Rhetorical gales howled through Westminster over the Syria vote, but the landscape is unaltered

It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part.

Britain’s retreat from military intervention in Syria has no proud author. The parliamentary vote that apparently settled the matter was a humiliation for the Prime Minister but also a shock to those who humiliated him. Most of the Tory MPs who defied their whips thought they were dabbling in principled protest. None of them thought they were hijacking British foreign policy. “Anyone who claims they weren’t surprised by the result is fibbing,” says one Tory backbencher about his rebellious colleagues.
Even as the votes were being counted, Labour MPs filing through the “no” lobby expected a government victory. The opposition’s goal was to rebuke the PM for adventurism and force him into greater deference to parliament and the UN Security Council. Ed Miliband did not think the debate would end with David Cameron sweeping intervention off the table with a petulant flourish.
None of the parties has a policy of standing idly by as Syria rips itself to shreds. Both Miliband and Cameron say Bashar al-Assad has committed atrocious breaches of international law. There is almost certainly a majority of MPs open, in theory, to endorsing an armed international rebuke. Yet parliament has rejected British participation. A vote that was hailed on the night as a historic assertion of legislative sovereignty now looks like an accident. The UK’s official stance towards Damascus is a policy orphan, unclaimed and unloved.
No shortage of blame is flying around to compensate for the lack of credit being taken. Cameron loyalists have mounted an effective campaign to steer debate away from questions over the Prime Minister’s judgement and towards what George Osborne called “national soul-searching” about Britain’s readiness to be a premier league player in world affairs.
In Downing Street’s version of events, the Tory leader, brimming with moral courage and transatlantic solidarity, has been betrayed by wicked Labour leaders present and past. Equal scorn is heaped on Tony Blair for spoiling the public’s appetite for armed interventions and on Miliband for exploiting that shrivelling of ambition to score points.
It is clever crisis management. What should have been the story of Cameron’s crumbling authority became a challenge to Westminster’s collective moral fibre, which in turn became doubts over whether the Labour leader has what it takes to make tough prime ministerial decisions – an attack line the Tories have been rehearsing for months.
Helpfully for Cameron, there are people on the Labour side who struggle to disagree with No 10’s account of the story. The murmur among some opposition MPs, including shadow ministers, is that the idea of atoning for what many on the left see as the worst sin of Blairism – bamboozling the nation into the Iraq war – seduced Miliband and the move has backfired.
Before the summer, the Labour leader’s internal critics were fretting about his lack of definition. The test for the autumn, they said, would be for Miliband to make some very public choices on tricky issues, express them with conviction and stick with them. Yet here he is, on a matter of life and death, advertising himself to the world as a man of convoluted inaction.
Miliband’s allies expected that charge from the Tories but are dismayed to hear it echoed on their own side. Defenders of the Labour leader in the shadow cabinet point out that the true failure of leadership in recent weeks belongs to Cameron. After all, it was the Prime Minister who prematurely signed Britain up to military strikes, in a phone call with Barack Obama, and then tried to bounce parliament into endorsing them without offering a credible account of what he hoped to achieve.
Besides, it is coalition parties that command a Commons majority and whose undisciplined MPs killed Cameron’s motion. The leader of the opposition’s job is not to make up the numbers when government whips get their sums wrong. It can hardly have been a surprise that the Iraq precedent was a factor in the debate. Even Tories who voted with the government say it made them hesitate. It is curious that the PM was so ill prepared to allay those concerns.
More baffling still is the role of Nick Clegg, whose party fought the last election draped in anti-war piety. The Liberal Democrat leader seems to want equal shares in Miliband’s reservations about firing missiles into Syria and Cameron’s contempt for Miliband when he acts on those reservations.
The temptation, when Westminster is in a state of extreme agitation, is to look for things that will never be the same again. If parliament has decided it doesn’t ever want British military muscle flexed against dictators, that is a significant moment. But that isn’t what MPs now claim they meant to say at all. The lesson of recent years is that when British politics promises never to be the same again, the same again is precisely what it turns out to be. Rhetorical gales howl through Westminster, leaving the landscape unaltered. Cameron is still a chancer with too much confidence in his own powers of persuasion and too shallow a base in his party. Miliband has proven once again to be better at political machination than his enemies expect and worse at inspiration than his friends claim.
As in previous years, the two candidates to be prime minister after 2015 are approaching the annual conference season with many of their supporters unable to muster reasons why they should have the top job beyond the lack of an obvious alternative. Labour and Tory MPs again find themselves urging their leaders to rise above the mediocrity to which every precedent says they are confined. The vote on Syria was a grimly symbolic prelude to the months ahead. It was the story of this parliament in one act: a debate that left the problems it addressed unresolved, while diminishing the leaders who took part. Nobody won. 
David Cameron Leaves Downing Street on August 29, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.