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The Globe and Mail

David Cameron aims to overcome U.K. skepticism over Syria strike

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at Number 10 Downing Street in London August 27, 2013.


British Prime Minister David Cameron will try to salvage his aggressive stance on Syria Thursday amid growing opposition from politicians and the public to any military strike.

Mr. Cameron will lead off a debate in the House of Commons Thursday afternoon on a government motion that has already been watered down and may still not win enough support.

The Prime Minister, who heads a coalition government, had been hoping the House of Commons would approve a plan for a possible military strike on Syria, in conjunction with other Western countries, to punish the Syrian government for allegedly using chemical weapons. But he had to back down late Wednesday after the opposition Labour Party threatened to vote against the measure. Instead, MPs will now only consider a motion that says a "strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action." The motion also says no military action can be taken without further approval from the Commons.

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Even that might not be enough for the motion to pass. Labour leader Ed Miliband has insisted that his party won't support the motion unless the government commits to providing compelling evidence from United Nations inspectors that the government of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. "I'm determined to learn the lessons of the past, including Iraq, and we can't have the House of Commons being asked to write a blank cheque to the [Prime Minister] for military action," Mr. Miliband said Thursday.

The British government released a legal opinion to justify any possible military attack. The opinion concluded that the Syrian government has repeatedly used chemical weapons and that the attack last week constituted a war crime. It also said that under international law the British government could take action if the UN Security Council vetoed any action. "In these circumstances, and as an exceptional measure on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity, military intervention to strike specific targets with the aim of deterring and disrupting further such attacks would be necessary and proportionate and therefore legally justifiable," it said.

Mr. Cameron also released a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee, which advises the cabinet on security issues. That report concluded that "there are no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility" for the chemical attack.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the government has been doing its best to address concerns about military involvement. "I think there is a great deal of understandable anxiety and concern and unease about what taking possibly military steps would mean for this country, for the world, for the region and so on, Mr. Clegg told the BBC Thursday. "We had anticipated that. That is why we have said that we want the UN process to be followed, why we must listen to what the UN inspectors say, that's why we have been bending over backwards to both recall Parliament, now say there's going to be not one but two votes".

Britain has been at the forefront in calling for action against the Assad government, which has denied using chemical weapons. But whether Mr. Cameron can back up that rhetoric remains in doubt. If the United States, France and other countries agree to hit Syria with cruise missiles experts say the attack would likely come within a couple of days and almost certainly before the upcoming G20 meeting in Russia which starts September 5. However, the UN inspectors may not finish their work until next week, leaving Mr. Cameron little time to hold a vote in Parliament.

Public support in Britain for any military involvement is weak and protesters have lined the street in front of 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's office. A recent poll found 50 per cent of those surveyed were against Britain firing missiles at Syria in retaliation for allegedly using chemical weapons. Roughly 25 per cent supported a strike.

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