World News

08.30.13

With Britain Out, Allies Abandon Obama on Syria

Britain is out. Italy is out. Will the U.S. have to go it alone in striking Syria? Nico Hines reports on the crumbling coalition—and why France could be Obama’s best hope.

After the battle to secure a broad international coalition collapsed in disarray, President Obama has indicated that he is willing to act alone in launching a strike against Syria. A swath of regular military allies have sought postponements or rejected the idea of firing missiles toward Damascus.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, one of the loudest advocates of military action, was resoundingly overruled by a skeptical Parliament in London. Italian politicians said their military bases, which were used for international assaults on Libya and Kosovo, would be off limits without a United Nations Security Council resolution. Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands urged caution.

The White House insisted that Obama was willing to act unilaterally if necessary. "As we've said, President Obama's decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Obama’s best chance for international assistance in the short term comes from Paris, where the socialist president, François Hollande, has been suggesting that France was “ready to punish” the Syrian regime. The French military confirmed it was prepared for action, and Hollande said he would not be dissuaded from taking action by events in Britain.

"Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France," he said. “There are few countries which can have the capacity of enforcing any sanction through the appropriate measures. France will be part of it. France is ready."

Most governments, however, have said it is essential to wait for the results of a United Nations investigation into an alleged chemical-weapons attack on the city of Ghouta, although U.N. inspectors were reported to have pulled out of Syria a day early on Friday amid suggestions that a U.S.-led strike could be imminent.

In London, where Cameron has stepped into the role of chief U.S. ally once played by Tony Blair, the issue of supporting American airstrikes descended into farce. The Conservative prime minister was left humiliated after throwing his weight behind military force, only to discover that he could not force his wishes through Parliament.

Video screenshot

David Cameron argued Thursday in favor of military intervention in Syria.

Post-Iraq trust in U.S. and British intelligence is so diminished that Angela Merkel is attempting to gather independent evidence about the alleged chemical attack.

After two conversations with Obama this week, one lasting 40 minutes, Cameron was bullish about the prospects of a joint military strike. He cut short his holiday in Cornwall and raced back to London while Downing Street staff briefed members of the media that military strikes could begin within days. A senior British foreign-policy official boasted to The Daily Beast that Cameron had been prominent in pushing for a trans-Atlantic intervention. “This will be a joint U.S.-U.K. action with, probably, France not far behind,” he said on Tuesday.

That claim crumbled as Cameron was humbled in the House of Commons. After concerns raised by Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and demands from the opposition Labour Party to wait for the U.N. report, the prime minister lost a crucial vote in Parliament.

Crestfallen, he admitted that he would not be able to proceed alongside the U.S. “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,” he said.

It was the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on waging war since 1782, when parliament effectively called an end to the War of Independence and conceded that the American rebellion had succeeded.

Richard Ottaway, chairman of the House of Commons’ foreign-affairs committee and a member of Cameron’s Conservative Party, had conceded that any military intervention would not have been legal without action at the U.N. “There is no legal precedent whatsoever for an intervention of this nature without a U.N. resolution,” he told The Daily Beast.

Embarrassed by his failure, Cameron’s team lashed out at opponents of the intervention. A government source told The Times of London that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was “a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***” for withdrawing support for military action. With opinion polls across Europe indicating that the public has little appetite for military intervention, Cameron told the House of Commons that the lead-up to the war in Iraq had destroyed trust in government-intelligence claims. “One thing is indisputable: The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode and we need to understand the public skepticism,” he said.

There wasn't even room for debate in Italy, where the prime minister told the state-run RAI television that Italy would certainly not participate in any military action against Syria unless the United Nations approves. “If the United Nations doesn’t back it, Italy won’t participate,” said Enrico Letta.

The announcement could prove crucial because Italian soil was a launch point for actions in Libya, as well as Kosovo. Italy’s foreign minister, Emma Bonino, told The Daily Beast that even United Nations backing would not trigger the “automatic” support of Italy. She went on to say that Italy would bar any nation from using NATO bases for attacks. The Vatican, under popular Pope Francis, has also called for dialogue before action is taken.

The post-Iraq trust in U.S. and British intelligence is so diminished that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is attempting to gather independent evidence about the alleged chemical attack, rather than relying upon reports drawn up by her allies.

Among Syria’s neighbors, Turkey has been most vociferous in its support for a military intervention, while Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq have called for a negotiated settlement. The Arab League said the alleged use of chemical weapons was a “heinous crime,” but it did not address foreign strikes against Syria.

In the fragile political environment in Cairo, there was widespread fear of a potential international intervention.

“There already is such rampant anti-Americanism in Egypt, along with the perception that Washington has been partial to the narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood. An attack might be depicted internally as the United States taking the side of Islamists in Syria. Anti-Americanism would be further entrenched,” said Yasser el-Shimy, a Cairo-based Egypt analyst for the International Crisis Group.

A statement on the Egyptian foreign ministry website on Thursday read: “Egypt will not take part in any military strike and strongly opposes it, in line with its opposition to any foreign military intervention in Syria.”