Just over a year ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron suffered his most humiliating political defeat when Parliament voted against plans to bomb Syria.
The vote halted any British attacks on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – and ultimately influenced the same outcome for the US and other allies. It also set a precedent of requiring parliamentary approval for any large-scale UK military intervention abroad.
Thirteen months on, Mr. Cameron returned to the House of Commons today to seek approval to bomb Syria’s neighbor Iraq, albeit under different circumstances and facing a very different enemy: Islamic State. And this time, he is expected to get a commanding majority – something that could result in putting the Royal Air Force into action over Iraq as early as tonight British time.
So what has happened over the past 13 months to allow resounding support for bombing IS in Iraq as opposed to bombing a dictatorial regime in Syria accused of gassing its own citizens?
Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics, says that the British public is generally more aligned with German opinion, which is hesitant about intervention, than it is with the US and France under French President François Hollande. But, he says, public revulsion at IS’s brutality has played a major role in supporting British action.
“If the gruesome video of beheading a British hostage and ISIL’s [as IS is also known] general uncivilized behavior was meant to be a provocation, it has worked and now it looks like we will be in direct confrontation with ISIL,” Prof. Dunleavy says.
Indeed, Cameron underscored not only IS's brutality but the threat it poses to the UK as he addressed lawmakers.
“Left unchecked, we will face a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean, bordering a NATO member, with a declared and proven determination to attack our country and our people,” Cameron told MPs today. “This is not the stuff of fantasy — it is happening in front of us and we need to face up to it.”
Behind-the-scenes politicking was also key to pushing the UK in the direction of supporting intervention.
“What’s different from last year is that the Iraqi government has asked for our assistance, but not in Syria," Dunleavy says. "Even if Assad’s government asked for help, I don’t think the British government would regard it as a legitimate government anyway."
The vote underscores a significant change in convention on military intervention in the UK. Since last year’s landmark Syria vote, which Cameron lost 285-272, British prime ministers still maintain a type of "royal prerogative" to authorize military action, but it's unlikely a leader could take action without a House of Commons vote, says Paul Cornish, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“The prime minister can authorize it, but it’s unlikely a British prime minister will ever again authorize a major use of force without a vote of MPs," he says. "At some stage a decision like that might be enshrined in law, but an important precedent was set last year which prime ministers are unlikely to break."
He notes that the US and UK alliance is still strong and that many Britons are happy with the decision last year. "This time round, though, the situation is different with a broader based coalition with Qatar, Saudis, Emirates all joining the US,” he says.