Commons split over action on Syria

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MPs have disagreed over whether Britain should take part in military action against Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack which is reported to have killed hundreds of civilians.

The Commons was united in condemnation of the attack carried out on 21 August - but divided over whether to use force against President Assad's regime, widely believed to be behind the attack.

Among those in support of military strikes was senior Conservative, and Intelligence and Security Committee chair, Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

He told MPs on 29 August 2013 that Assad would continue to use chemical weapons in the future if the international community stands by and does nothing.

Meanwhile, Tory former Defence Secretary Dr Liam Fox asserted that doing nothing would be an "abdication of our international, legal and moral obligations".

But other members of the House were unconvinced by the arguments for using force against Syria - particularly if unanimous approval from the UN Security Council cannot be achieved.

'Scars' of Iraq

The SNP's Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, said the UK must not ignore the "calamitous lessons of Iraq".

He said the government should not be given a "blank cheque for military action in principle or in practice".

The SNP co-signed Labour's amendment demanding "compelling evidence" that the Assad regime was behind the attack.

Jack Straw, Labour foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq War in 2003, agreed it was likely the chemical attack had been carried out by the Assad regime; but he felt the government had yet to prove its case for military action.

The Blackburn MP cautioned: "We all know - I have the scars about this - how easy it is to get into military action and how difficult it is to get out of it."

Respect MP George Galloway said there was no compelling evidence that the Syrian government carried out the attack, and claimed the rebels could have been responsible.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell expressed reservations about military action. He indicated he would support the government in the vote, but said he did not believe it would bring peace any closer.

'A clear lesson'

The government motion being debated in the Commons was watered down after Labour said it could not support it.

Labour said UN weapons inspectors must be given time to present their findings before any military intervention.

A second vote must be held in the Commons before military action can be authorised.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party's MP, welcomed the changes - a "tribute", she said, to the difference backbench and opposition MPs can make.

Ms Green said a military attack, while UN weapons inspectors were still visiting the site of chemical attack, would have been "preposterous".

Senior Tory David Davis feared Britain risked being "conned" into a military attack by rebel Syrian forces who may have used chemical weapons to drag the West into the civil war.

"We must consider, being where we've been before in this House, that our intelligence as it stands might just be wrong because it was before and we have got to be very, very hard in testing it."

But for former Tory chief whip and Cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, the case was clear.

"In my view, failure by the international community to act would be far more dangerous than taking evidence-based, proportionate and legal military action, as a clear lesson to human rights abusers and dictators who murder and terrorise innocent civilian populations."

Labour's Jim Fitzpatrick - who would later resign as junior opposition transport spokesman - said he would vote against both the government and opposition amendment because he opposed military action of any kind.

Meanwhile, the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson signalled his party's opposition to military strikes, warning that intervention risked engulfing the wider Middle East region in the conflict.

Lib Dem MP Lorely Burt told the Commons she supported action against Syria, "but not a military solution".

A number of MPs revealed their difficulties in deciding how to vote on intervention, including Tory James Arbuthnot, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee.

He said there seemed to be a new doctrine of punishment to justify military action which "needs a considerably wider degree of international consensus than currently exists".

Watch part one of the debate. Part three of the debate can be found here.

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