Prime Minister David Cameron risks defeat in a vote in Parliament on Syria today, with the Labour opposition refusing to back him, saying Britain shouldn’t rush into military action.
Lawmakers are debating a call by Cameron to endorse the principle of a military response to what he says is clear evidence of a chemical-weapons attack near Damascus last week by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They’ll vote at about 10 p.m. in London. The government published an assessment by Attorney General Dominic Grieve today that limited military intervention would be “legally justifiable.”
While Cameron has promised lawmakers a second vote before Britain joins any military action, Labour leader Ed Miliband called for “compelling evidence” that Assad is to blame and said the premier needs to make a better case. It means Cameron may struggle to win tonight if Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of Parliament wary of another military involvement in the Middle East side with Labour in the vote at about 10 p.m.
“They may just scrape through it,” said Philip Cowley, a professor at Nottingham University who studies parliamentary rebellions. “There will be lots of objection by voice but possibly not by vote. If it emerges that Labour has just done it to embarrass the government that will rally Tory MPs to back Cameron.”
Cameron began the debate by telling lawmakers that the discussion was about how to “respond to the most abhorrent use of chemical weapons in a century,” in which Syrian opposition groups say 1,300 people were killed.
“It’s not about taking sides, it’s not about invading, it’s not about regime change,” the prime minister said. “It’s about chemical weapons. Our response to a war crime, nothing else.” It’s “in Britain’s national interest to maintain an international taboo about the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield,” he argued.
Miliband, whose party has put forward its own amendment to the government motion, said there should be “a clear and legitimate roadmap” before any military intervention, taking into account the consequences on the wider region.
“I do not rule out supporting the prime minister but I believe he has to make a better case,” Miliband said, saying more evidence of the Assad regime’s responsibility is needed. “Evidence should precede decision, not decision precede evidence.”
Cameron has already given in to Labour demands by saying he will now wait for a report by United Nations weapons inspectors before seeking the approval of lawmakers for direct British involvement in Syria in a second vote.
The government’s legal advice, published on its website, said that even if action against Syria is blocked in the UN Security Council, “the U.K. would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.”
It said the conditions for such action were met, including evidence of “extreme humanitarian distress,” the absence of a “practicable alternative to the use of force,” and the necessity for such action to be “strictly limited in time and scope to this aim.”
Cameron’s office also published a letter from the government’s Joint Intelligence Committee that said it’s “highly likely” Assad’s regime was to blame for the chemical attacks, saying “there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.” The panel said it assessed previously that the Syrian government used lethal chemical weapons on 14 occasions since 2012.
Cameron addressed Tory lawmakers in an hour-long meeting today aimed at persuading them to back the government’s motion. Supported by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the prime minister talked through the legal advice and the evidence that the Assad government was behind the attacks.
Lawmakers banged the tables in a traditional show of support after Cameron spoke. The reaction was strongest after the prime minister rounded on Miliband for “playing politics” over Syria, according to a Conservative spokesman, who declined to be identified in line with usual party practice.
“The prime minister was very clear that this is about war crimes and the use of chemical weapons,” former Defence Secretary Liam Fox said after the meeting. “We should be focusing on the big issues and not playing politics.”
“It may be that the consequences of action are worse than the consequences of no action,” Conservative lawmaker Peter Luff, a former defence procurement minister, told BBC Radio 4. “My worry is: is there action we can take that can genuinely improve the lives and prospects of the Syrian people without further destabilizing the region? I am not convinced. We could easily get into a situation that escalates. I will be supporting the government motion. But the government needs to work harder to persuade us that there is action that won’t make matter worse.”
Earlier today, an aide to Cameron, who declined to be named in line with the usual custom of anonymity, said the vote due at 10 p.m. would be close.
For many, the shadow of Tony Blair’s 2003 decision to join the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein hangs over the debate. That cost Blair popularity, eventually leading to his resignation as premier and Labour Party leader in 2007.
“I’m determined to learn the lessons of the past, including Iraq, and we can’t have the House of Commons being asked to write a blank check to the prime minister for military action,” Miliband told Sky News television.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence said today that six Royal Air Force Typhoon interceptor fast jets are deploying to the British base at Akrotiri in Cyprus.
“This is a precautionary measure, specifically aimed at protecting U.K. interests and the defense of our sovereign base areas at a time of heightened tension in the wider region,” the ministry said in a statement on its website. “This is a movement of defensive assets operating in an air-to-air role only. They are not deploying to take part in any military action against Syria.”