David Cameron had to wait three days to speak to Barack Obama after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s horrifying chemical attack on his own people, a new book claims.
The former prime minister was on holiday in Cornwall when he learned Assad unleashed the deadly nerve agent sarin near Damascus, killing more than 1,000 people, many of whom were children, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013.
Outraged, Cameron sprang into action and began his attempt to drum up support for a show of force against Assad, calling on Obama as a key ally.
But the two leaders couldn’t arrange for a secure line until three days later, delaying any hope for a swift response and eventually resulted with no action being taken, as the Syrian conflict continues to rage on five years later.
The events are outlined in a day-by-day breakdown by author Anthony Seldon for the Sunday Times ahead of his novel Ten Days in August centring on the crisis.
David Cameron had to wait three days to speak to Barack Obama after Assad’s horrifying chemical attack on his own people. Pictured: Cameron on August 29, 2013
Outraged, Cameron sprung into action and began rallying support for a show of force against Assad, calling on Obama as a key ally. Pictured: Obama on August 29, 2013
President Bashar al-Assad unleashed the deadly nerve agent sarin near Damascus, killing more than 1,000 people, many of whom were children, on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 (pictured)
Seldon speculates the fallout from those 10 days led to Donald Trump being elected, Putin wielding more power and Assad still in control of a war-torn Syria.
Cameron and Obama finally managed to speak over the phone on Saturday, August 24 – three days after the attack.
Obama, who had once declared a ‘red line’ for the US would be Assad using chemical weapons, proposed to Cameron a cruise missile attack that would need to be carried out by Monday due to a ‘rapidly closing window’.
But before hanging up with Cameron, Obama clarified he had not made a decision yet.
Cameron met with his cabinet and it was determined if Obama didn’t strike soon, parliament would have to be recalled and any action would need to be put to a vote.
On Sunday, Cameron had since cut short his holiday in Cornwall and moved to Chequers, where he held meetings with his inner circle.
During this time, major world powers – including Russia, Assad’s main ally which had long blocked UN-sponsored intervention against him – urged the Syrian leader to cooperate with UN chemical weapons inspectors already in Damascus to pursue allegations of a chemical weapon attack.
On Sunday, Cameron had since cut short his holiday in Cornwall and moved to Chequers, where he held meetings with his inner circle. Pictured: Cameron on the beach at Polzeath during his family holiday
Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha sit on a bench outside a cafe overlooking the beach a day before the chemical weapons attack
Timeline of events
Wednesday, August 21: Chemical attack on innocent Syria civilians.
Saturday, August 24: David Cameron and Barack Obama speak.
Sunday, August 25: Cameron ends his holiday in Cornwall and gathers his inner circle in Chequers.
Monday, August 26: Cameron calls Putin to gain support.
Tuesday, August 27: Cameron is back in London trying to drum up support from MPs.
Cameron speaks to Obama again.
Wednesday, August 28: Cameron struggles to maintain control of motions being put to parliament.
Thursday, August 29: Cameron’s call for action against Assad is rejected by parliament.
Friday, August 30: Obama calls Cameron to offer support after his motions fail.
Saturday, August 31: Obama says the US should strike but he would need to consult Congress, because of what happened in the UK.
No action is ever taken against Assad.
By Monday, Obama still hadn’t made a decision whether he would strike or not, and the Syrian government said it would allow the UN to investigate the attack.
Cameron decided to call President Vladimir Putin to discuss ‘consequences’ for Assad, but was kept waiting on the line for Putin for an irritating 14 minutes.
Putin rebuffed Cameron, siding with Assad’s claim that he wouldn’t use chemical weapons on his own people.
Putin suggested Cameron to wait until the UN investigation had concluded.
On Tuesday, August 27, Cameron was back in London on the warpath trying to drum up support from MPs to make a move.
Coming straight from his holiday, Cameron’s director of communication Craig Oliver arranged for a suit to be brought when he landed to ensure he looked in control and unfazed by the unfolding crisis.
The topic at hand was if parliament should be recalled to take a vote if Britain should retaliate against Assad.
Although the prime minister doesn’t need MPs’ go-ahead for military action, Iraq was too fresh in everyone’s mind to make the call without their consent.
Cameron decided that parliament would be recalled, shifting focus now on to who would back them in their cry for action against the Syrian leader.
In order to get party leaders on board, there needed to be certainty that Assad had killed his own citizens with the nerve agent.
However with it being only days after the attack and with the UN investigation still unfolding, intelligence leaders couldn’t say with a 100 per cent certainty that chemical weapons had been used, only that it was ‘very certain’.
Still, Cameron began drawing up military plans between the US and UK, with a potential strike killing 30 people and another target that could leave up to 700 dead.
Hitting top government buildings was ruled out, showing how limited the US wanted to be in responding.
Cameron decided to call President Vladimir Putin to discuss ‘consequences’ for Assad, but was kept waiting on the line for Putin for an irritating 14 minutes. Putin (pictured on August 22, 2013) suggested Cameron to wait until the UN investigation had concluded
Pictured: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma al-Assad in July of 2008
Cameron called on Labour leader Ed Miliband to gauge what his response would be when asked to back No 10’s team in hitting Assad.
Miliband was at first open to the idea but the ‘evidence had to be clear’ if he were to get on board, but he later changed his tune after conferring with his own party.
He returned to Cameron and stipulated that the UN had to have a resolution and that Russia could not veto the UN resolution.
Obama called later on Tuesday night and suggested the US would act alone or seek help from France if Cameron couldn’t pull through.
By Wednesday, a week after the chemical weapons attack, Cameron was struggling to maintain any hope of control.
Few were on board, with Labour clearly saying they would put forth its own motion and would not agree to action, Conservative MPs were unsure and Liberal Democrats didn’t seem ready to act either.
Labour party leader Ed Miliband (pictured August 29, 2013) was at first open to the idea but the ‘evidence had to be clear’ if he were to get on board, but he later changed his tune after conferring with his own party
Eventually, after 10 days of Cameron frantically trying to secure support for striking Assad for killing hundreds of innocents, nothing was done
On Thursday, parliament was set to debate, first voting on a Labour motion and then the government’s. By 10.30pm the government had lost on both motions.
The next day, Obama called Cameron and offered support, suggesting he should ‘hunker down for a while’ and everything would be fine.
He went as far as to say Cameron ‘wasn’t letting [the US] down in any fashion. You have processes you have to abide by.’
On Saturday, Obama made a public statement, slyly shifting the blame of inaction onto Cameron and the UK.
He said the US ‘should take action against Syrian regime targets’ but because America’s ‘closest ally’ had decided against it, he would consult Congress on the matter.
However, Congress was out of session, meaning it was now very unlikely for anything to happen at this late stage.
Eventually, after 10 days of Cameron frantically trying to secure support for striking Assad for killing hundreds of innocents, nothing was done.