Syria Crisis: Cameron rules out military action after Commons defeat
Dozens of Conservative MPs refused to support the Prime Minister and sided with Labour in opposing a Government motion which supported the principle of military intervention. The motion backing the use of force “if necessary” was rejected by 285 votes to 272, a majority of 13 votes.
It is the first time that a British Government has been blocked from executing a military deployment and highlights the deep mistrust of official intelligence in the wake of the Iraq war.
Within minutes of the embarrassing defeat, the Prime Minister said that he understood that there was not support for British action against Syria and indicated he would abandon any such plans. The decision came just hours after Britain had sent fighter jets to the region.
Mr Cameron had hoped to join America in launching cruise missile strikes against the Syrian regime as soon as this weekend after Assad was accused of deploying chemical weapons in a suburb of Damascus last week.
The Prime Minister had played a leading role in persuading President Obama of the need for action against Syria – with Britain tabling a draft United Nations resolution – and the Parliamentary vote may also undermine Mr Cameron’s international reputation.
“I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons,” Mr Cameron said tonight.
“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.”
Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, said that the Parliamentary vote would be welcomed by the Syrian regime.
“I am disappointed,” he said. “We do believe that the use of chemical weapons in this way needs a clear and strong response.”
“There is a deep well of suspicion about military involvement in the middle east stemming largely from the experiences of Iraq.”
“I don’t think it is anything to do with the Prime Minister, I think it is to do with the legacy of experience.”
It is the first time since the 1956 Suez crisis that an opposition has failed to support Government plans for a deployment of the armed forces.
The Coalition’s motion – which had already been watered down earlier in the week to allow for another Parliamentary vote before Britain took part in direct military action – was defeated by a majority of 13 votes.
In a night of febrile scenes in the Commons, senior Cabinet ministers openly accused those opposing the motion of giving “succour” to the Assad regime. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, allegedly shouted at Conservative rebels who he described as a “disgrace”.
Labour demanded an official inquiry into the activities of the Prime Minister’s main spin doctor.
The Parliamentary vote may trigger a leadership crisis for Mr Cameron as Conservative MPs openly criticised the Prime Minister’s decision to recall Parliament and force a vote. He was accused of a massive miscalculation with Sir Gerald Howarth, a former defence minister, describing the Prime Minister’s actions as “rushed” and “cavalier”.
There were shouts of “resign” from the Labour benches as the results of the Parliamentary vote were read out by John Bercow, the Commons Speaker.
Mr Cameron has spent much of the week personally stressing the need for military action against the Assad regime. In his speech to Parliament today, the Prime Minister had insisted that Britain has a duty to “do the right thing” and intervene in the “humanitarian catastrophe” unfolding in Syria.
However, he also admitted that the intelligence assessment did not provide “100 percent” certainty of the evidence against the regime.
The Prime Minister told an emergency sitting of Parliament that the country should not be “paralysed” over its response to international crises in the wake of mistakes made in the run-up to the Iraq war.
He had implored MPs to “force themselves” to watch harrowing videos of small children suffering following a chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week which killed hundreds of ordinary Syrians.
However, in a major blow to his authority, senior Conservative MPs spent the day standing up during the eight-hour Parliamentary debate to criticise the Government’s plans to intervene in the Syrian crisis. Among those blocking the plans were David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary, and former ministers.
Nick de Bois, Secretary of the Tory 1922 Committee, voted against the Government. He said it was an “extremely difficult decision”.
Ed Miliband refused to support the Government’s Parliamentary motion saying that he was, as yet, not fully convinced of the case against the Assad regime. The decision sparked an angry backlash from Downing Street who accused the Labour leader of “giving succour” to the Syrian dictator. This was strongly denied by senior Labour sources who said that the behaviour of Mr Cameron’s aides was “frankly insulting”.
Other developments today in the Syrian crisis saw:
• The publication of a British intelligence briefing which concluded that it was “highly likely” that the Assad regime was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack which killed more than 300 civilians.
• The release of the Attorney General’s legal advice which ruled that British could legally participate in military strikes against Syria to protect innocent civilians from further atrocities.
• The White House privately briefing senior figures in the US Senate and Congress on secret intelligence on the Assad regime which could pave the way for American action against Syria this weekend.
• President Assad pledge that Syria would “defend itself in the face of any aggression”.
The experience of the Iraq war was repeatedly raised by MPs during the debate – with several former Labour Cabinet ministers speaking and describing the “scars” of the mistakes made by the Blair administration.
“I am very clear about the fact that we have to learn the lessons of Iraq,” the Labour leader said. “Of course we have got to learn those lessons and one of the most important lessons was indeed about respect for the United Nations.”
He added: “I do not rule out supporting the Prime Minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today.”
During the course of the debate, a succession of senior Conservative and Labour MPs also made speeches expressing doubt over the wisdom of British action against Syria.
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary said that the intelligence “might just be wrong”.
Mr Davis said that chemical weapons were used either by Assad’s regime, by a rogue regime military unit, or by rebels “with the direct aim of dragging the West into the war”.
Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, said “We all know – I have the scars about this – how easy it is to get into military action and how difficult it is to get out of it.”.
In a parallel debate in the House of Lords, Lord Hurd, the former foreign secretary, said: “I cannot for the life of me see how dropping some bombs or firing some missiles in the general direction of Syria, with targets probably some way removed from the actual weapons we’ve been criticising, I can’t see how that action is going to lessen the suffering of Syrian people.
“I think it’s likely to increase and expand the civil war in Syria, not likely to bring it to an end.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of his fears that Christians in Syria would be targeted in the wake of any strike.
However, other senior Parliamentarians offered backing for the Prime Minister. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the head of the Intelligence and Security committee, said: “At this very moment, the Assad regime in Damascus are watching very carefully as to whether they will get away with what they have done.”
“If they get away with what they have done, if there is no significant international response of any kind, then we can be absolutely certain that the forces within Damascus will be successful in saying we must continue to use these whenever there is a military rationale for doing so.
“There is no guarantee that a military strike against military targets will work, but there is every certainty that if we don’t make that effort to punish and deter, then these actions will indeed continue.”
Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said: “We are, I think, living under the shadow, sadly, of Iraq. But this is not Iraq. We are not putting boots on the ground, we are not invading, we are not seeking to govern somebody else’s country and, above all, this is not George W Bush, this is Barack Obama.
“And you only need to look at this American president and what he has done to see how nervous, how hesitant, how cautious he is about action.”
Tonight, American reports suggested that President Obama was now drawing up plans to intervene in Syria without international assistance.
This article was originally published at The Telegraph