His decision to recall Parliament backfired spectacularly. MP's roundly refused to support his call for military action against the Syrian regime primarily because his case was one of the weakest ever presented by a Prime Minster. His overblown claim that this latest atrocity in Damascus on 21st August was unprecedented was his fundamental undoing.
His case for UK military action was predicated on the view that in unleashing these chemical weapons Asad had ‘crossed a red line’ as US President Obama had put it and had gone too far. Cameron insisted the use of chemical weapons was ‘unprecedented’ and the international community had to act. This callous disregard for human life could not go unpunished Cameron insisted. And yet this claim, central to Cameron’s entire case, was exposed time and again. Throughout the eight hour Parliamentary debate it was made clear that chemical weapons had in fact been used on 14 previous occasions in this civil war and yet none had elicited the UK military attack now being proposed. Moreover several MP’s made clear that many other regimes around the world had unleashed chemical weapons without triggering the military response Cameron was now suggesting. Saddam Hussein, for example, infamously used chemical weapons to gas 3,000 Kurdish civilians in Helabja during the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980’s and 1990’s. He used them again on a further 70 occasions against the Iranians. This was all covered up of course because he was acting as the West’s proxy at the time. The Israeli Government also used white phosphorous bombs against the Palestinians in Gaza more recently but there was no Cameron outrage shown then. And the Shinto fundamentalist sect used Sarin nerve gas to murder commuters on the Tokyo underground. So Cameron’s claim that the use of such horrific weapons was ‘unprecedented’ was completely undermined again and again.
So too was his ‘proof’ that the August 21st bombing of a Damascus suburb was ordered by Asad. The Syrians had perhaps predictably denied it as had the Russians, but more importantly the UN weapons inspectors had so far not reached Cameron’s conclusion either. And the ‘evidence’ he provided from his ‘Joint Intelligence Committee’ was considered so weak that even he was forced to admit it was no ‘smoking gun’. No guarantees could be given he confessed to show that the Syrian Government had ordered this attack. And yet here he was demanding MP’s sanction a military attack based on such assurances.
It was a poor case that unravelled still further as the debate ensued. Not only was he not able to assure MP’s Asad had used chemical weapons or persuade them the intelligence evidence was trustworthy, in truth the entire debate was overshadowed by the spectre of Iraq and Libya. Cameron was to pay a heavy price for the conduct of British Prime Ministers in previous similar circumstances. Tony Blair had lied to Parliament over previous and manufactured a ‘dodgy dossier’ of so called ‘intelligence evidence’ to make his case for a military invasion of Iraq. And Cameron himself had clearly understood that the bombing of Benghasi was to be a prelude to ‘regime change’ in Libya, something he knew Parliament and the ‘International Community’ would never sanction. MP’s were clearly now in no mood for more lies and further ‘mission creep’.
Since it was plain the Russians would veto any UN efforts to endorse military action against Syria this made UN support unlikely. And with the on going civil war in Syria involving 26 different factions including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah it made a nonsense of Cameron’s suggestion that Britain could launch missiles and conduct a clean, clear and limited military strike without the risk of becoming embroiled in an even greater conflict.
For 30 Tory rebels and 9 Lib Dems in particular the prospect of Britain being dragged into a Syrian civil war was unthinkable and the likelihood of a larger regional conflict even less appealing.
Looking at Cameron’s position today we find a Prime Minister in severe difficulty. He is accused of recalling Parliament unnecessarily and with a case for military action so weak and unpersuasive it begs the question did he really think he could get it through Parliament at all? If so, and the evidence suggests that he did, it raises profound questions about his political judgement.
But above all this episode reveals the profound scars the Iraq war has left behind in British political life and how little faith the public has in the sincerity of Prime Ministers and the trustworthiness of ‘military intelligence’ in matters of war.