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The UK Prime Minister Thinks It's Britain's Moral Duty to Start Bombing Syria

It's Islamic State crunch time, the time for action is now, David Cameron has told MPs. But persuading British lawmakers that bombing the Middle East is the right way to go will be a tough sell.

by Miriam Wells
Nov 26 2015, 4:55pm

Photo by Press Association/EPA

The time is now, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told British MPs on Thursday — the country could not stand by and do nothing while its allies carried out air strikes in Syria against terrorists who threatened the entire world.

In a much anticipated speech, Cameron laid out his case for Britain joining international air strikes targeting Islamic State (IS) militants — telling parliament it was Britain's moral duty. 

"It is wrong for the United Kingdom to subcontract its security to other countries," said the prime minister, arguing the longer IS was allowed to grow in Syria the greater a threat it would pose. "If not now, when?"

Unlike in the United States, Cameron does not have the luxury of using presidential powers to go ahead with military action without the approval of his lawmakers — he has to get them to vote in favor, and it will be a tough sell.

The issue of Britain signing up to international air strikes in the Middle East is a very big deal in the UK, stirring up strong emotions and intense debate across the population.

The legacy of Iraq looms large — more than a million people marched against the proposed 2003 invasion in Britain's biggest ever public demonstrations, the government (then Labour Party) suffered one of its biggest ever backbench rebellions in the parliamentary vote to decide whether or not to go to war, and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair went ahead anyway.

Saddam Hussein may have been taken down as Iraq president but the country then spiralled into horrifying sectarian chaos, killing millions of civilians and thoroughly destabilizing the Middle East. To top it off, it was later revealed that key facts used to persuade MPs of the legality and necessity to act ("Saddam has weapons of mass destruction ready to launch in 45 minutes") were basically made up.

Related: We Might Finally Get Some Truth About the UK's Role in Iraq — But Not Until Next Year

People in Britain have never forgotten this. And since then, they've witnessed the ongoing failure of UK military intervention in Afghanistan, more chaos ensue from a supposedly successful war in Libya, and Iraq go from bad to worse — and worse and worse — in the meantime.

It was in this context that Cameron suffered an embarrassing defeat in parliament the last time he tried to make the case for British military action in Syria, in 2013. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya and Syria, his Conservative Party has always been in favor of Britain going to war.

But when he told MPs in August 2013 that this time it was "not like Iraq" and the UK must respond militarily to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's "war crime" — a suspected chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of capital Damascus reported to have killed hundreds of people — many said no thanks, voting 285-272 against military action.

The result was a serious blow to the British prime minister and this time he will not call a vote until he is sure he can win.

And this time, of course, the enemy he is telling them Britain must use its weapons against is very different — no longer Assad but the Islamic State, which since its birth in 2013 has morphed from a small al Qaeda breakaway faction to the world's most feared terrorist organization.

The group has massacred thousands of people in the Middle East and now it has committed mass murder on Western soil. Events in Paris have had a major impact on UK public opinion about military action and Cameron believes it is now the right time to strike.

Related: Why the Islamic State Attacked Paris — And What Happens Next

The horror of the French attacks, so close to British shores, has sparked a natural human desire to retaliate as well as stoked a sense of duty — there's a feeling that Britain can't leave other countries, "friends" such as the United States and France, on their own in the skies above Syria.

British MPs did vote last year to join international coalition air strikes against IS targets in Iraq — but in that instance, the UK was asked to do so by the Iraqi government, providing a legal basis that is not nearly as clear-cut in the case of Syria.

However Cameron believes a recent UN resolution calling for action against IS has provided more than adequate legal grounds for bombing, and moreover given that military action against IS in Syria is now critical for Britain's self-defense (in his view), there is an moral imperative to join in international military efforts.

"We shouldn't be content with out-sourcing our security to our allies," Cameron told MPs on Thursday. "If we believe that action can help protect us, then with our allies we should be part of that action, not standing aside from it. And from this moral point comes a fundamental question: If we won't act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking 'If not now, when?'"

But, as the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn and many other critics have pointed out, the issue is not whether Britain wants to defeat IS terrorists and prevent its own Paris-style attacks — opinion is pretty united on that one — the issue is will air strikes actually do that?

They have an abysmal record in the Middle East so far and if anything just make the UK an even bigger target for terrorist attacks, the critics argue.

"In the light of the record of Western military intervention in recent years, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, does the prime minister accept that the UK bombing of Syria could risk more of what President Obama called 'unintended consequences' and that a lasting defeat of ISIL can only be secured by Syrians and their forces within the region?" Corbyn asked Cameron following his parliamentary statement.

Related: Syria Is Obama's Rwanda

Corbyn's views are very well-known — the veteran leftwing politician was a founder of Britain's Stop the War coalition, the country's biggest pressure group on the issue which has organized some of the country's biggest demonstrations.

In 2013 Labour MPs voted unanimously against military intervention in Syria. But this time around many are undecided, and Corbyn is under pressure to allow them a "free vote": one in which MPs are not asked to vote a certain way by their party's whips, but instead can vote according to their consciences.

The debate in coming days will be crucial. It's thought at least 50 of Labour's 231 MPs are planning to back military action — but the Scottish National Party, which holds 54 out of 650 total seats in the House of Commons (the lower house), is very likely to vote against it.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, an all-party group of British MPs tasked with examining the work of the Foreign Office and making policy recommendations, spent months gathering evidence and listening to expert witnesses to come to an opinion on the proposal for Britain to join in Syrian air strikes.

It was certainly not convinced, listing a whole array of reasons ranging from political to legal, military and diplomatic why Britain should not take military action.

The committee understood that something had to be done in Syria and IS needed to be defeated, it said in its final report. But it believed the focus on air strikes was a "distraction from the much bigger and more important task of finding a resolution to the conflict in Syria," which was the real factor driving the rise of IS, and it was not persuaded by the government's attempts to treat IS and the broader Syrian civil war as separate issues.

Related: My Journey Inside the Islamic State

While witnesses had acknowledged that the UK joining air strikes would be welcomed by coalition allies, "they did not consider that it would have anything other than a marginal effect," said the committee's report, especially without allied troops on the ground who would "not be easy to find."

It was also impossible to know what would happen next even if the air strikes were successful — and anything could happen, just look at Iraq. "Our witnesses described a chaotic and complicated political and military scene," said the MPs. "After over four years of civil war, there are thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organizations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances. The complex nature of the situation makes it hard to guess the consequences of tackling just ISIL, or to predict what group would take their territory if they were defeated."

The committee concluded that until the government could satisfactorily answer seven questions — including whether air strikes would be legal, who would hold the ground captured from IS, how Britain joining in would improve the chances of the coalition, and how air strikes would contribute to a Syrian transition plan — it could not support Syrian military intervention.

Cameron set out to answer those questions on Thursday, in a lengthy document published just before his speech in parliament.

There was a "clear legal basis" provided by UN Security Council Resolution 2249 calling on member states to take "all necessary measures" to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by IS, he said; the coalition would work with moderate Sunni Arab and Syrian Kurd groups to "take back, hold, and administer" territory taken back from US, and the UK had advanced military capabilities it could contribute, such as Brimstone missiles able to "strike accurately with low collateral damage."

In his speech, Cameron acknowledged "terrible mistakes" had been made in the aftermath of the Iraq war but said this time the government had a proper strategy for post-conflict reconstruction on which it was prepared to spend 1 billion pounds ($1.5 billion).

Related: In Photos: Now Free From the Islamic State, It Has Been a Desperate Year for Sinjar

Summing up his case, the prime minister said the world could not wait for a political transition in Syria. "We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now," he said. "And we must not shirk our responsibility for security or hand it to others. Throughout our history the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can and we must do so again."

Whether he can convince a majority of MPs — and the British public — remains to be seen, but it's looking far more likely than it was a few months ago.

Lindsey German, a founder of the Stop the War coalition, told VICE News the result of a parliamentary vote was still completely unpredictable. Some Labour MPs may even vote in favor of military action just to help discredit Corbyn, whose election as party leader was highly controversial and who remains a divisive figure, German said, which would be "utterly unprincipled and utterly wrong."

It was devastatingly frustrating to see the case for bombing the Middle East being made yet again after more than a decade of Stop the War campaigning against multiple disastrous British military campaigns, she said.

"Many, many people back in 2001 said the 'War on Terror' will not end terror and decrease instability but in fact do the exact opposite," she said. "The government and military ignored it, and now they talk as if none of these terrible things that have happened were predicted."

Millions and millions of deaths could have been avoided, said German — and air strikes in Syria now would kill yet more civilians and feed into yet more radicalization and violence. "People in the Middle East have been done such a disservice from western military intervention, and they are still not escaping this nightmare."

Related: Syria After Four Years: Timeline of a Conflict