Cameron’s long-awaited victory on Syria

Published by The Financial Times (3rd December, 2015)

So here we go again. Britain has embarked on another military intervention, with Royal Air Force Tornado jets setting off from Cyprus to drop bombs on oilfields just hours after MPs sanctioned attacks on Syria. Prime minister David Cameron, while nervous about being blamed for the inevitable backlash from jihadis, will be relieved by the restoration of his authority on foreign affairs.

Never mind the gaping flaws in his arguments, the daft discussion over what to call the enemy, the injudicious attempt to dissuade waverers with talk of voting alongside ‘terrorist sympathisers’, even the minimal impact of Britain’s diminished armed forces on the struggle to defeat the militants of Isis. Put aside the Labour’s party’s bizarre public meltdown. The crucial point for Mr Cameron was that he asked the House of Commons to back him on a new battlefront — and he was given strong endorsement for his actions.

For two years, he has been smarting over the previous parliamentary vote on Syria that humiliated him personally and weakened Britain’s standing on the world stage. After pushing US President Barack Obama and lobbying other western leaders to get tough on Bashar al-Assad following the Syrian president’s apparent use of chemical weapons, Mr Cameron was restrained by parliament voting against air strikes. His plans were scuppered by the machinations of Ed Miliband, then leader of the opposition Labour Party, alongside scepticism from coalition partners and a chunk of his own party. The wider public, meanwhile, was clearly weary of war.

Despite his dignified response to the defeat, Mr Cameron was infuriated at the blow to his authority. There is, in truth, something strange about the post-Iraq idea that parliament must sanction war, which is one more sign of the intensity of public distrust for politicians. As his advisers point out, this makes allies nervous at a time of global tumult; how quickly and strongly, for instance, would Britain react if Russia made a serious assault on a Nato nation? Our security reassurances to Ukraine when it gave up nuclear weapons proved worthless, after all.

This explains why Mr Cameron took such care promoting the case to extend British engagement against Isis to Syria. This approach paid off, with just seven Tory MPs rejecting his call to arms. Last month’s atrocities in Paris provided an excuse, although polling showed public anger tailing off rapidly. But his whips calculated the odds with precision, wavering MPs were given intelligence briefings, judicial cover was obtained — there was even the figleaf of a UN security resolution. He was aided by Labour once more using a war abroad to settle internal scores, although this time the party strife helped rather than hindered the prime minister’s plans.

Mr Cameron has long been a liberal interventionist. Many observers were thrown by his declaration that he was not a neoconservative ‘who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane from 40,000ft’. But as a young man he was inspired by visiting Berlin after the wall fell, and his historical heroes include Giuseppe Garibaldi, the romantic Italian nationalist, and Viscount Palmerston, a Downing Street predecessor fond of gunboat democracy. For all his domestic pragmatism, the Conservative leader is a prime minister who believes in acting abroad, as demonstrated since his earliest days in opposition.

This can lead to a contorted foreign policy, as seen with alarming clarity over Syria. Where once we were told Mr Assad threatened us, now we are in effect backing the bloodstained despot in Damascus to fight the jihadis that threaten his regime. We are siding with Russia, which was our chief concern a few months ago over aggression in Europe and the bombing of moderate forces in Syria. We sell weapons to Arab nations that are behind the spread of Islamic extremism. And there is little talk of Libya, where Isis is building its next stronghold in Sirte and our allies back opposing forces amid the chaos.

Has Britain swept away the dark shadow of Iraq with Wednesday’s vote in parliament? Certainly there is a strong chance of violent jihadi reaction to the country joining the forces bombing Syria — although, since the RAF is already attacking militants in Iraq, this felt the most spurious argument against the latest military manoeuvres. Yet for now two things are clear. First, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has become more farcical than even his fiercest critics imagined possible; and, second, a strengthened prime minister will derive satisfaction from tightening his grip on his party while reinvigorating the authority of his office.

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