LONDON – No fan of Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States, the new left-wing leader of the country’s main opposition party is against Prime Minister David Cameron’s drive to join Washington’s airstrikes on Syria.
But Jeremy Corbyn’s position is out of step with some in his Labour Party, and Cameron will hope to poach opposition members if he asks parliament to authorize the extension of Britain’s military action against the Islamic State group (IS) to Syria from Iraq.
That could be something that Corbyn, a veteran antiwar campaigner who has argued that Britain should leave NATO and has cast militant groups in the Middle East as friends, has to accept to avoid a damaging and acrimonious split in his party.
Cameron has a slim majority in parliament. With some in his Conservative Party opposed to expanding the airstrikes to hit IS militants in Syria as well as in Iraq, he needs to win over enough Labour members to pass the vote.
Labour’s position has been to say it will wait to see what proposals Cameron puts forward. The prime minister has not indicated when he might seek parliamentary approval, although he is not expected to move before mid-October at the earliest.
“Bombing alone will not reach a peaceful settlement to anything,” Corbyn’s deputy Tom Watson told the BBC on Sunday, adding that the Labour Party would need to know what the mission was and how much it would cost before taking a decision. “I would be very, very skeptical if David Cameron is only saying we should bomb.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said it is illogical for Britain to fight IS in Iraq but not in Syria, given that the militants now control swaths of territory on both sides of an international border that has largely ceased to exist.
Corbyn was a vocal critic of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and has also opposed the U.S. and British military action against IS in that country since last year.
Last weekend he said bombing Syria would only worsen the refugee crisis now engulfing Europe.
“Our role is to campaign for peace and disarmament around the world,” Corbyn wrote in the Observer newspaper on Sunday.
A vice chair of Britain’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and national chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Corbyn has often criticized U.S. policies, saying that Washington has pressured Britain to increase its military spending.
Corbyn has said it was a “tragedy” that the United States killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden instead of putting him on trial, and he has described members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah as “friends.” Britain officially classifies both groups as terrorist organizations.
Last year Corbyn, an admirer of Venezuela’s stridently anti-American late President Hugo Chavez, wrote in an article for Morning Star, a socialist newspaper: “The European Union and NATO have now become the tools of U.S. policy in Europe. The long-term effect of the behaviour of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by the EU and the British government, is to divide the world.”
But his positions, which also include scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent and withdrawing from the NATO military alliance, are not widely shared within his party.
He was challenged on his foreign policy views at his first meeting with Labour lawmakers on Monday and also struggled to find someone willing to be his spokesperson on defense.
The person he eventually appointed, Maria Eagle, has voted both in favor of replacing Trident and of the military action against IS in Iraq.
A senior Labour aide said a decision on whether to back military action in Syria may be made at a wider conference of party members.
Some in Labour have said they believe Corbyn, a serial rebel against his own party in parliamentary votes, may be unable to command the support of his lawmakers if he tries to push them to back his position. Others say he may allow party members to make their own decisions.
“The days of simply looking to the leader and the leader’s office for ‘the line’ are over and with it the fiction of grown-up politicians with their own minds and distinctive views having to pretend to agree with every word the leader might have said,” Labour housing spokesman John Healey wrote in a blog on the Huffington Post explaining why he accepted the position. “In areas where Jeremy’s views to date may not be the same as Labour’s established policy … any change will have to be debated, not dictated.”
Cameron seems to share that view, and hopes to win over some of Corbyn’s members to avoid any repeat of 2013, when some of his own lawmakers joined with Labour to scupper his plans for British airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
That decision strained Britain’s relationship with the United States, its closest military ally since World War II.
Asked whether a vote on military action against Syria had moved further away following Corbyn’s victory on Saturday in Labour’s leadership contest, Cameron said on Monday, “It does not necessarily depend on the views of one person.”