30 Aug 2013

Syria vote: has the UK’s global role been ‘diminished’?

David Cameron says the UK is still “deeply engaged in the world”, but questions are being raised over the international impact of his defeat in the Commons over Syria.

Mr Cameron’s failed attempt to pass the motion, which would have left open the possibility of military intervention in Syria, has been met with concerns about the UK’s role on the global political stage.

I think it’s important we have a robust response to the use of chemical weapons. David Cameron

It is hundreds of years since such a defeat in British politics – something Mr Cameron defends by saying he has “done things differently” by ensuring parliament makes the decision.


But George Osborne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the defeat will lead to “national soul-searching”.

“I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that big, open and trading nation that I like us to be, or whether we turn our back on that,” he said.

Read more from Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson: Spectre of Blair haunts Syria war

“I understand the deep scepticism that many of my colleagues in parliament, many members of the public, have about British military involvement in Syria.

“I hope this doesn’t become a moment where we turn our back on all of the world’s problems.”


Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown responded to the parliamentary result by saying he felt “ashamed.”

He wrote on Twitter: “We are a hugely diminished country this AM. MPs cheered last night. Assad, Putin this morning. Farage too as we plunge towards isolationism.”

Mr Cameron, reeling from the Commons vote, said on Friday morning that he still backed the need for a robust response to the war crimes he says have been carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think it’s important we have a robust response to the use of chemical weapons and there are a series of things we will continue to do,” he said.

“We will continue to take a case to the United Nations, we will continue to work in all the organisations we are members of – whether the EU, or Nato, or the G8 or the G20 – to condemn what’s happened in Syria.

“It’s important we uphold the international taboo on the use of chemical weapons.

“But one thing that was proposed, the potential – only after another vote – involvement of the British military in any action, that won’t be happening.”


The prime minister said Britain had responded to a request for help from the US, but that the result of Wednesday night’s vote does not mean he now needs to “apologise” to President Obama.

He said: “I was faced with three things I wanted to do right and do in the right way. First of all, to condemn absolutely and respond properly to an appalling war crime that took place in Syria.

I think part of the prime minister’s problem in this was that he was working to a political timetable set elsewhere. Ed Miliband

“Secondly, to work with our strongest and most important ally who had made a request for British help. Thirdly, to act as a democrat, to act in a different way to previous prime ministers and properly consult parliament.

“I wanted to do all those three things. Obviously politics is difficult – that involved going to parliament, making an argument in a strong and principled way but then listening to parliament.

Read more from Political Editor gary Gibbon: Has Britain become the new Sweden?

“I think the American people and President Obama will understand that.”

Mr Miliband, whose amendment to the motion was also defeated in the Commons, maintained that the UK-US relationship “remains strong” despite the vote.

“I think part of the prime minister’s problem in this was that he was working to a political timetable set elsewhere,” he said.

“That is why the House of Commons was recalled at such short notice. That is why it seemed there was a rush to war going on.

“I think we need to do things in the right way for Britain.”

US alone?

For Obama, the British vote will be a setback in his plans for “a shot across the bows” in Syria, but the extent of that setback remains to be seen.

On Thursday night his security aides spent 90 minutes on the phone to US lawmakers briefing them on the evidence they say they have that Assad is responsible for a deadly chemical weapons attack in Damascus last week.

It has been reported that the evidence includes amateur video footage which has been posted on social media websites and intercepted phone calls between senior Syrian officials.

The US has four destroyers in the Mediterranean sea, reported to be within range of targets inside Syria, as well as warplanes, and is said to be ready to strike Syria within the next few days.

There have been suggestions that the US would be willing to take action in Syria without support from her allies, though Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said following the British vote that the US was trying to build an “international coalition”.

‘Matter for the British’

One partner that the US could work with is France. President Francois Hollande said on Friday that France would be willing to act without Britain.

He told the newspaper Le Monde that the “chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished”.

People are beginning to understand how dangerous such scenarios are. Uri Yashkov, Russian foreign policy adviser

And Australia, which takes over the chair of the UN Security Council on Sunday, has also said the British vote is a “matter for the British”, but that the international community must press on with its response.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: “That is a matter for the British parliament and the British people. For the rest of the international community, the focus remains exclusively on the diplomatic process in New York.”

Apart from the Syrian regime, one country that will be happy at the British result is Russia. Vladimir Putin’s government, which has consistently blocked UN Security Council resolutions on how to deal with Assad, said on Friday that the British decision reflects the view across Europe.

“People are beginning to understand how dangerous such scenarios are,” said Yuri Ushakov, a senior foreign policy advisor to Putin’s government.