LONDON – There is much sympathy in Britain for the plight of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and for all civilians who have suffered so much in the civil war in Syria. There is strong support for humanitarian assistance through governmental and charitable organizations and for further efforts to bring the parties together to negotiate a solution. The use of chemical weapons in the conflict is universally condemned. But U.K. public opinion does not, at least at present, think that British forces should take part in a military action against the Syrian regime even if the United States decides to make limited military strikes against the regime.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been pressing U.S. President Barack Obama to take military action to deter the Syrian regime from further use of chemical weapons, decided to try to get parliamentary agreement to Britain giving military support to the U.S. if the president decided to go ahead with strikes against Syrian government weapons sites. The House of Commons was accordingly recalled from its summer recess and held an emergency debate on Syria on Aug. 29. The government sought support in principle for military intervention.
After a long and heated debate, the government’s motion was rejected by a narrow majority. The opposition Labour Party, which had seemed to be prepared to support some form of military action, decided in the end to vote against the motion when it became clear that the motion did not have universal support from members of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties, which form the present coalition government.
Supporters of the government’s motion have accused the Labour Party of playing politics rather than giving priority to the national interest.
The government badly mishandled the issue. The prime minister, who has been a hawk over action against the Assad regime in Syria, may have hoped that if he could get early parliamentary support for military action this would help to persuade the Americans to act. But he misjudged the mood of the country and of the House of Commons, and played his hand incompetently. In particular he failed to recognize the extent of the shadow cast by the Iraq War and the long-drawn out conflict in Afghanistan, and the doubts felt by the British public generally about involvement in another Middle East conflict.
The government’s first mistake was to put the motion to a vote before United Nations weapons inspectors had completed their work and report. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair had made a similar mistake before the outbreak of the Iraq war and members of Parliament were not prepared to prejudge the report as they had been induced to do in the Iraq case.
The government’s second mistake was to publish an intelligence assessment that was vague on details and flimsy in its conclusions. Parliament recalled the dodgy dossier issued by Blair in the case of Iraq and found the intelligence inadequate.
The third mistake was to present a legal justification, which was considered at best sketchy, for taking action against the Syrian regime without the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council.
A call by Blair in an article in The Times on the eve of the debate calling for British intervention in Syria did not help. Blair’s reputation has fallen significantly in the years since he resigned and he is widely held to be responsible for the British involvement in the mistakes made in Iraq.
The government, unfortunately, had not thought through how limited military strikes would help to bring about a solution to the Syrian civil war, and failed to satisfactorily answer a number of questions.
• If they failed to bring down the regime, what then? Would we be dragged willy-nilly into another protracted conflict involving “boots on the ground”? The British defense budget has been cut significantly and is already fully stretched; had we got the resources to provide adequate backing for intervention?
The Syrian opposition forces are divided and infiltrated by terrorist groups. Might our intervention simply exacerbate tensions to the advantage of extremist sections of the Syrian opposition?
The Islamic divide between Sunnis and Shiites has intensified. Would it be wise to get involved even indirectly in this acrimonious and violent religious schism?
The government’s response to these questions did not persuade waverers to support the case for military intervention.
Following the vote, Cameron immediately declared that the country had spoken and that Britain would not take part in military action in Syria even if the American went ahead. Many inside and outside Parliament think that this announcement was premature and unnecessary at this stage. In politics it is never wise to say never.
Cameron has been accused of making U-turns in the past and he will be very reluctant to make a U-turn on this issue, especially as his prestige has taken a serious knock as a result of his mishandling of the case for military action in Syria.
The mishandled parliamentary vote, which has ironically been praised by Russian and Syrian official media, has undermined Britain’s prestige in the world and the British claim to a special relationship with the U.S.
In contrast, French President Hollande’s declaration that France would support American military action in Syria led U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to praise France as America’s oldest ally. During the Iraq intervention, which France, opposed the French had been condemned by the Americans for their apparent pusillanimity. The Americans understandably feel let down by the defection of an ally who had been pressing them to act decisively.
Britain has become accustomed to punching above its weight in the world. This will not be easy in the future. The Conservative Party wants British defenses to be strengthened but does not know where the resources can be found. It is Euroskeptic but has managed to upset our closest ally. It needs to rethink what it wants.
The world faces a more serious issue. Is Syrian President Bashar Assad to be allowed to get away with using chemical weapons against his own people with impunity? What sort of lesson will other rogue powers learn from all this? In the Far East, the North Korean regime does not need encouragement to indulge in peace-threatening actions.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.