The UK will have to make a “judgment call” over military intervention in Syria, David Cameron says as he goes head-to-head with Ed Miliband in the House of Commons.
Mr Cameron was speaking as MPs prepared to vote on a motion before parliament which could set the UK on the path to war with Syria.
He said the UK could never be “100 per cent certain” about who was responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, but added that in his view there was “no doubt” that Assad was responsible to blame.
You can never forget the sight of children’s bodies stored in ice, of men and women gasping for air. David Cameron
However, he said there was “no one smoking piece of evidence” and directed members of the House of Commons to video evidence posted on social media websites.
“You can never forget the sight of children’s bodies stored in ice, of men and women gasping for air,” the prime minister said.
The debate pitted Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband against each other over the issue of UK involvement in Syria – with the Labour leader urging parliament to wait for more evidence from a team of UN inspectors in Damascus.
Mr Cameron told the House of Commons that the issue being debated in parliament today was not about invading Syria, or about regime change.
“It’s not about taking sides in the conflict, it’s not about invading, it’s not about regime change or indeed working more closely with the opposition,” he said.
“It’s about the large-scale use of chemical weapons and our response to a war crime – nothing else.”
The government's resolution called for parliament to vote on a number of statements, including that it:
• agree that a strong humanitarian response is needed in Syria;
• note that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime, and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
• note the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
• agree that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any action;
• agree that before any direct British involvement in such action takes place, a further vote of the House of Commons will take place.
The resolution leaves the prospect of military intervention in Syria open even if the UN Security Council were to vote against it, following a legal justification released by the government on Thursday.
Mr Cameron said: “It cannot be the case that that is the only way to have a legal basis for action and we should consider for a moment what the consequences would be if that were the case.
“You could have a situation in a country where its government was literally annihilating half the people in that country but because of one veto on the Security Council you would be hampered from taking any action.
We are not going to support a government motion which was briefed this morning as setting out an in principle decision to take military action. Ed Miliband
“I can’t think of any member in any party of this house who would want to sign up to that.
“That’s why it’s important we do have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention which is set out in the Attorney General’s excellent legal advice to this house.”
Mr Cameron also argued that if the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime went “unpunished”, then “there will be nothing to stop Assad and other dictators using chemical weapons again and again.”
However, Ed Miliband dismissed the government’s motion – saying it was loaded in favour of military action, prior to reports from the United Nations.
“We are not going to support a government motion which was briefed this morning as setting out an in principle decision to take military action, “ he said.
Labour set out its amendments to the motion – which including calls for “compelling evidence”, “a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action” and for such action to be “proportionate, time-limited and have precise and achievable objectives.”
It also called for any action to have regard for potential consequences in the region.
Mr Miliband said he was not ruling out the option of military intervention in Syria, but said: “I don’t think anybody in this house or anybody in the country should be under any illusions about the effect of our relationship to the conflict in Syria if we were to militarily intervene.
“As I say, and as I will develop in my remarks, that does not for me rule out intervention – but I think we need to be clear-eyed about the impact that this would have.
“Let me also say that this is one of the most solemn duties that this house possesses and in our minds should be this simple question which is – upholding international law and legitimacy – how can we make the lives of the Syrian people better?
“And we should also have in our minds – it’s right to remember it on this occasion – the duty we owe to the exceptional men and women of our armed forces and their families who will face the direct consequences of any decision that we make.”
However, a furious row over Mr Miliband’s views appears to have broken out after the debate. It was reported on the Telegraph live feed that spokespeople for Mr Cameron accused Mr Miliband of “giving succour” to the Assad regime, and of “flip-flopping” over taking action.
Labour said Downing Street has “lowered itself to the level of personal abuse”, with Mr Miliband’s spokesperson saying the suggestion was “frankly insulting”.
The debate repeatedly returned to one theme in particular – the mistakes made in the invasion of Iraq.
This is not like Iraq, what we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. David Cameron
“I am very clear about the fact that we have to learn the lessons of Iraq,” Mr Miliband said.
“Of course we have got to learn those lessons and one of the most important lessons was indeed about respect for the United Nations and that is part of our amendment today.”
Mr Cameron, while conceding that public opinion had been “poisoned” by the Iraq episode, said the case for the Iraq war was very different from the case for intervention in Syria.
He said: “I am of course deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts and in particular the deep concerns in the country caused by what went wrong with the Iraq conflict in 2003.
“But this is not like Iraq, what we are seeing in Syria is fundamentally different. We are not invading a country. We are not searching for chemical or biological weapons.
“The case for ultimately, and I say ultimately because there would have to be another vote in this house, the case for ultimately supporting action is not based on a specific piece or pieces of intelligence.
“The fact the Syrian government has and has used chemical weapons is beyond doubt. The fact that the most recent attack took place is not seriously doubted.
“The Syrian government has said it took place, even the Iranian president has said it took place and the evidence that the Syrian regime has used these weapons in the early hours of 21 August is right in front of our eyes.
We write to you as fellow human beings for, if you bomb us, shall we not bleed? Syrian government letter to UK parliament
“We have multiple eyewitness accounts of chemical-filled rockets being used against opposition controlled areas.
“We have thousands of social media reports and at least 95 different videos, horrific videos, documenting the evidence.”
Before the debate, the speaker of the Syrian parliament sent a letter to the British parliament urging it not to engage in military action:
“We write to you as fathers and mothers, as members of communities really not so different to yours.
“We write to you as fellow human beings for, if you bomb us, shall we not bleed?”
The letter said that UK military action against Syria would be illegal because it would not have the backing of the UN Security Council, because the Syrian regime poses no threat to the UK, because UN inspectors have not finished their reports on the Damascus attack, and because there is evidence that Islamist groups such as the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusrah have used poisonous gas.
“We ask you to stop the rush to reckless action,” the letter concluded. “It is in your power today to turn Great Gritain from the war path and back to the diplomatic road.
“We hope to meet you on that road, and to talk, as civilised peoples should.”