Syria and the UK’s ‘no’ vote

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On the eve of Thursday 29th August, the British Prime Minster David Cameron faced political humiliation as his proposed motion for military intervention in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was defeated by 285 votes to 272. Assad’s regime has ignored several international laws and warnings in using chemical weapons against its own people. So what now for both Syria and the UK?

Cameron said that he would respect and “act accordingly” with the MPs verdict not to provide the United States military support in Syria. This decision not to enter into a military partnership with the US breaks a long-standing tradition in the two powers’ ‘special relationship’.

Following the vote, Chancellor George Osborne told BBC’s Radio 4 that he hoped this wasn’t “the moment where we turn our back on the world’s problems”. Opinion polls show that the British people are still painfully aware of the messy aftermath and consequences of Iraq. Despite voting to take action in Libya two years ago, they don’t want to become embroiled in more UK-US action in the Middle East.

The UK will now take a lead in diplomatic peace talks whilst awaiting the verdict on chemical weapons use by the UN weapons inspectors. However, despite MPs voting against immediate military action in Syria, if the UN Security Council finds Syria guilty of using banned chemical weapons, the UK may be legally obliged to undertake military action as stated by Article 43 of the UN charter:

All Members of the United Nationsundertake to make available to the Security Council, on its call and in accordance with a special agreement or agreements, armed forces, assistance, and facilities, including rights of passage, necessary for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security.

There will be continued debate within the UK regarding its role in Syria following the vote. Whilst the world awaits the report by the UN Security Council on whether chemical weapons were used, the UK can only provide diplomatic and humanitarian aid, which only has limited success. Keen to be seen taking action, Nick Clegg has announced a boost of £100 million in aid to Syria, taking the UK total up to £500 million.

Meanwhile, a recent poll by The Telegraph suggested that 16 per cent of the British public wanted ‘no military action’, and for the UK to stop providing aid to Syria. Nonetheless, the UK signed the ‘Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention’ in 1975 banning the use of chemical weapons, and so to ignore this, the UK would break its contractual agreement with the international community on chemical weapons as well as its global aid responsibilities, leading to the ethically unbearable decision that the UK can ‘pick and choose’ its battles.

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