rebel forces.

The decision, which followed conclusive evidence that chemical weapons have been used by Bashar al-Assad's regime, could eventually lead to a Commons vote if David Cameron decides to follow the lead of his transatlantic ally.

"The crisis demands a strong, determined and coordinated response from the international community," foreign secretary William Hague said.

"We have to be prepared to do more to save lives, to pressure the Assad regime to negotiate seriously, to prevent the growth of extremism and terrorism, and to stop the regime using chemical weapons against its people.

"We will be discussing that response urgently with the United States, France and other countries, including at the G8 this week."

David Cameron will meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Sunday to discuss the situation. Russia's decision to continue providing arms to the Syrian government has strained relations between the two countries, with neither side prepared to give ground in the run-up to the latest round of talks.

Earlier this week Labour had hinted it could oppose a decision to arm Syrian rebel forces, but the latest revelations about the use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions in the last year could provide a justification for a changed stance.

“Announcements from Washington overnight show just how grave the dangers confronting Syria are, and show the deepening concern within the international community about the continued conflict," shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander said this morning.

"It is vital that the opportunity of this G8 meeting is seized, and every effort is made by the US president, the UK prime minister and others to engage the Russians directly and enlist their support in bringing all sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table."

Meanwhile the issue is already dividing the Conservative party, with one backbencher arguing against an influx of western weaponry to the country.

"We in the UK do not have to follow the US," Tory John Baron told the Today programme. He argued the weapons could find their way into the hands of the rebels' extremist wings, making it easier for them to commit further atrocities, and would destabilise the Middle East further.

Baron added: "Sometimes good friends can say to each other 'look, you are making a mistake'."

Others are insisting the UK needs to join the US in taking action against Assad, however.

"Now that the US and Europe have accepted the evidence that chemical weapons use has occurred, it is time for the West to respond and to intervene in Syria," the Henry Jackson Society's executive director Alan Mendoza said.

"We warned that this was a 'red line' for Assad. Now he has crossed it we must make sure that he pays the penalty for the sake of Syrian civilians and our own credibility."

The United Nations has estimated over 93,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far – including the documented deaths of over 1,700 children under ten years old.