Last night, Britain’s MPs voted 285 to 272 against any military action in Syria. The press has thus far interpreted it as collapse in Cameron’s support and a guarantee that there will be no British military action in Syria. They couldn’t be more wrong.
The startling vote happened by accident. Iraq’s shadow looms large in the minds and on the lips of the public. Both the PM and Miliband know this – it is for this reason that Cameron recalled Parliament early. Labour, seeking public redemption for their Iraq disaster (and probably to score political points), sought and got various assurances, lengthened the timescale, tabled an amendment and ultimately rejected the motion.
And despite all the checks, balances and assurances, many Conservative and Lib Dem MPs weren’t convinced either. The motion was defeated. What we have now was nobody’s policy.
This is because a deep feeling pervades that all these caveats are only ceremonial – that the invisible hand of war is at work, pulling strings and loading missiles onto warships.
And the likelihood is that they’re right. France’s Hollande has alacritously announced that le vote brittanique ne change rien. Obama – who pundits have accused for months of being too slow to act – has got to do something. The red line he set out has been crossed.
Two things have become clear. One is that military intervention would be deeply unpopular both in Britain and abroad. It would also stand a strong chance of making things worse. The other thing is that intervention is not what the US – or Cameron – are mulling. They want a limited ‘punishment’ strike to deter Assad from further chemical weapons strikes.
The trouble is, out here, any strike at all would be seen as the former, not the latter. The situation is highly volatile. It may be that Parliament’s vote will be enough to stop the drums of war.
But more likely is an American strike at the weekend. If this happens, the ramifications cannot be foreseen. Russia has moved warships into the Mediterranean and Syria is murmuring about a counter-strike. British bases would be a possible target. Any such strike would demand a British response.
This could be a unique historical moment in which war is democratically averted – political realists could have to rewrite their doctrines. But an attack without Britain is more likely. That invisible hand is an insistent one.
And if such an attack goes ahead, the consequences are utterly unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic. If people think that the risk of Britain being sucked into a wider conflict has disappeared, they are gravely mistaken.