Europe
3:51 pm
Thu August 29, 2013

Cameron Has A Hard Time Selling Syria Strike To Parliament

Originally published on Thu August 29, 2013 5:01 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Around the world today, there are deliberations about Syria. The governments of the U.S., France and Britain are pushing for action in response to last week's alleged chemical weapons attack. They blame the Syrian government for the deaths of hundreds of people outside Damascus.

SIEGEL: Permanent members of the United Nations Security Council conferred today. The Obama administration will brief members of Congress on its intelligence and British Prime Minister David Cameron took the case to parliament. He said Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad must be stopped from slaughtering his people with chemical weapons.

BLOCK: A few days back, Britain's parliamentarians seemed ready to give their support, but today, Cameron's finding it surprisingly hard to win over politicians fearful of another unpredictable war in the Middle East. We begin our coverage in London with NPR's Philip Reeves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Order. Order.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: This was a solemn day in Britain's House of Commons. Parliamentarians came in early from summer vacation for an emergency debate on an issue that's opening some old wounds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To move the motion, I call the prime minister.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (In unison) Here, here.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. And I...

REEVES: Cameron began with a graphic description of the attack in Syria just over a week ago.

CAMERON: There are pictures of bodies with symptoms consistent with that of nerve agent exposure, including muscle spasms and foaming at the nose and mouth. Mr. Speaker, anyone in this chamber who's not seen these videos, I believe, should force themselves to watch.

REEVES: Cameron quoted from a document from the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee that was released just before the debate began. This intelligence assessment states it's highly likely Assad's forces did carry out the attack. It accuses Assad of a pattern of behavior, saying there's very powerful evidence that his regime used chemical weapons on a smaller scale on 14 previous occasions.

Yet, Cameron admitted it's impossible to be 100 percent sure.

CAMERON: I am saying this is a judgment. We all have to reach a judgment about what happened and who was responsible.

REEVES: Cameron wanted a decisive vote today from parliament authorizing possible military strikes, but the Labour Party wasn't happy and even some of his fellow conservatives had serious reservations. So Cameron had to come up with a new proposal in which there's no decision until the U.N. weapons inspectors have reported and even then, they'll have to be a second vote by parliament next week.

This big delay failed to satisfy Labour's leader, Ed Miliband, who today pushed for more time to the annoyance of his opponents.

ED MILIBAND: I'm at the horrible gentlemen opposite making strange noises. Well, I've got to say to them, it is all right to - it is right to go about this process in a calm unmeasured way. If people are asking me today to say yes now, let us take military action, I'm not going to say that. But nor am I going to rule out military action, but we have to do so on the basis of evidence and the basis of the consensus and the support that can be built.

REEVES: Cameron argued his corner with passion. He said it was in Britain's interest to maintain the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons and that if Britain didn't act, Assad would use them again. But the specter of Iraq and the fear of repeating the mistakes made 10 years ago haunted this debate. Cameron argued the situation in Syria is very different.

But the Iraq experience had poisoned the well of public opinion, he said. The mood overall was captured by a question put by Labour's Jim Sheridan to Miliband, his party leader.

JIM SHERIDAN: But does he agree with me that any reckless, and irresponsible action could lead to thaw a war in our area. And we have to understand from previous conflicts that war is not some sort of hokey-cockey concept. Once you're in, you're in.

MILIBAND: That's why there mustn't be a rush to judgment.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.