The British government has followed the US lead over Syria, playing a cautious game and refusing to commit to intervention in the country’s ongoing civil war in the absence of unambiguous UN Security Council approval. Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Andrew Marr Show on 9 June that Britain would take no action without first securing parliamentary approval, and given the importance of UNSCR 1973 when MPs voted in favour of intervention in Libya in March 2011, that looked to be a clear sign that nothing was to be done.
This morning, however, Hague changed his tone. Although Russia has rolled back its position of absolute support for the Assad regime in recent days, it still seems unlikely to approve western military intervention. Echoing rhetoric last used by British politicians in the build-up to the Iraq War, Hague told the Today programme that the Security Council was ‘failing to shoulder its responsibilities’. Even The Guardian is relaxing its anti-war stance, albeit only slightly. Yet without a Security Council Resolution, the government will struggle to gain parliamentary approval for a substantial intervention, and rightly so. The ‘soft realist’ stance epitomised by The Daily Mail with its “why is it our problem?” line opposes foreign entanglements on principle. Many Conservative MPs will share this view, which is why they are already beginning to demand a parliamentary recall. Hague has promised it, so there will be a substantive debate before any military action.
This is where things get really interesting. British public opinion rightly senses that the Syrian conflict is more complex than that in Libya, and recognises that the outcome of the Libyan intervention was far from perfect. At the same time there is wide revulsion at the prospect of a dictatorial regime using chemical weapons against civilian populations. British MPs will reflect these views, adding concern for international law (a very real issue if there is no further UN mandate, albeit one glossed over in Kosovo in 1999) and for domestic procedure in the form of their own right to vote on war. Whether they agree to act depends on what action the government proposes. A limited campaign of airstrikes, calculated to hurt the regime without necessarily tipping the balance in the ongoing civil war, seems the most likely proposal. Russia might be persuaded to accept a Security Council Resolution that explicitly limited the scope of the campaign. Even absent that shift, MPs may yet be persuaded to vote in favour by the corollary of the ‘soft realist’ position, the ‘hard liberal’, pro-intervention stance last seen during the Iraq debate. Any debate will be dramatic and any vote close.
If Cameron thinks he will struggle to win parliamentary support, however, he may decide not to risk seeking it. That may have been Hague’s intention in promising a vote in the first place. Matt Baum over at Harvard has done good work on the use of “domestic audience costs” by democratic leaders to tie their own hands deliberately when entering negotiations. Hague may have done that here, by guaranteeing MPs a veto on intervention, even intervention short of military action. Unless the case is clear, and unless Ban Ki-Moon’s strong statements are backed up with an unambiguous UN mandate to act, Cameron may not be able to get sufficient parliamentary support to go ahead, and probably will not want to in any event.
- William Hague: We can act without UN security council unity (blogs.spectator.co.uk)
- America ready to take action against Syria as Iran warns of ‘harsh consequences’ (telegraph.co.uk)
- Choosing between bad options in Syria becomes ever more complex | Observer editorial (theguardian.com)
- Hague urging rapid Syria action (standard.co.uk)
- William Hague: ‘We believe this was a chemical attack by Assad’ (telegraph.co.uk)