In a stunning rebuke to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, the UK Parliament has voted against using force in Syria. As a consequence of this development, should the United States decide to take action against Assad, it’s highly unlikely that the UK will participate.
Just a few days ago, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, was pressuring President Obama for a rapid military response. Today, Cameron has suffered a huge political defeat. So, why did this happen?
There are a number of reasons.
First - Iraq
Although the legacy of Iraq is a major influence in the US intervention debate, in Britain, this dynamic is even more pronounced. Where US domestic support for the Iraq war ebbed and flowed, in the UK, the 2003 invasion was deeply unpopular with the British public from the start. In a significant sense, the war undercut UK public perceptions of trust in Government. In an associated sense, UK public confidence in the US Government also suffered. The flowing impact is clear. Now, facing another substantial military action, the British people and their representatives were far less certain about the merits of following the American lead. Reflecting this concern, Members of Parliament have, in effective terms, tied Cameron’s hands.
Second - International Law
In Britain, as indeed in much of Europe, there’s a much greater sympathetic for the notion of supreme international law. As this relates to today’s events, in simple terms, many members of the UK government believed that action against Syria would be illegal without UN authorization or a longer UN deliberation. This concern also explains why the British Government was so desperate to affirm that any intervention outside UN authority will, amongst other caveats, be ‘’directed exclusively to averting a humanitarian catastrophe, and the minimum judged necessary for that purpose.’’ In a broader sense, Parliament was anxious about the diplomatic consequence of being perceived as attached to a flexibly subjective understanding of international law. Now, by waiting for the UN inspection process to develop, anti-intervention Parliamentarians believe they have achieved two key objectives. First, satisfying the UK’s obligations under international law. Second, re-establishing British credibility under that same orbit.
Third - Domestic Politics
The UK’s opposition party, Labour, are seeking to use the Syrian crisis to re-build their perceived national security legitimacy post-Iraq (Tony Blair was a Labour Prime Minister). Even as the Iraq war was unpopular with the British people, it was also profoundly unpopular with Labour’s left wing base. Indeed, on the eve of war, Robin Cook, one of Labour’s highest ranking officials resigned in protest. Miliband appears to have hoped that by his present strategy, in the run up to the 2015 UK general election, Labour will finally be able to escape the political demons of the Iraq war. However, it’s certain that’s he’s fostered a lasting bad blood with Cameron.
Fourth - US military leadership
President Obama might talk about an international effort against Assad, but the British Government (in holding a vote) and Parliament (in their rejection of intervention) knew that the US would take the lead in any military action. As Andrew Exum has noted, EU military weaknesses mean that European military power is inherently limited – British MPs know this. Whether regarding logistics or actual attacks, the US Military will be the instrumental foundation of any action. Recognizing the increasingly aggressive tone from Washington, British MPs likely felt that they had the flexibility to take a step back. Even if, as now appears likely, the UK takes no action against Assad, by American intervention, the UK Government will consider their underpinning strategic intent (upholding the red lines) as having been fulfilled.
Regardless of the above, today’s events are likely to cause serious repercussions for the UK-US ‘special relationship’. Now, facing British rejection, Obama may be forced to return to that oldest and most unpredictable of American allies. Vive le France.