The U.K. vote against military strikes in Syria is a tough blow to Prime Minister David Cameron’s domestic political fortunes.
Since taking office in 2010, he has on numerous occasions been undercut not just from opposition parties, but also from rebel elements within both his own Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior member of the U.K.’s governing coalition.
That was the combination that once again hurt Mr. Cameron late Thursday. The government lost a vote – by a tally of 285 to 272 – that would have supported in principle military intervention in Syria, where Western governments have said President Bashar al-Assad’s regime carried out a deadly chemical-weapons attack on civilians last week. Members of all major parties – including Mr. Cameron’s Tories – opposed the measure.
Mr. Cameron said it is clear that the British Parliament, reflecting the view of the British people, doesn’t want to see the U.K. get involved in military action and “the government will act accordingly.”
The outcome marks a significant moment in British politics – it is highly unusual for a prime minister to be defeated on foreign policy and raises questions about what the U.K.’s role will be the world stage going forward.
It is also a rare setback for U.S.-U.K. relations that will spur questions about the so-called “special relationship” between the two nations. In recent decades, the U.K. has rarely if ever parted ways with the U.S. on such a significant strategic issue.
While the government doesn’t require parliamentary approval to take military action, it would now be politically difficult to do so. A further parliamentary vote had been due to take place early next week on whether the U.K. should be directly involved in that action. A spokesman for the prime minister confirmed that the U.K. now won’t take part in the Syrian action.
The outcome of the U.K. vote could make it more difficult for President Barack Obama and other Western allies – already weary from years of difficult military intervention in the Middle East – to convince their own publics of the need for intervention in Syria.
Mr. Cameron’s defense secretary, Philip Hammond, said the U.S. “will be disappointed that Britain won’t be involved.” Mr. Hammond, speaking in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp., said he still expected other countries to continue to look at a response.
The setback also raises questions about Mr. Cameron’s authority. The prime minister, who wasn’t required to hold a parliamentary vote but chose to, had personally laid out his case at length to parliament earlier in the day about why military action was needed and why it would be justified, citing humanitarian grounds and the need to prevent the use of chemical weapons in the future.
U.S. officials said Mr. Obama is prepared to act in coming days without Britain. They added that unlike U.S. involvement in the 2011 military operations in Libya, the options being considered in Syria are on a smaller scale and wouldn’t require a coalition to be effective.
The prime minister had earlier in the week hoped to secure parliamentary support for U.K. to launch military action following Thursday’s debate. But, under pressure from politicians across all the major parties, he was forced to change tack late Wednesday. He said he would give parliament a vote before any direct British involvement in military action, once the U.N. weapons inspectors report their findings. That was designed to avoid a repeat of the country’s swift backing for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“I am of course deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts and in particular the deep concerns in the country about what went wrong with the Iraq conflict in 2003,” Mr. Cameron told politicians Thursday. But he called Syria “fundamentally different” on the grounds that the justification for intervention is based on a broad array of evidence as well as the fact there is more united support within the international community of the need for action.
Still, Mr. Cameron failed to present incontrovertible evidence linking the Assad regime to the attacks in Syria last week. Mr. Cameron didn’t provide details of intelligence to support his conclusions, but highlighted “open source” evidence such as extensive video footage and the fact that the Assad regime was capable of such an attack and the opposition wasn’t.
“Let’s not pretend there is one smoking piece of intelligence” that proves the Syrian government used chemical weapons last week, said Mr. Cameron. “This is a judgment,” the prime minister said, adding he believes there is enough evidence to conclude the regime is responsible and should be held accountable.
His maneuvering failed to secure sufficient support from politicians, who voiced a range of concerns during Thursday’s parliamentary debate. Those included: what evidence is there that military action would prevent the future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, would it escalate violence in Syria, and what implications would it have on the stability of the Middle East.
There has also been skepticism among some politicians and members of the public about the evidence that Mr. Cameron says showed the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
Mr. Cameron pointed to an assessment from the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee that said there is “little serious dispute” that chemical weapons were used and concluded “it is highly likely that the [Assad] regime was responsible” for the attacks that caused hundreds of deaths.
The parliamentary defeat is the latest in a string of embarrassments the prime minister has faced since taking office in 2010, particularly on the issue of Europe where Mr. Cameron on repeatedly struggled to control rebels within his Tory party. The prime minister has also faced significant opposition from within his party on other issues, such as same-sex marriage.
The spokesman for Mr. Cameron played down the challenge Thursday’s vote loss presented for the prime minister, saying that it had been a close vote and that the party continued to support him on key issues such as the economy and education.
Britain’s about turn leaves France as the last European country still considering conducting air attacks on the Assad regime. French officials have said the country’s military had prepared plans for possible action in Syria but repeated on Thursday that no final decision had been made yet.
The French government can engage force overseas without prior Parliamentary approval.