Theresa May’s options for military action in Syria

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UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

The prospect of UK military action against the Assad regime has returned to newspaper front pages. In light of parliament’s 2013 decision to block similar strikes, some Conservative MPs have argued that the Prime Minister should avoid a House of Commons vote, and rely on her authority under the Royal Prerogative to order British involvement. In this short post, I consider the different options available to May from a domestic politics perspective. I don’t touch on the strategic and legal difficulties with intervention against the Assad regime, but suffice to say these are considerable and largely unchanged since 2013.

Bypassing MPs is certainly an option, but it is not a straightforward one. A tentative convention has developed since MPs authorized the Iraq War in 2003 that parliament should sign off on the use of military force. It is recognized in the Cabinet Manual and has been endorsed by May’s own spokesman since she entered Downing Street. Many MPs do not even realize that their involvement in decisions on military action in Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013 (which they vetoed), Iraq in 2014 and Syria in 2015 derived from convention rather than law. Ignoring them would have political costs. May should not take this path without accepting that it might further undermine her shaky position in parliament, and without being willing to risk consequences up to and including a motion of no confidence.

Asking MPs for prior approval before joining US-led strikes also looks like a problematic option. It would be consistent with the War Powers Convention. But it seems highly likely that the government would struggle to win, just as David Cameron did in 2013. The government lacks an overall majority. While the DUP has supported military action in the past, it is not bound by the terms of its confidence-and-supply arrangement to support it in future. Its MPs have consistently argued that any use of force must be focused on upholding the national interest, and there is no direct British national interest at stake in Syria, at least as far as the Assad regime is concerned. The main opposition parties – Labour and the SNP – are likely to oppose further intervention in Syria. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has a strong track record of voting against military action – he was, for example, one of just thirteen MPs who opposed intervention in Libya. Though Labour split over action against Da’esh in 2015, with Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn leading 60+ Labour MPs in supporting the government, the party looks more united now and the moral case for action is weaker.

May could order the use of force, then seek retrospective approval from MPs. David Cameron did this over Libya in 2011 and in authorizing a UAV strike on Syria in 2015. MPs do not, as a rule, like it when governments take this route. Cameron argued it was sometimes necessary, in light of an imminent threat to national security or humanitarian disaster, to act first and ask permission later. It is difficult to see how May could claim either exception to join US strikes against Assad. British national security is not directly threatened, and the humanitarian situation has largely remained unchanged for seven years.

May could, finally, restrict British participation in action against Assad to non-combat roles, such as providing surveillance and logistical support to its US and French allies, or by deploying Special Forces. Neither non-combat actions nor Special Forces operations presently fall under the War Powers Convention, meaning May retains discretion to act as she sees fit. Opponents of further engagement in Syria might, however, push back against this – they managed to prevent the Cameron government offering military support to opposition groups, for example, and one of the benefits of having a War Powers Convention instead of a War Powers Act is that MPs can demand more power over situations they particularly care about.

In sum, therefore, the May government’s best political option is probably not to join direct military action in Syria. Instead, it should offer its allies indirect support, perhaps including the use of Special Forces for reconnaissance purposes. That would enable it to demonstrate a degree of usefulness at a difficult diplomatic moment, without risking either holding, or visibly bypassing, a parliamentary vote.

I discuss these arguments in more detail in my recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (£).

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