Katy Lee, AFP
Last updated: 30 August, 2013

Blow to Cameron as UK parliament rejects Syria action

Britain and the United States insisted Friday that that their “special relationship” was not under threat after the British parliament blocked Prime Minister David Cameron from joining US-led military action against Syria.

In the most humiliating defeat of Cameron’s three years in power, lawmakers voted late Thursday to reject his call for British involvement in military strikes aimed at punishing the Syrian regime for alleged chemical weapons use.

Cameron pledged to respect parliament’s wishes — leaving US President Barack Obama to pursue military action without his closest European ally, the country that gave US forces their strongest backing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in a phone call between the two leaders, Obama assured Cameron that their relationship remained strong and that he “fully respected” the prime minister’s need to seek parliament’s approval before taking Britain into the conflict, according to Downing Street.

“The president stressed his appreciation of his strong friendship with the prime minister and of the strength, durability and depth of the special relationship between our two countries,” Cameron’s office said in a statement.

“They agreed that their co-operation on international issues would continue in the future and both reiterated their determination to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict by bringing all sides together.”

The White House said in a statement: “As always, the United States values the special relationship with the United Kingdom, a close ally and friend.

“The president and prime minister agreed to continue to consult closely on Syria and the broad range of security challenges that our two countries face together.”

But the British press fretted that Cameron’s defeat spelled doom for the so-called special relationship, amid fears that France — which is backing military action — is rapidly replacing Britain as America’s new best friend in Europe.

The Sun tabloid ran a mournful front page for Saturday reading, “Death notice: the special relationship. Died at home after a sudden illness on Thursday.

“Funeral to be held at the French embassy in London,” it added.

The Daily Mail tabloid’s front page read: “US snubs Britain — and gets cosy with the French.”

MPs in the House of Commons voted 285 to 272 to defy Cameron on Thursday, in what is believed to be the first time a British government has lost a vote on military action since 1782.

Cameron had recalled MPs from their summer holidays for the emergency debate. In a severe blow to his authority, 30 of his own Conservatives voted against him.

The prime minister said he still wants to see “a robust response” to chemical weapons use and suggested Britain will increase diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime.

Many of the lawmakers who voted against the government had expressed concern that Britain was rushing into action without conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people.

The opposition Labour party had demanded “compelling” evidence that Assad was behind a horrific poison gas attack believed to have killed hundreds of people near Damascus last week.

Finance minister George Osborne acknowledged that Britain’s inability to commit forces would damage the reputation with Washington.

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system,” he told BBC radio.

“I understand the deep scepticism that many of my colleagues in parliament, many members of the public, have about British military involvement in Syria. I hope this doesn’t become a moment where we turn our back on all of the world’s problems.”

Veteran politician Paddy Ashdown, a former special forces soldier, said Britain’s standing in the world had been hugely diminished by the decision not to take military action.

“It has a profound implications for our country. I think it diminishes our country hugely,” the former Liberal Democrat leader told the BBC.

Earlier he wrote on Twitter: “In 50 years trying to serve my country I have never felt so depressed/ashamed.”

Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think-tank, said the “no” vote had dealt a “serious blow” to Britain’s relationship with the US, but that it did not signal the end of the alliance.

“In fact, the UK may continue to contribute behind the scenes to US preparations for its expected punitive attack on Syria,” he said.