The government’s defeat in parliament on 30 August 2013 was an important victory for those opposed to UK military action against Syria. Responding to the vote, the Prime Minister stated “It is clear to me 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.”
Polls show that not only does a majority of the British public not support British military action but a majority are opposed to US military action against Syria without British support. In addition, a YouGov poll taken a few days before the parliamentary vote found 58 per cent of respondents opposed “sending small arms such as hand guns to the anti-Assad troops”, with just 16 per cent supporting. This opposition has continued after the vote, with an ICM/Sunday Telegraph poll finding just 3 per cent of respondents thought the UK should be “arming Syrian anti-Government rebels.”
However, if you thought the parliamentary vote and Cameron’s statement meant the UK would not support any military strikes against the Syrian Government or would stop the Government acting in ways that militarised the conflict, then you’d be wrong. In actual fact the defeated Government, using a conveniently narrow definition of “British military action”, has continued to assist the US in its aggressive, warmongering policy towards Syria. This is a policy of regime change according to the US Secretary of State, who told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go”.
The day after the parliamentary vote the Daily Telegraph reported “The UK’s intelligence-gathering assets based in the Mediterranean are to provide the US military with information, as it prepares to carry out cruise missiles strikes against President Bashar al-Assad. Whitehall sources said Britain’s decision not to take part in attacks punishing the regime for using chemical weapons only covered its Armed Forces, and the sharing of intelligence would continue.”
But it was not just the intelligence services who ignored the will of parliament and public opinion. According to the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour “the British prime minister acted as one of the most consistent advocates of military intervention” at the G20 summit in St Petersburg on 5-6 September 2013. “Cameron was determined to call others to arms” and to “provide the evidence that Assad's regime must have used chemical weapons”, Wintour explained.
Despite the best efforts of Cameron and co., a series of diplomatic manoeuvres have delayed and possibly stopped a US-led attack on Syria. With Syria pledging to sign an international chemical weapons treaty and admit the scale of its chemical weapons stockpile for the first time, on 10 September 2013 the Guardian reported that “the US, Britain and France are preparing a hard-edged [United Nations] security council resolution backed by the possible use of force.”
During all the intense diplomacy, the arming of the Syrian rebels has continued, with a 12 September 2013 New York Times report noting “Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria, the rebels say.”
All these efforts by the UK Government to militarise the conflict in Syria have been reported in the mainstream media but the question of whether the government has any moral authority to continue these policies is never discussed.
For those who oppose Western military intervention in Syria the lesson is clear: we cannot be complacent. The parliamentary vote, though an important victory, has not been enough to stop our Prime Minister pushing for war and British intelligence supporting any US military strike and continuing to help arm the rebels. More popular pressure is needed. We might also consider what the Government's continued defiance of popular will on Syria tells us about how British foreign policy is determined.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. [email protected] and https://twitter.com/IanJSinclair