Cameron foiled on Syria vote as Iraq's legacy looms over Britain

In a rare rebuke of a prime minister on foreign policy, Parliament blocked Cameron's motion for intervention in Syria.

UK Parliament via Reuters TV/Reuters
This still image taken from video shows Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron addressing the House of Commons Thursday night, in London, in favor of striking Syria militarily. '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,' Cameron said last night.

In a stunning blow, Prime Minister David Cameron narrowly lost a parliamentary vote Thursday night in favor of striking Syria militarily. It was a rare defeat in Britain, where prime ministers are used to winning parliamentary support for their major foreign policy initiatives.

But it was also an unexpected blow to the US, which has for decades counted on Britain to serve by its military side, from Afghanistan and Iraq to, more recently, Libya.

Mr. Cameron accepted the defeat, by 285 to 272 votes, of a measure that would have paved the way to British military intervention in Syria after claims that the government used chemical weapons to gas citizens near Damascus last week.

"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,¨ Cameron said last night. "It is very clear tonight that while the House has not passed a motion, 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."

British lawmakers revealed deep skepticism about the current evidence over who exactly used chemical weapons that killed upwards of 350 people in last week's attack in Syria, reflecting the fallout from intelligence failures in Iraq a decade ago. At that time, claims of weapons of mass destruction instigated the war, but ultimately were found to be false. The European debate on Syria a decade later shows how the Iraq intervention continues to guide thinking on military affairs and impact US-European military cooperation, especially with Britain and France.

But for all the similarities with Iraq, there are significant differences as well, including the US ambivalence about getting involved, the scale of the attack, and the evidence at hand. The impact of US-British relations, therefore, even if the two powers diverge on Syria, might be limited in the long term.

"Usually the Americans almost automatically count on the British to be on their side for their actions, and the fact that it is not going to be the case this time ... will probably strain a little bit the relationship," says Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office for the French Institute of International Relations.

But, he adds, the US is also not convinced of the merits of a military strike, and the stakes are smaller. "In the long run it will not impact that much the relationship because we are not talking about a large scale war, that the American government is betting its entire administration on," he says. "We are talking about a limited airstrike, for a limited time."

Iraq's long shadow

It is clear that the experience of Iraq in 2003, which was launched with faulty evidence and turned into a years-long quagmire, loomed over the parliamentary debate in Britain. "The Iraq war is still in everyone's minds," says Mr. Pertusot. "The fact that today we are not entirely sure who did what, or who used what, … a lot of people can associate very easily that this resembles what we were facing in 2003. They voted in favor at the time, they learned afterwards that it was a mistake, and they don´t want to make the same mistake again."

But Iraq acts far less as a cautionary tale in the foreign policy debate in France, which was the loudest critic to intervention to Iraq in 2003.

"I think that the ghosts of Iraq are still hovering over Britain more than France because Britain was heavily implicated," says Karim Bitar, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. "France opposed the Iraq war in 2003 which sort of frees it psychologically. It is more free to take a stance and analyze the situation than make analogies with Iraq."

And in many cases, the analogies are only surface-deep. The evidence that chemical weapons were employed in Syria appears more concrete, Mr. Bitar notes, than the more circumstantial case the US made about Iraq in an attempt to convince the international community that weapons of mass destruction existed. And the US has tried to stay out of the Syrian conflict for two years, while in Iraq, American President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were "hellbent on going to war," says Bitar. And this time, Western leaders are proposing a limited, directly targeted strike on Syria.

"The scale of intervention is completely different," he says. "In Iraq it was a full-fledged land invasion."

Reverberations in France

The British parliament's obstruction of military intervention appears to have a limited impact on France's ultimate decision to engage in punitive strikes against Syria. It puts France in the uncomfortable position of standing side-by-side with the Americans. "We have never been at that position, alone with Americans on the same boat without anyone else," says Pertusot.

But he says that is unlikely to sway the French position – even if recently France has said it needs time to reflect and will await a report by United Nations investigators, due in a few days, before it makes a decision to act.

French President François Hollande said in Le Monde today, when asked if France would act if Britain does not: "Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France." The two main parties in France have backed his position, even if fringe groups and the public have voiced opposition to intervention, says Bitar.

Daniel Levy, the director for the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations who has criticized Cameron for acting hastily on Syria, says that he believes that part of the call for intervention at the top echelons of French and British power is the sensitivity towards waning military influence in Europe overall. "Nervous that Europe doesn't have hard power, they [France and Britain] occasionally like to show they are a world power that can be useful to America," he says.

Indeed, in Europe, it is only the UK and France that have aggressively considered military action. They are the only two countries with the ambitions and ability to engage in military conflict. Germany has the power but has long been reluctant to employ it. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said it was not considering military engagement in Syria – instead, it has pressed for a political solution. 

"There has been no request to us for a military commitment, and a German military commitment has never been considered by the government," Ms. Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters.

'End of empire'?

But, at least in Britain, Cameron failed to grasp the national mood.

The Guardian's Polly Toynbee writes in an opinion piece today that "Britain's illusion of empire is over."

"The Syria debate has exposed the fact that, while Cameron wasn't looking, both his country and his party changed," she writes. "But it wasn't Labour, it was Cameron's whole country who had changed while he wasn't looking. Cue last-minute key change in Downing Street's unconditional promise to the US, but he's still out of tune with a country that doesn't want to go to war. As the true meaning of end of empire sinks in, great questions follow."

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