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‘Terrorist Sympathizers’: Britain Split Down the Middle as Politicians Prepare to Vote on Bombing Syria

It's a debate that has raged across the UK for weeks. Now British MPs will make the final call on whether to start bombing Syria, in a vote tonight after ten hours of deliberation in parliament.

by Sally Hayden
Dec 2 2015, 11:05am

Demonstrators protest outside Downing Street on November 28, 2015. Photo by Andy Rain/EPA

British politicians were preparing for an epic ten hour debate on Wednesday to decide whether or not to join international coalition air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, with opinion divided across the country, and things getting nasty inside parliament.

On Tuesday night Prime Minister David Cameron described opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and others who oppose bombing Syria as "terrorist sympathizers."

The government leader reportedly told the Conservative Party's private members committee: "You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathizers," while asking them to approve the motion.

In response, a spokesperson for Corbyn called the comments "a contemptible and desperate slur which demeans [Cameron's] office."

Other politicians also added their voices to the fray, with the Scottish National Party's Pete Wishart calling this a "new low" for Cameron.

Writing in the Guardian on Wednesday, Corbyn said Cameron's case for the air strikes "has been coming apart at the seams" and that his approach continued to be "bomb first, talk later."

Corbyn granted his party a free vote earlier this week, after he failed to convince his shadow cabinet to support Labour voting in opposition to air strikes.

As the debate began on Wednesday morning, Cameron said: "I made it very clear that this is about how we fight terrorism… We possess the capabilities to reduce this threat to our security and my argument today is that we should not wait any longer before doing so."

He added: "The action we propose is legal, it is necessary, and it is what we need to do to keep this country safe."

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

Wednesday's motion is expected to pass in parliament, though public opinion in Britain seems to be shifting towards opposing it. A YouGov survey conducted for the Times of London found that support had dropped from 59 percent to 48 percent since last week — the equivalent of 5 million people turning against the bombing.

Over less than two weeks, more than 155,000 people signed a petition calling for the UK government to vote no on military action in Syria.

On Tuesday night, thousands of people gathered at Parliament Square in central London to stage a last minute "emergency" protest against the strikes. The assembled crowd — estimated at between 4,000 and 5,000 by organizers — listened to speeches before marching to the Conservative Party and Labour Party headquarters.

Thamanna Hussain, 29, a nurse from London, was walking arm-in-arm with her sister, Sharmina, a 26-year-old maternity nursing assistant.

"We want peace, we don't want the war… It's going to affect civilians as well so [we're protesting] to avoid that," Thamanna told VICE News.

"They're killing innocent people," Sharmina said. "They're not even targeting terrorists as they should be, they're just killing innocent people. That's why we're here to stop the war and stop the bombings."

A demonstrator holds a sign at the Stop the War Coalition protest at Parliament Square on Tuesday night. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Jorge Tijerina, a 20-year-old Mexican refugee and music student who lives in London, also spoke to VICE News, his voice hoarse from chanting. "There's a lot of trouble in the Middle East and we'll only be exacerbating all the trouble by going into Syria and intervening," he said. 

"I came here fleeing the drug war in Mexico, so every day I'm going through the troubles of a refugee… A war isn't beautiful," Tijerina said, adding: "Someone needs to take the moral high ground."

"I can't see that Cameron has made the case for war," Katrina Thornton, an administrative assistant from London, told VICE News. "We've had 14 years of war. Terrorism is on the increase. There are failed states and I haven't seen any way that this would make it better."

Related: The UK Isn't Bombing the Islamic State in Syria — but British Pilots Are

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd