U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron failed to gain parliamentary approval for a military response to what he says is clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The House of Commons rejected a motion put forward by Cameron seeking endorsement in principle for military strikes by 285 votes to 272 after more than seven hours of debate in London tonight. Rebel members of Cameron’s Conservative Party joined the Labour opposition in rejecting the plan.
“The British Parliament doesn’t wish to see British military action,” Cameron told lawmakers after the vote. “I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
Tonight’s vote banishes the prospect of U.K. involvement in any imminent U.S.-led attack on Syria. The Obama administration is also struggling to marshal conclusive evidence backing its assertion that Assad was directly responsible for the alleged chemical attacks near Damascus last week, according to three U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the situation. Syrian opposition groups say 1,300 people died in the assault.
Cameron had attempted to ward off the prospect of defeat by pledging that Parliament would have a second vote before the government ordered any military strikes against Syrian targets, and that there’d be no action before United Nations inspectors have reported back on the chemical attacks.
The government published an assessment by Attorney General Dominic Grieve today that limited military intervention in Syria would be “legally justifiable,” even without the backing of the UN Security Council. Lawmakers opposing Cameron expressed wariness about renewed military involvement in the Middle East, 10 years after Britain went to war in Iraq.
“I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons,” Cameron said after the vote. “I also believe in respecting the will of the House of Commons.”
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.”
“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.
Labour leader Ed Miliband responded by saying there should be “a clear and legitimate roadmap” before any military intervention, taking into account the consequences on the wider region. Lawmakers voted against a Labour amendment to that effect before rejecting the government’s own motion.
“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.”
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, and that “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.
For many, the shadow of Tony Blair’s 2003 decision to join the invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein hung over the debate. That cost Blair popularity, eventually leading to his resignation as premier and Labour Party leader in 2007.
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.”