British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government on Thursday sought a crucial vote in the House of Commons seeking support for the principle and not actual military intervention in Syria. The government’s motion, debated in a packed House that was recalled early for the purpose, argued for a “strong humanitarian response” from the international community that “may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons”.
Mr. Cameron had to back down in the face of tough resistance on Wednesday from MPs, especially Labour parliamentarians who forced him to agree to seeking a second vote before before the forces take part in any military offensive.
The government conceded that military action must wait till the U.N. inspectors in Syria complete their task and submit report. However, if the government fails to get the backing of the Security Council, “the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures ….by deterring and disrupting the further use of the chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” says an official position paper on the legality of military action .
With reports of the inspection team likely to submit its report this Saturday, and the requirement of a second endorsement by Parliament for a military strike, the timetable for a weekend military strike that the U.K. and the U.S. had planned for would not materialise.
The overwhelming sentiment was in favour of caution before rushing into military engagement, with speakers cutting across party lines arguing that the government had not fully exhausted diplomatic and political options.
The follies of the 2003 war and the incalculable damage it did to British soldiers and their families were recalled by several speakers.
There was scepticism over the “intelligence sources” which the Prime Minister quoted as his source for believing that the Syrian regime was behind the chemical weapons attack.
While David Cameron told Parliament that he was convinced that the Syrian regime was behind the attack, he also admitted that there was no “100 per cent certainty” on the matter.
Labour leader Ed Miliband, argued hard for the Security Council backing for intervention, and he repeatedly said he was not against intervention if certain conditions were met. The U.N. could not be treated as an “inconvenient side-show” he said. Labour, in its amendment to the motion, called for “compelling evidence” that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons, and for a Security Council vote supporting intervention. “Evidence should precede decision; not decision precede evidence,” Mr. Miliband said.
Lorely Burt, Lib Dem said that she would vote against the motion, as “transparent international law” was not on the side of the government. Katie Hoey, Labour, said that in the 2003 parliamentary debate on Iraq she “agonised” over her decision to vote against Britain's involvement in the war. Today she does not feel agonised in voting against the motion. Military intervention in Syria would be counter-productive for Syrians and “not in Britain's national interest”.