Britain’s Syria Vote in Perspective

While President Obama tries to persuade Congress to support his plan for punitive airstrikes against Syria, Britons are still debating the meaning of Parliament’s 285-to-272 vote last week not to authorize Prime Minister David Cameron to commit British military forces to join in those strikes. With military action excluded, at least for now, Mr. Cameron has promised a new diplomatic push to end the Syrian fighting that has killed at least 100,000 people and created millions of desperate refugees.

That surprising parliamentary vote was not a permanent departure from Britain’s longstanding military partnership with the United States, but it was a special case based on unusual circumstances. Britain did, after all, join the United States and France in the much larger air campaign over Libya in 2011. And it will almost surely engage in other joint actions in the future, when the two countries’ broad national interests, and temporary political cycles, more closely coincide, as they usually do.

With common democratic values and shared economic priorities, Britain has been America’s most reliable European ally, and it remains so today. Parliament’s vote on Syria will not change that. Mr. Cameron still has plenty of tools available to advance those common goals, including Britain’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and its membership in the European Union.

There is no question that Mr. Cameron helped assure his parliamentary defeat by mistiming and carelessly preparing the vote. The no votes from his own Conservative Party shows that. But it is also important to remember that the Conservatives do not hold a majority of seats in this Parliament and that Mr. Cameron holds power only virtue of a coalition with the normally dovish Liberal Democrats. Nine Liberal Democrats also voted no on airstrikes against Syria.

The largest bloc of no votes, 224, came from the opposition Labour Party, not much inclined to support Mr. Cameron on any issue, but particularly eager to extricate itself from what it now considers its supine willingness to follow Tony Blair into the costly quagmire of Iraq in 2003 based on inaccurate claims about Baghdad’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. For the Labour Party, and for members of other parties voting no, erasing the embarrassing political stain of 2003 seemed more pressing than any British strategic interests now at stake in Syria.

Party considerations aside, Parliament’s vote reflected British public opinion, which, as in most of Europe, does not favor any military involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Syria, of course, is not Iraq. The issue is not the alleged existence of terrible weapons but their actual use against helpless civilians. And Mr. Cameron’s proposed military response was far less open-ended than Mr. Blair’s 10 years ago. But the tentative evidence he offered that the orders for gassing those civilians came from the top echelons of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad was not convincing enough to persuade a skeptical Parliament.

That still left the argument that Britain should stand with its American ally. By usually acting in tandem with Washington, Britain has been able to wield a greater influence in global politics than it would on its own. But Britain’s solidarity with American foreign policy has never been automatic, nor should it be.

Cases where one nation acted with military force without the other include Vietnam, Grenada and the Falklands. Syria may prove to be another such case. Or it may not. That will depend on whether Congress authorizes Mr. Obama to use military force and what other measures Washington chooses to take in response to evidence proving that the Assad regime used poison gas. The international community’s attempt to deter further chemical weapons atrocities in Syria is far from over. Britain may yet choose to play an important part in that effort.

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