British Prime Minister's Call For Action In Syria Stalls

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron had planned to get backing from Parliament Thursday – approving a possible military intervention. Instead, he's been forced to back down. The Labour Party announced it would vote against military action in Syria.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As Scott just alluded to, key to American thinking is what Great Britain thinks. The U.K. is, of course, a traditional ally, a partner in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Prime Minister David Cameron has been pressing for action. He had hoped to get backing from parliament today, approving a possible military intervention. Instead Cameron found himself making his case to parliament, a parliament that was pushing back. Here he was just moments ago.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Put simply, is it in Britain's national interest to maintain an international taboo about the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield? My argument is, yes, it is.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Philip Reeves has been following this debate and joins us now from London. Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So some pretty strong words from the prime minister. What else is he saying to make his case?

REEVES: Well, yes, it's an emotional and passionate performance from David Cameron, particularly when he ran through the evidence of what actually happened just over a week ago, describing scenes of, you know, of dying children and the horrific YouTube videos, which he said people should force themselves to watch.

He talked about the importance of upholding international law on chemical weapons, warning that it might happen again, that Assad's regime, which he blames were using them, might use them again if nothing's done. And he quoted quite extensively from a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment, which was released just before the debate began as part of the government's efforts to win over parliament to its side.

And that assessment says that it's highly likely that the Assad regime did the attack, although the committee expresses uncertainty about the regime's motives for it. It also says there's highly convincing evidence that the Syrian regime also used lethal chemical weapons on a smaller scale on 14 earlier occasions, beginning last year. And that, it says, points to a clear pattern of use.

But the language it uses is not absolutely conclusive. It talks of this being highly likely. It doesn't use the word proven, and David Cameron admitted that. He's just told parliament, and I quote: "In the end there's no 100 percent certainty of who was responsible. You have to make a judgment."

MONTAGNE: And how did Cameron find himself in this situation, struggling somewhat, you know, to make his case, when he had actually hoped to have military intervention approved by parliament today?

REEVES: Yeah, you're right. I mean he really is struggling to sell the idea of a military strike on Syria to the nation. Today was supposed to be this decisive day. Its members - the members of parliament - cut short their summer vacations and, you know, flew in from far and wide for an emergency debate on the crisis, and it was going to include a vote that authorized military action. Legally, the government doesn't have to have that, but it's very difficult to proceed without it.

And at first there was a general consensus that this vote would pass easily, but that changed. It became clear that many among the British public are against military intervention. A significant number within Cameron's own Conservative Party have great reservations.

Labour, the main opposition party, demanded more evidence. It said it wanted the U.N. weapons inspectors to be allowed to finish up and present their findings to the U.N. Security Council. Otherwise the party threatened to vote against the use of force.

So facing the possibility of a very embarrassing defeat, Cameron climbs down. He agreed there will be a vote in principle today on a motion that states that there will be a second critical vote next week on whether to authorize a military strike after the U.N. inspectors have reported and the matter has gone before the U.N. Security Council.

MONTAGNE: Well, looking at this all, now it's come about, some of this must be the legacy of the Iraq War.

REEVES: Oh, absolutely. Iraq left deep scars and bitter memories. David Cameron and parliament just now acknowledged that the shadow of Iraq hangs over all of this, especially for the Labour Party, which was in power and whose leader, Tony Blair, led the nation into war 10 years ago.

Many parliamentarians here feel they were stampeded somewhat into giving their support for that war, on what turned out to be bad information, and regret voting in favor of it. They don't want that to happen again, and so they're trying to proceed with great caution this time around.

MONTAGNE: Phil, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Philip Reeves speaking to us from London.

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