The Middle East Channel

British Parliament blocks military action on Syria

British Parliament blocks military action on Syria

The British Parliament has voted against military action on Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron brought up the motion to the parliament to authorize, in principle, a military response to the alleged chemical weapons attacks. The move was, however, struck down 285 to 272. Cameron said he strongly believes "in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons" but that he will not override parliament’s decision. France said it still backs action on Syria despite the British no vote with President Francois Holland maintaining, "All options are on the table." According to U.S. officials, President Barack Obama is prepared to conduct a limited military strike without British involvement, but is continuing to seek a coalition for possible military action. Pentagon officials reported that the navy has moved a fifth destroyer into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia is reportedly also sending two warships to the eastern Mediterranean, but has said it will not be pulled into a military conflict. After a briefing with senior U.S. lawmakers on Thursday, administration officials said they had "no doubt" of the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. U.S. officials including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry said evidence includes "intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials." U.N. inspectors are continuing their investigation on Friday into the suspected chemical weapons attacks, visiting with Syrian soldiers at a military hospital in a government-held area of Damascus. The team of experts is set to leave Syria on Saturday and will report its findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are debating a draft resolution that would authorize "all necessary force" to respond to the alleged chemical attacks, however will likely not come to a decision until hearing the results of the investigation.


Arguments and Analysis

Obama, Syria & the Constitution‘ (David Cole, New York Review of Books Blog)

"It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as ‘humanitarian intervention,’ on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign’s territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress’s assent.

If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won’t be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua’s civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a ‘police action,’ fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president."

Responsibility to Protect — Or to Punish‘ (Charli Carpenter, Foreign Affairs)

"There are two distinct conversations going on about the legitimacy of the West’s expected military campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The first has to do with whether military action is an appropriate response to the wanton violation of a near-universally held norm — in this case, the taboo against the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime allegedly violated last week. The second centers on whether military action is an appropriate means for protecting civilian populations from atrocities (of whatever kind) committed by their governments. These conversations, although often conflated, have very little to do with one another, since each policy goal suggests a very different form of intervention.

Despite diplomatic rhetoric, the goal of upholding the chemical weapons taboo is not the same thing as the goal of protecting civilians. It has more to do with protecting a set of shared international understandings about the proper conduct of warfare. If the goal were really to protect civilians, the West would have intervened long ago: bombs and guns have killed far more civilians, at least as horribly, as last week’s gas attack.

The Obama administration has already confirmed that its primary concern is with protecting the norm and punishing its violators. Given that goal, the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it. The United States claims that it has ‘no doubt’ that Syria was behind last week’s chemical attack, but that remains an open question until the UN inspectors have completed their investigation. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force. As, a nongovernmental organization notes, these might include condemnation, an arms embargo, sanctions, or any of the other bilateral and multilateral measures that are typically used to respond to violations of weapons norms (and which might be at least as effective than air strikes, if not more so). Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat."

–Mary Casey & Joshua Haber