Will Paris Attacks Breathe New Life Into London’s Special Relationship With the U.S.?
David Cameron hopes Parliament will give him the green light to take part in Washington’s air war against the Islamic State in Syria.
This story has been updated.
Just over two years ago, the Sun, a popular British tabloid, marked what it described as the demise of the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom with a mock death notice. The funeral, it noted in a cheeky reference to Paris’s growing military cooperation with Washington, would be held at the French Embassy in London.
The fake announcement came a day after the British Parliament had rejected a request by Prime Minister David Cameron to join the United States in carrying out retaliatory airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons — a step France had already agreed to take. The parliamentary shootdown, which marked the first time in years that the U.K. had rejected a request for military support from the United States, has lingered among many British politicians and diplomats as a source of deep embarrassment.
Now, with the Paris mass killings fueling fear of more terrorist attacks in Europe, Cameron is seeking to resuscitate London’s special relationship with Washington by launching the same type of muscular military intervention he’d been unable to pursue two years earlier.
In an address to the British House of Commons on Thursday, Nov. 26, Cameron outlined Britain’s case for a broader and deeper role in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, including by asking Parliament for a green light to join the U.S.-led air war in Syria. Britain cannot “outsource our security,” he said. The United States and France, he said, had appealed to Britain to join forces in the campaign against the extremist group.
“These are our closest allies and they want out help,” he said, according to a report in Al Jazeera. “We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now. And we must not shirk from our responsibility for security or hand it to others.”
Cameron said that he would not call for a parliamentary vote unless he was certain that it would succeed. And he ruled out the deployment of British “boots on the ground,” the BBC reported. But British officials, meanwhile, have informed their counterparts that they feel more confident than ever that Cameron can secure a parliamentary majority, according to a Western diplomat whose government was briefed by Britain.
This week, Britain highlighted the importance of the U.S.-U.K. “special relationship” in its 2015 National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review, saying the close friendship with Washington “remains essential to our national security.” The review also indirectly addresses U.S. concerns that British defense cuts in recent years have diminished the U.K.’s ability to carry its weight on the world stage, citing plans to increase defense spending and reinforce its capacity to deploy squadrons of F-35 combat aircraft on new aircraft carriers.
The review also underscores Britain’s concerns about the dangers posed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. “The threat from Islamist terrorist groups to the UK, including to British nationals and interests overseas, has increased,” according to the review, which noted that 800 British nationals have gone to Syria to fight alongside the militants. “Since 2010, over 60 British nationals have been killed as victims of terrorism overseas, including in the recent attacks in Sousse and Paris. The terrorist threat is fed, supported and sanctioned by extremist ideologies.”
British officials insist that Cameron’s push for action in Syria is driven more by a cold-eyed calculation that the Islamic State’s spread poses a direct threat to Britain’s national security than by a desire to put its military relations with Washington on a firmer footing. The British leader has been swayed by a spate of terrorist attacks, including the downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai desert and the recent attacks against Beirut and Paris.
Like the United States and France, which have been carrying out airstrikes in northern Syria without an invitation by the Syrian government, Britain maintains that it already possess legal authority to act in Syria under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which allows countries to use force in self-defense. But it has also invoked the passage of a recent U.N. Security Council measure, Resolution 2249, that calls on countries to take “all necessary measures” to defeat the Islamic State.
While not a clear-cut authorization for the use of military force, the resolution would nevertheless provide greater political cover for countries considering entering the war against the Islamic State. Addressing Parliament on Monday, Cameron voiced support for France’s decision to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. “It is my firm conviction that Britain should do so too,” he said. “Of course, that will be a decision for Parliament to make.”
Britain’s past unwillingness to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States on Syria is rooted in the legacy of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on the faulty pretext of destroying weapons of mass destruction. The British Parliament has been more cautious about authorizing the use of force, particularly without an invitation from a legitimate government or explicit authorization from the U.N. Security Council.
In October, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged in an interview with CNN that “mistakes” had been made in the planning and conduct of the Iraq invasion and conceded that there are “elements of truth” in assertions that the invasion of Iraq sowed the seeds for the emergence of the Islamic State, which drew some of its expertise from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military.
“I can say that I apologize for the fact that the intelligence we received was wrong because, even though [Saddam] had used chemical weapons extensively against his own people, against others, the program in the form that we thought it was did not exist in the way that we thought,” he said.
In contrast, France, which vigorously opposed the Iraq invasion, has proved far more willing to use force, playing a lead role in military operations in Libya, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and the Central African Republic.
The French were initially cautious about joining the air war in Syria, but they had reversed course and had joined the air coalition even before terrorists killed more than 130 people in Paris earlier this month. France has sharply ramped up its military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria since the attack and has moved its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the region. In all, France has conducted more than 270 air strikes against the Islamic State, including only 12 in Syria, according to the U.S. military.
Philippe Le Corre, a French analyst and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it is “fairly good news” that Britain wants to get more involved. But he said it is hard to predict how the parliamentary debate will play out. “The House of Commons is a very tough place; people are very good at debating, and I’m sure there will be people saying, ‘We don’t want to get involved in any military action,” he said.
Nick Witney, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that Cameron had been “traumatized” by his failure to secure parliamentary backing in 2013 to bomb Syria.
That rejection contributed to U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to withhold airstrikes and to instead negotiate a deal with Russia to have Syria voluntarily dismantle its chemical weapons program.
But, Witney said, Cameron is in a much stronger political position today. The Labour Party — which is led by Jeremy Corbyn, who is strongly anti-war — is divided, raising the prospect of potential defections on a vote, which could take place early next week.
Witney believes it would be a mistake to undertake military action in Syria, saying it would add little military muscle to the coalition, make it easier for extremists to recruit British followers, and heighten the risks of a terrorist attack on British soil. But that reasoning, he fears, will not carry the day.
“There are Labour members, or Blairites, who are extremely tempted to vote in support of bombing, not particularly on the issues, but simply to stick it to their leader, Corbyn,” he said. “I suspect we will start bombing.”
Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent, Dan De Luce, contributed reporting to this article.
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