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

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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.