So Britain Is Going to War in Syria! Here’s the Danger.

News Abroad
tags: Syria, britain, Syrian War

Luke Reader received a Ph.D. in History from University of California, Irvine. He has published on the imperial policy of the Labour Party and on the BBC. He teaches in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University, has previously taught at John Carroll University, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica College, and Saddleback College and was formerly a press officer in the UK Civil Service.


On December 2nd the House of Commons voted in favor of air strikes on ISIS targets in Syria. Britain has been contributing to attacks on ISIS sites in Iraq for over a year, but so far proved reluctant to begin bombing Syria. The decision won widespread support: 397 MPs voted for air strikes with 223 against. Sixty-seven Labour MPs voted with the Conservative government. The vote is a major victory for Prime Minister David Cameron. His government was defeated in a vote on Syrian air strikes in August 2013. As recently as early November Cameron called off another vote, believing that he could not command a majority in the House of Commons.

In truth, Cameron’s victory was easily won. Sentiment shifted towards intervention in Syria following the November 13th terrorist attacks in Paris. More significantly, a major rift in the Labour Party aided the Conservative government

The Labour Party has no clear position over Syria. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, opposes air strikes, but a large number of shadow cabinet ministers support intervention. Corbyn maintains the support of party members, but did not assert his authority well. The Labour leader tried to forestall debate, encouraging far-left pressure groups such as the Stop the War Coalition and Momentum to cajole MPs and shadow cabinet members into opposing air strikes. MPs intending to vote with Cameron were bullied over social media and threatened with deselection. These strong-arm tactics failed. On Monday, Corbyn conceded a free vote over air strikes.

Corbyn also dealt with the fallout from Paris badly. He equivocated over the right of police to shoot dead terrorists committing a Paris style attack in the UK. Corbyn also seemed to absolve the terrorists of full responsibility for the attacks. In particular, he refused to condemn the statement by the Stop the War Coalition that the Paris attacks were “reaping the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence.” These missteps have left Labour MPs aghast.

The kerfuffle over rifts in the Labour Party has overshadowed a much more important question. What do British voters think about airstrikes?

The answer is: it’s complicated.

Opinion polls taken throughout 2015 have shown support for air strikes by a majority of voters. A YouGov poll taken last week suggested that 59% of respondents supported air strikes with 20% opposed. 41% of people also supported Britain and the U.S. sending ground troops into Syria. Yet a poll taken by YouGov this week recorded a drop in support of air strikes of 11%. Disapproval of air strikes also increased to 31%. Pollsters offer one partial reason for this decline. While Labour voters supported air strikes, members of the party were opposed. But in the last week, party voters have begun to share the views of members.

Support for the Syrian air strikes echoes opinion about the 2003 Iraq War. Historical perceptions of the run-up to the war have been shaped by the great antiwar protest in London on February 15, 2003. This is for good reason. The march attracted between three quarters of a million and a million people. Nonetheless, the war commanded the support of a slight majority between March and September of 2003. This figure did ebb and flow; it is entirely possible that sentiment over Syria is echoing this phenomenon.

Iraq fatigue has made the public suspicious of war. The case for the 2003 conflict was made by Tony Blair on the basis of documents claiming that Iraq had sufficient uranium to make an atomic bomb and that it possessed vast stocks of chemical and biological weapons. These dossiers were later revealed to be nothing more than a series of “sexed upfabrications. While the Chilcot Inquiry into official misconduct over Iraq concluded in 2011, its findings will not be published until at least 2016. This has left many suspicious of foreign intervention. Corbyn’s statement this year that he could see no circumstances under which he would send British troops to war appealed to those disenchanted with Labour over Iraq. This is a fine moral stance. It does make the development of a coherent foreign policy rather difficult though.

Brittle public support may also reflect uncertainty over war aims. The Prime Minister believes that threats from ISIS towards Britain make intervention a necessity. Intervention in Syria is legal under international law. Air strikes fulfill Britain’s responsibility to its allies and international security objectives. But Cameron was less clear in articulating what victory would look like. What would British air strikes achieve? Will air strikes be effective? How will Syria be rebuilt? Cameron’s claim that 70,000 Free Syrian Army troops are waiting to rise up against Pres. Assad is contentious. This force does not seem to exist.

There is clearly an argument for air strikes. In a remarkable speech, shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn explained that resistance to fascism is part of Labour’s tradition of internationalism. But Corbyn’s preference for confrontation to consensus prevented Labour from developing a position that likely reflected public opinion: a demand for more clarity from the government over its long-term intentions in Syria.

Wavering public support suggests that while voters support air strikes, they are not entirely convinced by the government’s arguments. There is a danger that Britain is going to war simply because it cannot think of anything else to do.     

comments powered by Disqus