Britain prepares to bomb Syria after Wednesday vote

Britain prepares to bomb Syria after Wednesday vote
Prime Minister David Cameron called for a debate and vote in parliament on Wednesday on whether Britain should launch air raids against militants in Syria.
4 min read
01 December, 2015
The Stop The War Coalition held a 5,000-strong anti-bombing protest at Downing Street [Getty]

Britain looks poised to bomb Islamic State group targets in Syria this week after Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Monday that a vote would be held in parliament on Wednesday.

The announcement came after the main opposition Labour party decided to let its MPs vote with their individual consciences rather than trying to force them to oppose military action, meaning Cameron is set to get the clear majority he wanted.

But Labour was left looking deeply split on the issue after its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, confirmed that he would vote against a new military campaign in Syria - while a string of other centrist MPs said they would support airstrikes.

"I can announce that I will be recommending to Cabinet tomorrow that we hold a debate and a vote in the House of Commons to extend the airstrikes," Cameron said in a televised statement.

"We will make sure that we have a very long and full debate on Wednesday."

Cameron has wanted Britain to extend its operations against IS extremists in Iraq to Syria for months but held back because he would not have been able to gain support from parliament due to Labour opposition.

His previous government suffered one of its most embarrassing defeats in 2013 when it lost a vote on a plan to take military action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

However, in the wake of this month's Paris attacks which killed 130 people, he has made a fresh push for Britain to extend its role in the fight against IS.

In his statement, the prime minister said Britain wanted to "answer the call from our allies and work with them because ISIL [another acronym for IS] is a threat to our country and this is the right thing to do".

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he was now "confident" that most MPs would support airstrikes when there was a vote.

'Not a shambles'

Meanwhile, Corbyn faces the toughest challenge of his nearly three-month leadership over the airstrikes vote.

His party is split between left-wing MPs, largely supported by the many thousands of grassroots activists who swept him to power, who oppose the bombing - and centrist lawmakers who are in favour.

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Monday's shadow cabinet meeting was told that some 43 percent of Labour MPs - nearly 100 out of 231 - supported airstrikes while 57 percent or 132 would oppose them.

His decision to call a free vote was seen as a way of trying to prevent any resignations from his team over the issue.

But analysts said it risked making him look weak because he could not control his own party.

The Stop The War Coalition, which Corbyn helped found and which held a 5,000-strong anti-bombing protest at Downing Street on Saturday, said a free vote made war "much more likely".

The group called for another rally on Tuesday, asking its supporters to march to Labour and Tory Party headquarters to protest against the plans to bomb Syria, a day before the vote.

Corbyn's spokesman said there was "no question" that most of the Labour party's membership was against a military campaign in Syria.

"I don't think it's a shambles, it's taking account of the fact that there are very significant differences of opinion," he added of the decision to hold a free vote.

In a sign of the poltical split, Labour sources said that in Wednesday's pre-vote debate, Corbyn would open proceedings speaking against air strikes - while his foreign affairs spokesman, Hilary Benn, would speak in favour.

Another reason the issue remains so sensitive for Labour is the legacy of past conflicts such as the Iraq war, into which former Labour leader Tony Blair led Britain in 2003 on evidence that was hotly disputed.

The conflict, which left a total of 179 British personnel dead, is now deeply unpopular in Britain.

A YouGov opinion poll published last week found that 59 percent approved of Britain joining airstrikes in Syria, compared with 20 percent who disapproved and 21 percent who "did not know".

Some 127,000 people have also signed a petition to parliament urging a vote against military action in Syria.

Britain has eight Tornado fighter jets and an unconfirmed number of armed and surveillance drones already deployed in the international mission against IS.

But it currently only conducts surveillance and intelligence missions over Syria.