“The British parliament has given Bashar Al-Assad a blank check to use chemical weapons!”
That is the tone of some media comments in the wake of Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure Thursday night to get his resolution approved by the House of Commons.
Well, not so fast!
A closer look might offer a different picture.
To start with, the parallel debates in the Commons and the House of Lords provided an opportunity for a rare show of unity on the core questions regarding the latest phase of the Syrian tragedy.
The first question was whether or not chemical weapons had been used in Syria.
The response in both houses was an almost unanimous yes. This was in sharp contrast with claims from Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s main backers, that there had been no such attacks and that the whole thing was a Cecil B. De Mille-style production by Western intelligence services. Even George Galloway, the sole House of Commons member speaking for Assad, admitted that chemical weapons had been used.
The second question concerned responsibility for the attacks.
The debates enabled the British government to show that Assad had been behind at least 14 such attacks “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Again, none of the participants in the debate—not even Galloway—repeated Syrian government claims that rebels had been responsible.
If anything, the debates showed a remarkable degree of unity in expressing revulsion at Assad’s strategy of clinging to power by terror.
But will Britain participate in action to refrain Assad?
Cameron’s hasty reaction after the debate was a surprise. It was as if he never wanted intervention and was now relieved to have an excuse for not doing so.
He said that the parliament had shown it did not support military action against Syria.
However, that was not the question. Even the Labour Party amendment was premised on the assumption that action might become necessary. The debate was about a timetable and the method of action, not about its substance. Parliament rejected Cameron’s proposed timetable and approach. Legally speaking, he can always come back with a different resolution and get a different result.
Cameron seems to have realized this after a good night’s sleep. This is what he said Friday morning: “I think it’s important we have a robust response to the use of chemical weapons and there are a series of things we will continue to do.”
He added: “We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organizations we are members of—whether the EU, or NATO, or the G8 or the G20—to condemn what’s happened in Syria. It’s important we uphold the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons.”
Has the British parliament become isolationist? No. The same parliament approved intervention in Libya and extended the mission in Afghanistan and—don’t be surprised—may endorse intervention in Syria at a later point.
Does the vote affect British–US relations?
Not necessarily. The two allies have not always fought together. The US opposed Britain in the 1956 Suez war. Britain did not take part in the Vietnam War. The US played no part in a series of British wars—from Malaya to Aden to the Falklands. Nor did Britain join the US in the Cuban quarantine or the invasion of Grenada.
Despite this, the two allies continue to enjoy close cooperation through military and intelligence services across the globe, and are doing just that on Syria right now.
Britain and the US are founding members of NATO. The treaty obligates signatories to respond to a member-state’s appeal for support in military conflict. If the US calls on the UK for support, that would be extended automatically.
However, the operation envisaged by President Barack Obama is not yet aimed at regime change in Syria, and thus does not require full British military participation.
For 30 months, the Syrian tragedy has had many twists and turns. Thursday night witnessed one of those twists and turns, albeit on a minor scale. All along, however, one thing has remained certain: Assad’s strategy of clinging to power through terror is doomed to failure.