As U.K. Parliament Debates Syria, Prospect of British Military Support Dims

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FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / EPA

Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on August 29, 2013.

Update, 5:50 p.m. ET: British Prime Minister David Cameron lost a vote endorsing military action in Syria 285-272.

When David Cameron summoned MPs back to Westminster today to debate the Syrian crisis, it was not because the British Prime Minister felt more discussion was needed. Since the early days of the Syrian uprising in 2011, British politicians have talked endlessly—among themselves, with other governments and in international fora—about how to stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from attacking his own people. Britain has also issued multiple warnings to Assad about the consequences of failing to do so. “We must not stand silent in the face of these outrages—and we won’t,” Cameron pledged in the House of Commons. That was in June 2011, when the death toll among anti-government protestors had risen into the thousands. The next day, the U.K. and France tabled a United Nations Security Council motion condemning the Syrian repression. Now, more than two years later, the Syrian death toll stands at around 100,000 including the hundreds that perished in a suspected chemical attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 24, and the UN remains split on the way forward.

In a phone call on Saturday, Cameron agreed with President Obama that proof of the regime’s involvement in the chemical attack would merit “a serious response.” The Prime Minister intended today’s emergency debate in the House of Commons to end in a vote that would give parliamentary backing for British involvement in that serious response, possibly in the form of a punitive air strike against the Assad regime as early as this weekend. He had come to the calculation that failure to act—and being seen not only by Syria but other countries to keep crying wolf—carried bigger risks than acting outside the UN framework. Legal advice, published in summary, appears to give the U.K. green light for an intervention on humanitarian grounds. “There’ll be a clear Govt motion & vote on UK response to chemical weapons attacks,” he tweeted on Tuesday.

Instead, the 450-minute parliamentary debate that kicked off with a statement by Cameron at 2.30 this afternoon will conclude with a vote on military action only “in principle,” with a second vote—after a second debate—required ahead of any such action. In place of the strong message Cameron hoped to send to Assad, he simply unleashed a fresh barrage of verbiage towards Damascus, and shot himself in the foot.

The architect of Cameron’s discomfort is his Labour party challenger Ed Miliband. Cameron believed he had Miliband’s support in calling the debate, discovering too late that Labour planned to vote against the government motion. Since some of Cameron’s Conservative colleagues and Liberal Democrat coalition partners also planned to oppose the motion, Cameron risked defeat. That may come tonight anyway, with Labour resolved to vote against the watered down motion too, calling instead for “compelling evidence” of the Assad regime’s involvement in the chemical attack and rejecting an “artificial” timetable for action—in other words, Washington’s preferred timetable, thought to have envisaged an air strike before Obama travels to the G20 summit in St Petersburg next week.

In 2003, a British Prime Minister supported another U.S. President in a military intervention to topple a tyrant with a track record of killing his own people. Memories of the shambles of the Iraq war and the false claims that secured British backing for action are still painful, and nowhere more so than in Labour ranks. Tony Blair’s decision to stand shoulder-to-should with George W. Bush helped to deprive Labour first of Blair himself and then of power. There are strong grounds to question the wisdom of military intervention, not least a lack of clarity on what that intervention could hope to achieve, but the Iraq war also created what Cameron, opening today’s debate, called “a deep public cynicism.” In such an atmosphere talk is cheap—but there is set to be a lot more of it before Britain backs words with action.

20 comments
kinolurtz
kinolurtz

Cameron shouldn't have rushed into a vote, just to support the US plan of action - Ed Miliband is right. Any vote should have been held after the UN report, and after that report, action should, one last time, attempt to be taken through the UN Security Council. Now Cameron has scuppered any chance of UK involvement in Syria unless a similar atrocity occurs. Meaning thousands more will die. Because of careless politics.

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

Obama-Kerry-Hegel are no match for Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld; they were the masters of war creation and superb to cook fake documents which can have not only fooled the world powers but our great General too. Poor Obama team started to bluff, but caught miserably red handed and now waiting for their BAIL to arrive. Still, it is not too late to wash their dirty hands and leave SAUDI PRINCE to go home and think about moving to Swiss before they are also become target of the Saudi masses. Obama has lost his face and reputation but still he has not lost everything, he can take a U-Turn and save his dynasty. 

JohnDahodi
JohnDahodi

The easy solution of Syrian problem is sit with Russians and evolve a strategy how to remove Assad peacefully not now but in few years; making a secular Constitution, calling an election and handing over the power to the elected people keeping Assad as the head like British Queen. America is following this scenario in her other puppet Countries like Jordan, Bahrain, and several others; why not in Syria?Americans were expecting such peaceful, wise, just and fair outcome; rather than providing millions of dollars and billions of Saudi jihadi fund and calling the jihadi goons of the world to fight, kill and destroy the legitimate government and ancient civilization. Shamefully, Obama did not remain Obama following the foot-steps of Bush-Cheney, Oil lobbies, Saudi thugs and Neocons. Still he has time to take U-TURN. Hope, he will.   

KennethGlennKoons
KennethGlennKoons

I think common sense Americans can agree with both England , Israel and even France that trusting Obama and the USA on pushing out one bum so we can then spend billions to support a whole bunch of other thugs ; the Islamofascist-Al Q-Hamas-Muslim Bros.-Hez types either in Egypt or Syria and soon; Jordan is just not worth it. 70% of Americans including many of us who are usually hawks, simply do not support Obama(who is using his to prove his manhood) because there is no national security needs for US entrance. And apparently our Putin on the Potomac doesn't even know that the so called rebels are.......Al Q and worse. Why trust this naif in the WH, when 5 plus years of domestic and foreign failures simply do not give us much trust???

jimlee666
jimlee666

If you must use chemical weapons, then choose Agent Orange.

j2lovesfriday
j2lovesfriday

@catherine_mayer Thanks 4 blog post (left reply), though alas tweets are crossing over as "blog replies" (I fear this tweet will b one too).

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Thanks, Catherine, as always. If Parliament says no, is Cameron legally forbidden from launching strikes or supporting others (okay, the US)? Or like the US, can he do so anyway and risk political fallout? If he launched strikes without approval, would there be enough anger in Parliament that his coalition would end and he'd be tossed out? Granted, here our presidents don't face that risk, thus the advantage of a parliamentarian system is to offer that restraint and keep us out of hastily launched wars. 

zz1
zz1

The only reason the Banksters want to further destabilise Syria is so they can take over the energy reserves and the strategic land between Turkey and Iran. After all the jews were in control of Syria for a few good years during the early middle ages and loosing that vassle state has always been a sore point for Jewish pride. Of course it doesn't matter that the Syrians are also a proud people with their own long history of fighting against oppression. What's best for the banksters is best for everyone eve if you are on tje receiving end of the whip.

mopteron
mopteron

Another "coalition of the willing" for a new "calk walk" in the Middle East!!! They should be proud that the French and the Turks and with them this time in the hunt for natural resources.

Leyaquette
Leyaquette

@TIME @TIMEWorld Sir, d credit goes 2 d political maturity in British parliament unlike 10 years ago Uk's PM Tony Blair's nasty dictatorship

Finance8244
Finance8244

@TIME @TIMEWorld Not the same England as in 1939. Now its a toothless tiger hiding behind the skirts of a monarch. Humbug.

poliphobic
poliphobic

@deconstructiva

I believe he can invoke "the royal prerogative"

The monarch, via proclamations or Orders in Council, may declare war or treaties, without the input of the Commons/Lords. In reality, the declaration of war and the signing of treaties is done by the Prime Minister acting on behalf of the Crown. The 2003 declaration of war against Iraq was done by a Prime Minister and not by the monarch. One is a democratically elected politician accountable to the electorate via an election; the other is in the position by a quirk of birth

The way things are going though, I doubt he would dare - a strange fit of democracy seems to have broken out here after a long absence - long may it live.

You don't need us anyway, we've nothing left in the armoury, Cameron scrapped it all - you're quite capable of inflicting as much death and destruction as you wish.