Thursday’s House of Commons debate on the principle of military action in Syria to relieve humanitarian suffering was notable for the distinctly conciliatory tone adopted by Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron was undoubtedly in a weaker position than he had been envisaging – parliament had been reconvened early with the express aim of gaining approval for a limited intervention. The government was forced into watering down its initial motion, however, when it became clear that the opposition Labour Party would not support strikes before the UN chemical weapons team in Damascus had completed its investigation. Ed Miliband’s resistance risked embarrassment for Downing Street given the likely number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat rebels.
The scaled-down nature of the motion cannot in itself, though, explain the somewhat passive nature of Cameron’s performance at the despatch box. The PM repeatedly framed possible Syrian engagement in terms of what it wasn’t, insisting: “It is not about taking sides in the Syrian conflict, it is not about invading, it is not about regime change and it is not even about working more closely with the opposition”. He stressed that there was no “smoking gun” piece of intelligence that would unequivocally attribute blame for last week’s grotesque attacks at the door of the Assad regime. Central to these statements is the simple reality that, a decade on, the memory of the disastrous Iraq war still burns brightly in the minds of our political class – not least our commander-in-chief. As Cameron admitted, that conflict well and truly poisoned “the well of public opinion” with regard to foreign military intervention.
The Iraq ghost has had a leading role to play in several contributing factors that consigned the government to defeat on Thursday night’s motion. As Cameron spoke the most significant word was one that was utterly avoided (indeed one which has been stripped entirely from the political lexicon) yet hung in the air nonetheless – ‘dossier’. In admitting, very openly, that no one strand of evidence could condemn Assad beyond any doubt, the PM was at pains to avoid parallels with the ‘sexed-up’ document that supposedly justified intervention in Iraq in September 2002, on the grounds of the existence of WMDs. We all know what happened there. In the event Cameron’s willingness to hit the Syrian government before the UN team had even finalised its findings – he implored MPs to make a “judgement” based on circumstances that were not 100% conclusive – came off as dubious. Ultimately, his desperation to avoid Tony Blair’s toxic Iraq legacy meant that he did a lacklustre job of pitching Syrian action.
Memories of his former party leader were also keenly felt by Miliband. His decision to demand the maximum possible legitimacy and legal cover in exchange for Labour support for intervention was an attempt to put to rest the ghost that has stubbornly encircled his party. Downing Street officials were well aware of how far this compromised their position, furiously accusing the Labour leader of playing politics and aiding the Assad regime. This opposition to the original motion, combined with the deep scepticism already felt by many MPs, paved the way for the government’s stunning defeat.
The security forces themselves have also not forgotten their implication in the Iraq conflict. The Joint Intelligence Committee analysis relied on by Cameron asserted that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government had carried out last week’s chemical weapons attacks. However a former British intelligence official has stated that this was probably an understatement of the committee’s true belief, as a result of the manner in which the UK security community got its fingers burned by the ‘dodgy dossier’ episode. Additionally, top defence figures are said to have been doubtful of plans for a punitive missile strike on the Assad regime, describing them as naïve and childlike. These considerations may well have contributed to the slightly underwhelming nature of the intelligence report, constituting another factor in Downing Street’s parliamentary loss.
The specter of Iraq, then, heavily influenced Thursday’s events. It hung over the presentation of Cameron’s pitch, shaped the reaction of the Labour leadership and MPs of all parties, and may even have seeped its way into the workings of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Tony Blair’s actions a decade ago, and the legacy they left behind, have had the knock-on effect of weakening the current PM’s authority – it is unheard of in modern times for a UK leader to fail to get his way on foreign policy. The effect on any wider Syrian intervention will probably be minimal – the US has signalled its willingness to carry out action without the military support of its closest ally, and the French are still ramping up their rhetoric. However, after a summer spent closing the gap with an increasingly rudderless Labour opposition, the self-confessed ‘heir to Blair’ may live to rue the boldness of his political antecedent.