As the Syrian war intensifies and the UN warns about the growing suffering of the Syrian people, is David Cameron facing a backbench revolt that could scupper his plans to help arm rebel groups?
On Friday Syrian troops, backed by fighters from militant Lebanese organisation Hezbollah, made advances into Syria’s countryside following their capture of the town of Qusair – touted by Syrian state television as a game-changing moment in the war.
At the same time, the UN warned that there will be 3.5 million refugees created by the two-year-old conflict by the end of 2013, and called for $5.32bn from countries around the world to provide aid.
I don’t think that there’s any appetite, amongst MPs or the wider public, to get involved in another Midde Eastern conflict. Andrew Bridgen MP
Both events could provide justifications for the prime minister’s calls to arm rebel groups, something which is also supported by unpopular French president Francois Hollande.
However, the prime minister is now facing disquiet from within the ranks of his own party on his plans to help rebel groups.
A letter, signed by 82 Conservative MPs, has been sent to the prime minister demanding that, before any decision is taken for the UK to get further involved in the Syria conflict, that a debate and vote take place in parliament.
The letter was written by Andrew Bridgen MP, who told Channel 4 News that the prime minister would need an “exceptionally good argument” to convince MPs to vote in favour of getting involved in “another Midde Eastern conflict”.
“I don’t see that there’s a great deal to choose between the Assad regime and some of the rebels factions,” he said. “I would like him to come to the dispatch box and argue the case.
“I don’t think that there’s any appetite, amongst MPs or the wider public, to get involved in another Midde Eastern conflict.”
It is in our supreme national interest that our deadly enemies al-Qaeda do not get their hands on weapons of mass destruction or nerve agents like sarin. Julian Lewis MP
The letter (extract, below), signed by 81 other MPs, said that the “division and sensitivity that this issue evokes both with colleagues and the general public dictates that it is a matter that needs to be subjected to full parliamentary security”.
MPs fear that the prime minister may try and push through such a decision during the parliamentary summer recess, which begins next month, or may try and hold a debate after the decision has been made.
Julian Lewis, a former shadow defence secretary and one of the Conservative MPs who signed Mr Bridgen’s letter, said the “maths” suggests Mr Cameron would be defeated if he allowed the decision to arm rebels to be decided in the Commons.
“The opposition would vote fairly solidly against it, it’s likely that the Liberal Democrats MPs who are not in government would vote against it, and it is likely that a very significant number of the 81 who signed the letter would vote against it,” he told Channel 4 News.
He added that it was likely that members of the cabinet would be among those opposing further British involvement in Syria.
He also said that we would be “absolutely insane” to provide arms to rebel groups. “It is in our supreme national interest that our deadly enemies al-Qaeda do not get their hands on weapons of mass destruction or nerve agents like sarin,” he said. Al-Nusra, one of the rebel groups fighting in Syria, announced it was a part of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the start of the year.
As well as the letter, Mr Bridgen also submiited an early day motion, calling for the debate and vote. The EDM received 34 signatures, from across parties. As well as recognisable Conservative names such as Peter Bottomley, Stewart Jackson, and former I’m a Celebrity contestant Nadine Dorries, the EDM was signed by MPs from other parties, including Labour’s Glenda Jackson, Liberal Democrat John Hemming and George Galloway.
If the fighting doesn’t stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is simply not prepared. Antonio Guterres, UN refugee chief
The motion was also seconded by Labour MP Frank Field and Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland.
Dowing Street had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication, but said in a press brefing on Thursday that “the prime minister had set out that he had never been someone who wanted to stand against the house having a say on any of those issues”.
On Friday Syrian troops, backed by Hezbollah, took two small villages near Qusair. State news agency SANA said troops faced little resistance as they started pressing into the countries heartland.
However, Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said people should not be fooled into thinking Qusair was a “game changer”.
“Is this a turning point? I don’t particularly think so,” he told Channel 4 News. “There will be other victories like this for both sides.”
He added that more interesting at the moment was that the country had become a “magnet for all sorts of extremists” including different kinds of Sunni and Shia jihadists.
However, the UN also warned on Friday that a refugee crisis in the country was spiralling out of control.
UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres told a news conference in Geneva that it is expected that the number of refugees created by the civil war will reach 3.5 million by the end of the year.
“If the fighting doesn’t stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is simply not prepared,” Guterres said, adding that Lebanon and Jordan in particular have borne the financial brunt of hosting about 500,000 Syrian refugees each.
The UN asked donor countries for $5.2bn to help alleviate the suffering of millions of people inside and outside Syria who are struggling with the effects of a conflict.