In a stunning defeat for British Prime Minister David Cameron, British lawmakers voted late on Thursday against military action in Syria. Despite the surprise vote outcome, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Holland announced that the UK vote did not change their resolve for firm action against the Syrian Government, which has been accused of using chemical weapons on its own people. Despite reports earlier in the week suggesting that a Western strike on Syria was imminent, questions have been raised about the quality of the intelligence linking Assad to the attack.
Despite Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) releasing evidence on Thursday stating that chemical weapons had undoubtedly been used on August 21, adding that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, late Thursday night the UK government was defeated in its bid for a “strong humanitarian response” to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. The UK government was defeated by just thirteen votes in a 285-272 result in the House of Commons. Minutes laters, Prime Minister Cameron told lawmakers that “it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action…I get that, and the government will act accordingly.” Shortly after the surprise result, British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond confirmed that Britain would not be involved in any military action, further noting that he expected “that the US and other countries will continue to look at responses to the chemical attack.”
According to reports, seven hours of debates in the House of Commons had revealed deep divisions on whether military strikes against Assad’s regime would deter the further use of chemical weapons or simply worsen the conflict. Sources also indicate that the specter of the Iraq war also came up a number of times during the debate. Although the Prime Minister had made the case for targeted strikes, insisting that Britain could not stand idle in the face of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century,” he was faced with strong resistance from the opposition Labour party and by many within his own Conservative party, who expressed fear that Britain was rushing to war without conclusive evidence that Assad had gassed his own people. Russia, which has close ties with the Assad government, has welcomed the UK’s decision to reject a military strike.
US and France May Act Together
Cameron’s defeat significantly raises the possibility that the United States may act alone against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which it states is responsible for horrific gas attacks that are believed to have killed at least 355 people in the Ghoua area, which is located on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus. However even before the surprise British vote, the White House had already signaled that it was ready to act regardless of UN or allied support.
In response to yesterday’s UK vote, US National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden stated that “we have seen the result of the Parliament vote in the UK tonight,” adding that “as we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States…he believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.” The White House did indicate however that despite the UK vote, officials in the US would “continue to consult” with the UK over Syria, describing London as “one of our closest allies and friends.”
While no further comments in regards to a decision on military action against Syria were made by the Obama administration, a defense official confirmed on Thursday that the United States Navy had deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean. According to the official, the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, is “in the Mediterranean, heading and moving east” to relieve the Mahan. Although he did specify that both ships may remain in the region for the time being, he did not indicate how long the Mahan would stay in the area before returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, which it left in December 2012. The other destroyers in the region, which include the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, are currently criss-crossing the region and may launch their Tomahawk missiles towards Syria if directed so by the US President. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is currently on a week-long trip to Southeast Asia, has stated that US forces are in place and “ready to go” if Obama hives the order, however he stipulated that no such decision has yet been made.
Meanwhile on Friday, French President Francois Hollande announced that a military strike on Syria could come by Wednesday, and that Britain’s surprise rejection of armed intervention would not affect his government’s stand on the issue. In an interview to Le Monde daily on Friday, Hollalde stated that “France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime.” The French Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday for an emergency Syria session. The President’s remarks signal that his government may seek military action alongside the US.
Bashar al-Assad Responds
With Western states and the United Nations debating possible military action against Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Thursday that his country will defend itself against what he called Western “aggression.” According to Syria’s Sana news agency, Assad told a group of Yemeni MP’s that his country would defend itself against any aggression, noting that “Syria, with its steadfast people and brave army, will continue eliminating terrorists, which are utilized by Israel and Western countries to serve their interests in fragmenting the region.”
Meanwhile the situation in Damascus remains tense. Reports have indicated that senior military commanders are reportedly staying away from buildings thought likely to be targeted if a Western intervention is launched. Furthermore, many of Damascus’ residents have begun to flee the city in fear of an impending attack. Although witnesses have reported long lines of cars loaded with suitcases that have been waiting at the main Masnaa border that crosses into Lebanon, Syria’s state television is portraying citizens as going about their normal lives, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of military strikes. More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011, which has also produced at least 1.7 million refugees.
UN at a Deadlock
The United Nations continued to be deadlocked in regards to the case in Syria, with diplomats indicating that the views of the five permanent members remain “far apart.” On Thursday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held new talks on the Syria chemical weapons crisis, however no apparent progress on UN action was achieved. According to officials, the 45-minute meeting is the second to occur since Britain proposed a draft Security Council Resolution that would allow “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians. After concluding the meeting, none of the envoys from Britain, China, France, Russia or the US made any comments as they left. However diplomats have noted that there had been “no meeting of minds,” during the session as Russia and China are on one side while the US, UK and France remain on the other.
Meanwhile UN Inspectors headed out on Friday for their last day of investigations. Security officials have indicated that they were going to a military hospital in an eastern district of the Syrian capital. Samples taken during their site visits will be tested in various European laboratories in order to examine whether an attack took place and what form it took, however the inspectors‘ mandate does not involve apportioning blame for the attacks. Preliminary findings are expected to be delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend.
Shadow of Iraq
With the US mounting its power in the region, a number of critics have sparked a debate about whether or not the conflict in Syria could turn into another Iraq if a decision to launch military action is agreed upon.
As the US and France now look to find a diplomatic consensus on the issue without the UK, a number of critics have identified elements that echo those that occurred in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq. With a number of components being present in both cases, specifically the work of weapons inspectors; the intelligence gathered to make the case; and denials from the regime at the centre of the issue; Iraq is very much on the minds of those international officials who have expressed level-headed caution over Syria.
With UN inspectors still in Syria conducting an investigation, Britain’s case for military intervention in Syria is based on a “limited but growing body of intelligence,” which suggests that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack. An intelligence dossier that was released by the Prime Minister, which was used by Cameron to form the basis for the case to attack Syria, depicts the JIC indicating that the chemical attack was “probably” delegated by Assad to one of his commanders, however the JIC was unable to establish the motive behind last week’s attack. In a letter written by JIC chairman Jon Day to the Prime Minister, the chairman concluded that there are “no plausible alternative scenarios” other than the attack being an attack of the Syrian regime. The two-page letter was accompanied by a short summary of the intelligence case, which runs to just 313 words. The summary is also dated as the “JIC’s assessment of August 27 on reported chemical weapons use in Damascus,” however it is not known why later intelligence, if it exists, was not included in the document.
With the JIC’s findings being debated in yesterday’s House of Commons’ session, remarks made by David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, depict that British MP’s are hesitant to base their decision for military action in Syria solely on the intelligence that is available. During yesterday’s debates, Davis stated that “we must consider, being where we’ve been before in this House, that our intelligence as it stands might be wrong because it was before and we have got to be very, very hard in testing it.” Echoing the weeks of debates in the lead up to the 2003 war in Iraq, it is clear the officials in the UK and elsewhere are willing to wait for more intelligence and the UN inspectors findings before making any other decisions.
Meanwhile officials in the US have also admitted that they have “no smoking gun” proving that President Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons. While US intelligence sources indicated yesterday that its agencies had intercepted communications discussing the chemical attack between officials in Syria’s central command and in the field, it is understood that these remarks do not clearly implicate Assad or his entourage in ordering the use of chemicals.