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Middle east

Cameron meets resistance on Syria in UK parliament

© AFP

Video by Kate Moody

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-08-29

The UK parliament debated possible military action against Syria on Thursday, after the government stated that according to legal advice it could launch strikes against the Syrian regime without the backing of the United Nations.

Britain’s parliament debated taking action in Syria on Thursday, with Prime Minister David Cameron urging lawmakers to "make a judgment." The UK government also stated that according to legal advice it could launch strikes against the Syrian regime without the backing of the United Nations.

Cameron’s plans for an imminent military strike on Syria were thrown into disarray after lawmakers warned him to heed the “lessons of Iraq”. After imploring the world not to stand idly by over Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons, the prime minister was forced into an awkward climbdown on Wednesday when the opposition Labour party and lawmakers in his own party said they wanted more evidence before voting for military action.

US to brief congress on Syria intelligence


Top US security officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, were scheduled to brief Congress late Thursday on classified intelligence over allegations that Syrian forces killed hundreds of civilians with chemicals last week.

The United States earlier implicitly reserved the right to strike Syria without waiting for allies to join an operation or for global approval. The White House said President Barack Obama’s first duty was to US national security, which he believes is under threat.


 

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

On Thursday, Cameron’s government published legal advice it had been given which it said showed it was legally entitled to take military action against Syria even if the United Nations Security Council blocked such action.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed Thursday to defend his country from attack. In anticipation of the UK parliamentary debate, the Syrian government also wrote a letter to the UK parliament on Thursday urging that MPs consider Iraq’s legacy before supporting military action.

Intelligence data published

The UK also published intelligence material on last week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, saying there was no doubt that such an attack had taken place and that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government had been behind the apparent poison gas attack that had killed hundreds.

Dogging Cameron’s steps is the memory of events a decade ago, when Britain helped the United States invade Iraq after asserting - wrongly, as it later turned out - that President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Britain, already embroiled in Afghanistan, was sucked into a second quagmire and lost 179 troops in eight years of war after Iraq descended into savage sectarian conflict.

“We have got to learn the lessons of Iraq because people remember the mistakes that were made in Iraq and I am not willing to make those mistakes again,” said Labour’s current leader Ed Miliband.

It remains unclear how the current UK delay could affect US and French plans for a swift cruise missile strike against Syria, which denies using chemical weapons against its citizens.

UK public opposition

The potent legacy of Iraq is reflected not only in party politics, but in UK public opinion surveys. A YouGov poll published on Thursday showed opposition to action hardening, with 51 percent of the British public opposing a missile strike on Syria, and just 22 percent in favour of it. Opponents say Britain has neither the money nor the evidence to justify further military action in the Middle East.

“We do not have a great track record of intervention, there is no appetite for it in the country or really in the House of Commons,” said Andrew Bridgen, a lawmaker from Cameron’s Conservative party who opposes immediate military action.

Cameron has agreed that the United Nations Security Council should see findings from chemical weapons inspectors before it responded militarily and that parliament should hold two votes on military action.

Waking a tightrope

That means that the vote following Thursday’s debate will only be on a government motion cautioning President Bashar al-Assad and authorising military action in principle only.

Cameron, who has the powers of a commander-in-chief, does not technically need parliament’s support to order military action. But after tabling a debate and facing such a revolt, it would be hard for him to go against lawmakers’ wishes.

Britain is to send six RAF Typhoon air-to-air interceptor jets to its Akrotiri base in Cyprus on Thursday, the Ministry of Defence said. Cyprus is just 100 km (62 miles) from the Syrian coast. Britain also has warships in the Mediterranean.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has sought more time for inspectors to complete their work, a step that could delay any strike as allies would be unlikely to attack with UN weapons inspectors on the ground.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Thursday on the need for the UN Security Council to study a report by UN experts on the alleged chemical attack outside Damascus, the Kremlin said.

France and the United States remain firmly behind military strikes against the Assad regime.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

Date created : 2013-08-29

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