Cameron looks to air strikes in Syria despite Russia
London - With Russia’s continuing air strikes in Syria complicating an already complex conflict, British Prime Minister David Cameron has signalled that he intends to try to secure parliamentary approval to expand strikes against Islamic State (ISIS) into Syria.
“Would I like to go further and make sure Britain plays a part in what is happening against ISIS in Syria? Yes, I would. And I think it would be the right thing for us to do,” Cameron said in an October 6th interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, without specifying a schedule for a vote.
This was the strongest indication that Cameron will look to build a cross-parliamentary consensus to secure a “yes” vote on air strikes in Syria.
Cameron has described Russia’s intervention in the country as a “terrible mistake”, arguing that Moscow’s support of Assad would strengthen ISIS.
“They are backing the butcher Assad, which is a terrible mistake for them and for the world. It’s going to make the region more unstable, it will lead to further radicalisation and increased terrorism,” he told the BBC on October 4th, the first day of his Conservative Party’s annual conference.
“Russian support for him [Assad] will drive the opposition in Syria into the arms of ISIS, strengthening the evil that Putin says he wants to defeat,” Cameron said.
While Cameron has been adamant that Assad will not play a part in Syria’s future, there has been talk of a political transition that could see him remain in power for weeks or even months.
The United Kingdom’s aim of seeking to target ISIS, but not Assad, has drawn criticism from some analysts. “If you don’t intervene in a major way against a regime like Assad… they are not going to go quietly. And there was a lot of wishful thinking [among UK policymakers],” said former Middle East policy adviser to Downing Street Lieutenant-General Simon Mayall in an interview with the BBC’s Newsnight.
Senior ministers also indicated that Cameron’s government, which enjoys a parliamentary majority, would look to go ahead with the anticipated vote, which could be the first opportunity for the opposition Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, to inflict a parliamentary defeat on the Conservatives.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “I think there is a sense that there is a beginning of consensus now in parliament that this has to be dealt with, that we have to take the fight with ISIS to Raqqa in Syria, rather than just attacking them in Iraq.”
He described Russia’s military intervention in Syria as “classic asymmetric warfare”, stressing that Moscow’s true aim was to prop up the Assad regime, not target ISIS.
Hammond’s comments came after Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that the majority of Russia’s air strikes in Syria had Western-backed rebel groups, not ISIS.
Fallon, speaking October 3rd, denied that the United Kingdom has been outmanoeuvred by Russia’s military intervention.
A vote to expand British air strikes against ISIS from Iraq into Syria is a political gamble for Cameron, who lost a parliamentary vote on the use of force against Assad in 2013. The Labour Party, led by Corbyn, a former Stop the War coalition head, has voted to oppose air strikes against ISIS in Syria without a mandate from the United Nations. But the Labour vote is not binding on members of parliament, who are split on the issue.
Cameron’s Conservative Party enjoys a comfortable majority but would likely need some cross-bench support to pass a motion. The government’s motion to join US-led strikes in Syria in 2013 was defeated in a 285-272 vote.
The Conservatives have sought recently to portray Corbyn’s anti-war stance as a threat to national security, with analysts viewing this as a prelude to an attempt to secure the backing of some Labour MPs.
Although Corbyn has said that MPs must abide by Labour’s position, he has famously voted against the party line more than 500 times during his time in parliament, with many Labour MPs saying that the new leader will face a difficult time enforcing party discipline due to his voting record.
Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has indicated that he could vote with the Conservatives in favour of the air strikes, saying that MPs should “agree that we can’t agree” on the issue.
“When you are sending people to potential loss of life, I think it is a conscience decision. It is a moral decision. On Syria, my view is it should be a free vote on the basis of conscience,” he said during the Labour Party conference.