When David Cameron last summer became the first prime minister to lose a vote on a matter of peace and war since 1782, many spoke as if an epochal shift comparable to Suez had occurred. William Hague, the then foreign secretary, considered resigning and told colleagues that he didn’t want to represent “a country that is not prepared to act”. Paddy Ashdown lamented that the UK had lurched “towards isolationism”. One Conservative MP told me after the vote: “We won’t be involved in military action for the foreseeable future and certainly not in this parliament.”
But just 13 months later, parliament will vote today in favour of UK airstrikes against Isis in Iraq. Britain will demonstrate that it has not entered a new age of isolationism, and Cameron will regain some of the standing that he lost last year. But the issue of Syria has loomed large in the opening stages of the debate. To many MPs, there is little purpose in targeting Isis in Iraq without also doing so in its neighbour. Ken Clarke warned that the group’s advance meant the border between the two countries was now merely a “theoretical line on the map” , while Peter Hain declared that allowing Isis to regroup in Syria after strikes in Iraq was “no answer”.
Cameron, who has pledged to give MPs a separate vote on any action in Syria, made it clear that he believes there is a case for action in the country, and that there is “no legal barrier”. But he emphasised that he wanted to “proceed on the basis of consensus”. In other words, he feared that he would not win Labour’s support for intervention in Syria (unlike in the case of Iraq) and would risk a repeat of last summer’s humiliation.
He told MPs: “I do believe there is a strong case for us to do more in Syria. But I did not want to bring a motion to the House today which there wasn’t consensus for. It is better if our country can proceed on the basis of consensus. In this house there are many concerns about doing more in Syria. And I understand that.
“I don’t believe there is a legal barrier, because I think the legal advice is clear that – were we to act or others to act – there is a legal basis. But it is true to say that the Syrian situation is more complicated than the Iraqi situation. It is more complicated because of the presence of the brutal dictator Assad, it is more complicated because of the state of the civil war.”
In his response, Miliband raised three concerns over strikes in Syria. He argued that while there was “a strong legal argument for action” under Article 51 of the UN Charter, it would “be better” to seek a UN Security Council Resolution (which Russia would almost certainly veto); that the mission would require regional ground troops; and that “a lot more work” needed to be done on a “route map” for action. While not ruling out intervention, he has again set tough conditions of the kind that prevented British involvement last year.
Milband also offered five succinct reasons why airstrikes in Iraq were not comparable to the 2003 war: the intervention was about supporting a democratic state, not overturning a regime; there was no dispute about its legal basis; it was a last resort; there was broad international support; and the use of British ground troops had been ruled out by the government.