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British Prime Minister David Cameron

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In blow to still-forming coalition, Britain rejects military action in Syria

  • Article by: Anthony Faiola
  • Washington Post
  • August 30, 2013 - 9:22 AM

 

– Invoking the specter of the Iraq war, British lawmakers on Thursday rejected military action in Syria, dealing a stunning blow to Prime Minister David Cameron and effectively ruling Washington’s staunchest military ally out of any U.S.-led strike.

The White House insisted that President Obama has both the authority and the determination to make his own decision on a military strike if necessary to protect national security interests, as a Western coalition that just days ago appeared determined to launch a joint military action split wide open.

Both privately and publicly, administration officials continued to portray Obama as edging closer to a decision to launch a limited cruise-missile strike on Syrian military targets. As a fifth U.S. warship entered the Mediterranean, Obama’s top national security officials briefed congressional leaders on evidence that they say proves that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government killed hundreds of civilians in an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.

But as more time has elapsed between the Syrian attack and the much-previewed U.S. retaliation, the window for questions and demands from Congress, international allies and the news media has opened wider.

Nearly 200 House members from both parties have signed letters calling on the president to seek formal congressional approval for military action.

Even in France, where President Francois Hollande just days ago said Syria should be “punished,” officials called for a delay in any action until United Nations weapons inspectors, who are in Syria, complete their investigation. “Before acting, we need proof,” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a minister and government spokeswoman.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Vienna that the investigators will continue their on-site work near Damascus on Friday and leave Syria the next day. Ban said he expects an immediate report from the inspectors, but he has made clear that their mission is only to determine whether a chemical attack occurred, not to assign blame.

At the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China on Wednesday rejected a British-drafted resolution authorizing the use of force against Syria, the five permanent members met again Thursday. But the meeting, called at Russia’s request, lasted less than an hour and didn’t result in any action, according to U.N. officials.

State media reported that two Russian warships were traveling to the eastern Mediterranean. Russia, Assad’s principal foreign backer along with Iran, has a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, although many personnel have reportedly been evacuated in recent days.

A jolt to relations

The United States appeared to lose its centerpiece ally after Cameron, deserted by rebels in his own Conservative Party, lost a vote for provisional authorization for military action in Syria over the regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. The rejection additionally signaled what analysts called the biggest rupture in the U.S.-British “special relationship” since the 1982 Falklands war.

Technically, Cameron could still authorize military strikes over the objection of Parliament, but he indicated that was not an option. “It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said after losing the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”

The rejection — which dealt Cameron the most powerful setback of his premiership — amounted to an extraordinary turn of events in Britain. Only two days ago, this nation appeared ready to fast-track a plan to join a U.S.-led coalition.

But over the past 24 hours, Cameron, a hawk on Syria who has long argued for a tougher response, has encountered a level of domestic political resistance that caught his government off guard. It suggested the extent of the damage done here from the faulty intelligence and mission creep that steered British troops into Iraq a decade ago.

During the debate in the House of Commons, Cameron confronted an avalanche of skepticism. In his impassioned call for action, the prime minister defended Obama and U.S. humanitarian motives in Syria, while also acknowledging that Britons — who polls show are overwhelmingly opposed to military intervention — were understandably gun-shy after the mishaps in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode,” he said.

The door, observers said, could be open to indirect military cooperation, including intelligence-sharing. But any direct military involvement — such as British missiles being launched into Syria — now appeared largely out of question.

The reluctance to back a possible U.S.-led mission, analysts said, marked a rare and major jolt to U.S.-British relations, the strategic pillar of transatlantic policy for decades that has seen Washington and London forge one of the closest military alliances of modern times.

“To not support the U.S. would be very damaging to the U.K., damaging to our relationship with the U.S. and to our global standing,” said Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan. “Britain would be diminished if we didn’t fight.”

The long shadow of Iraq

Cameron repeatedly sought to reassure lawmakers that he was not contemplating another Iraq. “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change, and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition,” he said. “It is about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime.”

The West, he said, had an obligation to deter a possible repeat of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century” — an apparent reference to a 1988 incident when Saddam Hussein ordered a poison gas attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja that killed thousands.

Yet lawmakers repeatedly cautioned that the strikes could end up aiding Al-Qaida-backed elements within the Syrian opposition and could escalate violence while failing to deter a repeat of chemical weapons use. Many labeled the government’s intelligence inadequate and insisted that Britain could be dragged into a protracted military operation. Richard Ottaway, a conservative member of Parliament, said, “Those of us who were here in 2003, at the time of the Iraq war, felt they had their fingers burnt.”

The Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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