By Paul Goodman
ConservativeHome website – 26 August 2013
It's clear that the instincts of David Cameron and William Hague, as well as those of French Ministers, have long supported further western military intervention in Syria - that's to say, the supply of more weapons to the Syrian Free Army (British and French pressure eased an EU arms embargo in May); training for elements of it; backing for a no-fly zone. However, any window for such intervention is no longer open. Opinions vary about whether it ever was: Mark Wallace and I have made different cases about the matter on this site. But the military advice the Prime Minister has received is that such action in concert with other western countries isn't practicable (regardless of whether or not it is advisable).
What the Prime Minister now wants overlaps with such action, but isn't identical with it - namely, a missile strike by western countries in response to what he believes was the use of chemical weapons in Ghoura by the Assad regime. But given the wariness in Westminster of Britain being dragged into Syria's civil war, he has three main obstacles to negotiate.
- The Cabinet. Peter Hoskin wrote yesterday about the possibility of Theresa May and Philip Hammond on the Conservative side - leading Cabinet resistance to intervention. This may well be so if military involvement were to be prolonged. But as one Cabinet member told me this morning: "Any Cabinet discussions on Syria next week will be sewn up in advance." This source said that such intervention would be "dubious", and claimed that Samantha Cameron influences policy on Syria. Another Cabinet Minister told me it would be "mad".
- Conservative backbenchers. Peter also today reported Tory MPs such as Andrew Bridgen, Rory Stewart and Sarah Woollaston calling for Parliament to have its say before anything is done: in effect, they and others are demanding that the legislature, not the executive, take any decision. Some Conservative MPs are concerned about constitutional propriety; others are flatly opposed to intervention. But they are united in calling for the Commons to debate the matter before any action is taken.
- The Opposition. The legacy of Iraq has put pay to liberal interventionism on Labour's benches. Douglas Alexander has also urged that Parliament be recalled if military options are being considered, and wants Britain to work with "the international community" (ie Russia and China) to find "an agreed way forward". The Prime Minister will want to keep a wary eye on the Liberal Democrats, who made such domestic hay with Iraq, as well as Labour. Winning Nick Clegg's support is one thing; keeping that of his party quite another.
Julian Lewis, the former Shadow Defence Minister and an opponent of intervention, told me earlier today that there is a case for a missile strike (to show Assad that the use of chemical weapons will meet a response) and a case against (that it would almost certainly end the fragile rapprochment between America and Russia established over weapons inspections).
On balance, he said, he was against such a strike - but that there is an argument for it, and it can be kept distinct from the kind of intervention I described earlier. The Prime Minister could gamble by meeting with the National Security Council on Wednesday, obtaining its consent for an immediate strike, and justifying it after the Commons returns next week.
However, MPs would almost certainly see such a move as a breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of recent Foreign Office indications that the Commons would be consulted. Such short-term action would thus make any further strikes and intervention more difficult for the Government in the medium-term. My sense is that Number Ten recogises this. The most rational way forward for Ministers, therefore, would be for them to make the case for a strike in the Commons. But it is far from certain that this would succeed. On the one hand, MPs will feel that any use of chemical weapons by Assad demands a response. On the other, they won't want Britain to act without UN agreement, and risk being dragged into the Syrian conflict.