THERE will be no British involvement in a missile strike against
the Syrian government, after MPs voted against a military response
to the use of chemical weapons in the country's civil war.
After a debate on Thursday, MPs rejected the motion endorsing
the use of force "if necessary" by 285 votes to 272. Among those
voting against the motion were 30 Conservative MPs.
In a parallel debate in the House of Lords, the Archbishop of
Canterbury questioned whether alternative courses of action had
During his speech setting out the case for action, the Prime
Minister suggested that "the well of public opinion was well and
truly poisoned by the Iraq episode". But, he argued, the situation
in Syria was "fundamentally different". Referring to the horrors of
a suspected chemical attack in Damascus last week (News,
29 August), he set out Britain's duty to "uphold that
international taboo against the use of chemical weapons".
After quoting from a letter from the Joint Intelligence
Committee ("It is not possible for the opposition to have carried
out a chemical weapons attack on this scale"), Mr Cameron conceded
that no intelligence existed to "convince me that I am right and
anyone who disagrees with me is wrong". But he argued: "We all have
to reach a judgement about what happened and who was responsible. .
. and the intelligence that I have reported - is enough to conclude
that the regime is responsible and should be held accountable."
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, called for "compelling evidence
that the Syrian regime was responsible for the attack", demanding
that the Prime Minister "must make a better case" for military
action. Parliament should devote "time and space to scrutinise what
is being proposed by the Government, to see what the implications
Having lost the vote at 10 p.m., at the end of a debate of more
than seven hours, Mr Cameron said: "I strongly believe in the need
for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons but I also
believe in respecting the will of the House of Commons. It is clear
to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the
British people, does not want to see British military action. I get
that, and the Government will act accordingly."
Last night, the defence secretary, Philip Hammond, confirmed
that Britain would not take military action in Syria.
In a speech in the House of Lords, before the Commons voted, the
Archbishop of Canterbury noted: "There is as much risk in inaction
as there is in action"; but he suggested that the Just War theory
taught: "The step of opening fire is one that must only be taken
when there is no possible alternative whatsoever, under any
He was among several peers who warned of the consequences of
intervention for Christians in the Middle East. A "very senior
Christian leader in the region" had told him on Wednesday that
"intervention from abroad will declare open season on the Christian
He warned: "If we take action that diminishes the chance of
peace and reconciliation, when inevitably a political solution has
to be found, whether it's near term or in the long-term future,
then we will have contributed to more killing, and this war will be
A C of E briefing paper sent to peers before the debate
rehearsed the Just War criteria for action. In the section about
the need for a reasonable chance of success, it states: "The Middle
East is both angry and frightened at present. It is also bitterly
divided and increasingly violent. To lunch Cruise missiles into
this volatile situation is to to invite the unforeseeable and for
the unwanted to make its explosive appearance."
Baroness Cox quoted the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch
of Antioch, Gregorios III, who last week escaped a bomb blast in
Damascus. He had described the threat of Western military
intervention as "a tragedy - for the whole country and the whole
Middle East". He had also highlighted a "growing concern that
Christianity is being eradicated from the very place Christ and his
first disciples once knew as their own".
Concerns about the plight of Christians were also raised in the
House of Commons. Dr Liam Fox, a former defence secretary, warned:
"To exchange an Iran-friendly and Hezbollah-friendly Assad regime
for an anti-West, anti-Christian, and anti-Israel al-Qaeda regime
does not seem to offer us any advantage."
Before the vote, Syrian clergy had spoken out against military
29 August), calling instead for a political solution to the
On Friday, the General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in
the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, wrote on Twitter: "Thankful
for UKParliament decision on Syria. World does not need another
war! Now we can start thinking how to really help Syrian
Janet Symes, Middle East head at Christian Aid, also welcomed
the vote. "We are really pleased with the outcome, particularly
because of the consideration that was given to the humanitarian
consequences of military action," she said on Friday.
"Our view is that peaceful alternatives have not been exhausted.
. . One of the angles we have been thinking through, is how the
British Government can assist the different parties in the conflict
to be able to engage in reconciliation and negotation. . .
"Not taking military action does not mean that we are saying yes
to impunity, or that we are saying no to action. . . The British
Government is in an excellent position to be able to lead and
engage with others in the international community, to bring
alternatives to the fore."
In Parliament's search for alternatives to military
intervention, bishops did not escape notice. In the House of Lords,
the cross-bench peer Lord Thomas of Swynnerton suggested that
"churchmen" be included in a delegation sent to negotiate with
President Assad. "That might inspire the Syrian leaders to realise
that at least we are capable of novelty, if nothing else."