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18th Jan 2020

British MPs halt prospect of joint US strike on Syria

  • Cameron speaks to the National Security Council ahead of the MPs' vote (Photo: The Prime Minister's Office)

The British parliament has blocked UK military action against Syria, leaving the US to seek other allies for its intervention.

A government motion authorising the use of force in reaction to an alleged chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus last week was on Thursday (29 August) defeated by 285 votes to 272.

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British conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said after the result: "It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action … I get that, and the government will act accordingly."

The vote followed an eight-hour-long debate in Westminster.

It also followed the publication of a British intelligence assessment and a British legal analysis which made the case for intervention.

The intelligence assessment said "it is highly likely that the regime was responsible" but noted that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's "motive" for it is unclear at this time.

The legal analysis said the "doctrine of humanitarian intervention" in international law permits "military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such [chemical] attacks" even if the UN cannot agree.

In his speech Cameron noted that the Iraq invasion in 2003, which was based on fake intelligence and which ended in strategic failure, "truly poisoned" the "well of public opinion."

But he said: "This situation is not like Iraq … The evidence that the Syrian regime has used these weapons, in the early hours of 21 August, is right in front of our eyes."

He added: "The differences with 2003 and the situation with Iraq go wider. Then, Europe was divided over what should be done; now, Europe is united in the view that we should not let this chemical weapons use stand. Then, Nato was divided; today, Nato has made a very clear statement that those who are responsible should be held accountable. Back in 2003, the Arab League was opposed to action; now, it is calling for it."

He also said al-Assad is "testing the boundaries" and that more chemical attacks are likely if the West does nothing.

The leader of the centre-left opposition, Edward Milliband, said it would be premature to authorise force before UN weapons inspectors in Syria had filed their report.

He did not rule out his party's support for intervention later down the line.

But he accused the government of treating the UN like "some inconvenient sideshow."

He also indicated that Cameron's government is bowing to US requests instead of having a "clear eyed" view of British and Syrian people's interests. "I do not believe that we should be rushed to judgement on this question on a political timetable set elsewhere," he said.

For his part, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt voiced admiration for British MPs. "Impressive to see how UK Parliament in Syria debate seriously deals with a very serious issue," he tweeted amid the debate.

But the final vote came as a blow to UK-US relations, with the two countries acting in concert on international affairs for at least the past three decades.

A White House statement signaled that the US is ready to launch strikes against al-Assad's chemical depots alone if need be.

"Countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable," it said.

Meanwhile, US defence chief Chuck Hagel told press while on a trip to the Philippines that Washington will now look elsewhere for support.

"It is the goal of President (Barack) Obama and our government ... whatever decision is taken, that it be an international collaboration and effort," he said, according to Reuters.

"Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together. And I think you're seeing a number of countries state, publicly state, their position on the use of chemical weapons," he added.

For their part, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius and defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian continued to make hawkish statements on Thursday.

"The Armed Forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point," Le Drian said, AFP reports.

But French President Francois Hollande struck a more cautious note after meeting a Syrian opposition leader, Ahmad al-Jarba, in Paris.

"Everything must be done to reach a political solution, but that will not happen unless the [opposition] coalition is capable of appearing as an alternative, with necessary force, notably its army. We will only achieve this if the international community is capable of bringing a stop to this escalation of violence, of which the chemical massacre is just one illustration," he said.

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