A Commons consensus on bombing Syria is further away than ever

Cameron will not risk another humiliating defeat and the numbers simply don’t add up

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

David Cameron doesn’t do regret. It is not in his nature to sit and fret about decisions that he has taken and can now do nothing about. But there are still a few things that rankle with him. One of those is the House of Commons’ rejection of military action in Syria two years ago.

This defeat was a personal and a political humiliation for Cameron. For months, he had been pushing for action against Assad. President Obama had finally accepted that something must be done following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. But then Cameron’s own parliament and party stopped him. It sent a message to the world about Cameron, as well as one about Britain and its foreign policy after Iraq.

Downing Street never got over it. In September, George Osborne denounced the decision not to help the rebels fighting Assad as ‘one of the worst decisions the House of Commons has ever made’.

The legacy of this vote complicates Syrian matters today. There’s the task of hitting Islamic State in north-east Syria, a part of the country out of Assad’s control. The military wants to end the absurdity of only hitting the terrorist group on one side of the Iraq-Syria border. Indeed, given that its Iraqi operation is resupplied from its headquarters in Syria, it makes no sense to limit bombing to Iraq.

But No. 10 is reluctant to make it explicit that it is not talking about bombing Assad. This is for two reasons. First of all, Cameron is genuinely revolted by Assad’s behaviour. He believes that someone who is willing to drop barrel bombs on his own people can’t be the answer to the question of what to do about Syria. Secondly, Downing Street doesn’t want to lose face or draw attention to how much its position has changed since 2013.

Since May, the government has been keen to target Islamic State in Syria. But three things held up seeking parliamentary approval. First, the Tories didn’t want the vote to get caught up the Labour leadership contest, and so decided to hold off until the new leader was in place. When, to their surprise, that new leader was Jeremy Corbyn, it scuppered any prospect of the ‘consensus’ on military action that Cameron is so keen on — his guarantee that he won’t lose in the Commons again on a matter of war and peace. Even after Corbyn’s victory, the Tory vote-counters thought they were making progress. They were whittling down the number of Tory rebels and gaining cast-iron assurances from Labour MPs that they would back military action.

But then came Moscow’s decision to deploy major forces to Syria. This, worryingly, took the government by surprise. It’s another example of the UK’s dire lack of intelligence about Russian military action (the seizure of Crimea was not anticipated either). Russian involvement in Syria has hugely complicated efforts to stitch together a Commons majority for bombing in Syria.

Inside government, though, they maintain that they are still trying to build a Commons coalition in favour of action. One of those involved tells me irritably: ‘A majority isnot there at the moment, or we would have a vote by now.’

In fact, a vote is still so far away that there has been no discussion with the whips about the precise wording of any motion. There is also a fear that those Labour MPs who say they are prepared to back it may not be so solid. One of those tasked with courting them says: ‘You have to be able to look them in the eyes and definitely know they will be with you on the night.’ There is a fear that this support could slip away if the question becomes too party political.

A further complicating factor is the American attitude. Washington, in an act of cynicism that has shocked even hard–bitten realists, want to let the Russians stew a bit in Syria. The US is urging an ‘exercise in strategic patience’ to see how deep a hole the Russians will dig for themselves there. Obama is seemingly happy to see Russia dragged in deeper and deeper on the basis that Vladimir Putin will ultimately have to make a humiliating retreat from backing Assad. The US view is summed up to me as: ‘The Russians have bitten off more than they can chew; it’s more like Afghanistan than anything else.’

President Obama is not an easy ally to have. He has no grand strategy, his approach is hard to read and he tends not to return calls at crucial times. One senior government figure says his foreign policy is characterised by ‘indifference and retreat’.

But whatever gripes Whitehall might have about Washington, one fact can’t be avoided: the consensus in Britain about foreign policy has broken down. Labour, still in trauma about the Iraq war, is now a non-interventionist party. When asked during the leadership election, Corbyn couldn’t think of a circumstance in which he would deploy British forces abroad. This makes it very hard to see how the Corbyn-led Labour party would ever support a parliamentary motion approving the use of force. So any such Commons vote will be extremely tight.

The anti-interventionist mood extends beyond the Labour party. After all, if Corbyn and Labour were the only bar to bombing in Syria, Cameron could simply use the Tories’ parliamentary majority to gain approval for it. There is now, though, a strand of Tory thinking that believes western intervention in the Middle East does more harm than good and that the area is best left alone. This bloc of opinion, combined with Labour’s anti-interventionist position, will make it very hard for any Prime Minister without a thumping majority to win parliamentary approval for the use of force in that part of the world.

Tony Blair offered the Commons avote before British forces entered Iraq in 2003 as part of his effort to persuade MPs to back the invasion. But the legacy of that decision and the war itself is that no British Prime Minister will ever again have the freedom of action that he once had in matters of war and peace.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • rtj1211

    What people want is a humane consensus on what happens AFTER the bombing. We all know that the West can waste a trillion dollars bombing a middle eastern country.

    What we don’t know is whether the West can actually create a sustainable peace afterwards.

    If they can’t, then it’s either death now or death to a greater degree in 10 years time.

    That’s the lesson of Iraq…….

    • Frank

      The lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq may be that you have to bomb the correct country!
      Yes, you could currently bomb Syria, but perhaps it would be much more effective to bomb Iran and sundry other ME countries supporting the various military factions in Syria.

      • Toy Pupanbai

        We’ve had 150 years of experience in Afghanistan.
        I can’t help thinking we’re a bit thick!

        • Frank

          Yes, because we attack the agents not the source of the disease.

  • ViolinSonaten b minor.

    Well regardless of whatever war in the Middle East and those who were there in a military
    and medical capacity will always remember the carnage ( it will never be forgotten, what it was like there). And now we face the consequences.
    The job in Iraq/ Afghanistan should have been completed and the Libya debacle has just led
    to a terrorist h8llhole.
    Our military is at rock bottom and our enemies surround us like vultures, it really doesn’t bode to well if we are at war again- and we shall be at some point when our leaders wake up
    and realise that Islam had declared war on the West.

    • Shazza

      Totally agree with you and not only are we surrounded by enemies, we have actively encouraged a very substantial Trojan Horse to take up occupancy within our midst.

  • Dave Cockayne

    How about we sit this one out and let Putin fix it?

    • Des Demona

      Sounds like a good idea. It’s about time Russia shouldered some of the burden of messing up the middle east.

      • Cyril Sneer

        Islam is the reason why the ME is messed up.

        The USA just came along and poured fuel on the sectarian fire.

        What Russia has done to date is counter American transgressions.

  • Dogsnob

    ‘Bomb Syria’, what a silly phrase – bombing certain people in it was the idea, and still should be.

  • MrJones

    “But the legacy of that decision and the war itself is that no British Prime Minister will ever again have the freedom of action that he once had in matters of war and peace.”


    US foreign policy went mad after 9/11 so while British foreign policy is controlled from Washington the less freedom the PM has on these issues the better.

  • mikewaller

    I am firmly of the opinion that the real story with the Lord Sewel video was not his nakedness, the women he was servicing or his use of drugs. The gold dust was his withering critique of Cameron. However on this issue I am at one with the latter. There is no logic in restricting the anti-Isil campaign to Iraqi soil and it is for the most part political cowardice that denies Cameron the necessary majority. The best prospect of stemming the flood of refugees was to create a safe area within Syria protected by a no-fly zone. Sadly, the general dithering has let in Russian air-power which has hugely complicated the situation. Because of the murderous instability of the region, banning “boots on the ground” makes sense; keeping the RAF out has simply shamed us in front of our allies.

    • Gilbert White

      Time after time there many safe areas in Syria. None of them free stuff on tap, however?

  • boiledcabbage

    Until the Western strategy involves Mecca, in some way or other, these ‘interventions’ are looking fairly pointless. It is elements within islamic belief that are being used to justify the gross perversions of ISIS. Until the establishment of the muslim religious hierarchy outlaws such interpretations, we are merely dealing with symptoms, not the disease itself. That they have not done so, thus far, should be a very sobering thought. Even for David Cameron.

    • Gilbert White

      Absolutely spot on. The UN, SC. needs to open up Mecca and Medina to jews and gentiles. Only when the jews have the right of return to Medina will the situation be resolved. China, Russi and , the US could resolve their terror problem. We have our moral right to do this because of the influx into Europe?

  • Newgrubstreet

    “There is now, though, a strand of Tory thinking that believes western
    intervention in the Middle East does more harm than good and that the
    area is best left alone.”

    Well, what an extraordinary notion! What possible basis could they have for thinking that??

  • Terence Hale

    “A Commons consensus on bombing Syria is further away than ever”. I am not a pacifist or a Corbynite being myself in a state of war with the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Holland for stealing my money and the Argentinean Dutch Queen colluding with Argentina to regain the Falklands because her husband the King; by law must call him king and not an alcoholic of low intellect who more or less own shell who want the natural reserves around the Falklands. In respect to bombing Syria we should follow the money, bombs cost money and what ISIS is doing also, if we block the money flow to ISIS we will stop there advance. Qatar is there source of money.

  • trace9

    Perhaps it’s no wonder. Note the omission. Even Belarius (ho-ho, what a stupid little country), did it.

  • tom kincade

    We should sit this one out unless we don’t mind a clash of air forces ours and Russia’s which by the law of averages is bound to happen do we ask to invoke article 5nato or will we be leaned on not too by obma and kerry