LONDON — Britain’s leader said Thursday it was legal and just to launch a military strike against Syria even without authorization from the United Nations Security Council, arguing that Syria could repeat its alleged use of poison gas if the international community failed to act.
But Prime Minister David Cameron’s also seemed to slow Britain’s movement toward war, telling legislators during a lengthy debate in the House of Commons that there was still a sliver of uncertainty over who was behind an alleged chemical attack outside Damascus. He added that Britain would not act if it faced major opposition at the UN’s top security body.
“I think it would be unthinkable to proceed if there is overwhelming opposition in the Security Council,” he said, without going into much further detail.
Cameron nevertheless argued strongly for intervention, reminding lawmakers of a series of videos apparently showing the gruesome aftermath of what Syrian rebels and their Western backers say was a chemical strike. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus denies the charge, but the pictures have served as a powerful talking point.
“The video footage illustrates some of the most sickening human suffering imaginable,” Cameron said, adding later: “I think we can be as certain as possible that when we have a regime that has used chemical weapons … if nothing is done, it will conclude that it can use these weapons again and again, and on a larger scale, and with impunity.”
Speaking on Thursday evening, the British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond said Britain’s position was that the UN Security Council should be given a genuine opportunity to examine the UN inspectors’ report from Syria and take a decision on intervention, even though a Russian veto on any vote for intervention was a virtual certainty. Intervention, if it came, was “days not hours” away, Hammond told a reporter from Israel’s Channel 2 news outside Parliament.
Cameron’s government argues that the legal conditions have been met for taking action against Syria. Earlier Thursday, his office released intelligence and legal documents meant to bolster the case that retaliation would be justified.
One document, an intelligence assessment, concluded it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government was responsible for the August 21 attack that killed hundreds of civilians, noting there was no credible intelligence to suggest the attack was faked by opposition forces and that no rebel group had the capability for such a large-scale chemical assault. The report did not go far beyond previous public statements, and offered no forensic evidence linking the bombardment to Assad’s regime.
Another document, a legal report, was meant to support Cameron’s assertion that military action against Syria would be permissible under international law even if it is not specifically authorized by the Security Council.
It says the three necessary requirements for “humanitarian intervention” have all been met: There is convincing evidence of extreme, large scale humanitarian distress; there is no practical alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and the use of force must be proportionate and aimed at relieving a human crisis.
The documents were made public in advance of a debate in the British Parliament, but Britain’s opposition Labour Party — still smarting from its decision to champion the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago — made its opposition clear by proposing an amendment that gave greater weight to ongoing deliberations at the UN.
“I do not rule out supporting the prime minister but I believe he has to make a better case than he did today,” Labour leader Ed Miliband said.
Lawmakers were still debating the issue and are likely to continue until late Thursday.
Syrian officials Thursday took the unusual step of writing to British legislators denying any role in the attack. In a letter to his counterpart in London, Jihad Allaham, speaker of the Syrian People’s Assembly, invited British legislators to come to Syria to investigate the attack.
He implored them to oppose the use of force in Thursday’s vote: “We ask you to stop the rush to reckless action,” he said, asserting that a military strike would breach international law.
The letter also referred to Britain’s experience in Iraq — a country mentioned time and time again during the debate. Britain, the United States, and their allies went to war there in 2003 on the bogus premise that the country had weapons of mass destruction and was developing links with al-Qaida. In Britain in particular, the invasion and its bloody aftermath still arouses passionate debate.
“The well of public opinion was well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode and we need to understand the public skepticism,” Cameron said.
Miliband said that “one of the most important lessons was indeed about respect for the United Nations and that is part of our amendment today.”
Britain has proposed a resolution to authorize the use of military force at the UN, but Russia and China remain firmly opposed and there is no indication of whether it will ever be put to a Security Council vote. Cameron’s comments about bowing to overwhelming opposition there — and a previous promise to do his utmost to secure a resolution — mean the UK will be under pressure to at least try.