LONDON: Britain’s parliament looked set to vote in favor of joining air strikes on Islamic State (IS) jihadists in Syria yesterday despite angry exchanges which have exposed deep divisions on military action. Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off over 10 hours of debate by urging MPs to “answer the call” from allies like France and the US, adding that bombing the “mediaeval monsters” of IS was “the right thing to do”. “The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat… or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?” he told the House of Commons.
Ministers and sources in the main opposition Labour party believe Cameron will win the vote, paving the way for Britain to join air strikes on Syria within days or even hours. But many of the MPs crammed on to the Commons’ benches and walkways spoke against air strikes while thousands of anti-war protesters are expected to protest outside parliament later for the second night running. A new opinion poll yesterday suggested that public support for joining air strikes in Syria had dropped significantly in recent days. A YouGov poll in The Times newspaper found that 48 percent of Britons supported Syria strikes compared to 59 percent last week.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who opposes military action, condemned Cameron’s “ill thought-out rush to war” and said his proposals “simply do not stack up”. “The specter of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya looms over this debate,” Corbyn added, referring to unpopular British interventions in foreign conflicts over the last 15 years. Cameron urged MPs not to let the memory of Iraq – which many Britons believe a Labour government under Tony Blair led them into using “sexed up” evidence on weapons of mass destruction – to dictate their decision. “This is not 2003. We must not use past mistakes as an excuse for indifference or inaction,” he added.
The prime minister faced repeated calls during a raucous debate to apologize after reportedly telling Conservative MPs not to vote with “a bunch of terrorist sympathizers” against the strikes. Cameron has wanted to extend Britain’s role in the fight against IS for months but made a fresh push which led to the vote after last month’s Paris attacks which killed 130 people. Britain already has eight Tornado fighter jets plus drones involved in the US-led coalition striking IS targets in Iraq. However, it currently only conducts surveillance and intelligence missions over Syria.
The government will deploy more jets if the bombing is approved and argues that the Royal Air Force’s Brimstone missiles will be particularly valuable for precision strikes to avoid civilian casualties. US Secretary of State John Kerry praised Cameron for bringing the vote to parliament yesterday and urged all NATO countries to “step up support” for the fight against IS. Military experts question how much difference Britain would make to the campaign, saying it may be more about wanting to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with allies like France and the United States. Cameron again stressed that British ground forces will not be deployed to Syria as part of the action yesterday, saying that would be a “mistake”.
Labour is deeply divided on air strikes. Corbyn opposes the move but has let his party have a free vote on the issue because dozens of his MPs, including his foreign and defenSe spokespeople, want to support it. A Labour source speaking on condition of anonymity said he expected around 40 of its MPs to support the bombing. “It’s expected that the government will win this vote… but it’s definitely lost the argument,” another Labour source added.
As well as Labour and the next biggest Commons grouping, the Scottish National Party, a handful of lawmakers from Cameron’s own Conservative party also oppose joining air strikes. Cameron also fleshed out his claim that there were 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria ready to help fight against IS. He said these were mostly members of the rebel Free Syrian Army but added there were 20,000 Kurdish forces ready to contribute. He conceded that, while they were not “ideal partners” and “some of them do have views that we don’t agree with”, they could “play a role” in the future of Syria. Also, Cameron adopted the term “Daesh” to refer to IS yesterday and urged others to follow suit to avoid lending the jihadists credibility. Cameron had previously used “ISIL” to refer to the extremist group, which is also known as “ISIS”, before switching to Daesh, which has negative connotations and is based on an Arabic acronym first coined by a Syrian activist. “I feel it is time to join our key ally France, the Arab League and other members of the international community in using, as frequently as possible, the terminology Daesh rather than ISIL,” he said.
“Daesh is clearly an improvement and I think it’s important that we all try to use this language,” Cameron told parliament during a debate on whether Britain should join air strikes against the group in Syria. A government Twitter account that had been called “UK Against ISIL” was changed to “UK Against Daesh” as Cameron made the announcement. “#Daesh is Arabic acronym for #ISIL. Daesh hates the term + sounds similar to Arabic words Daes & Dahes: ‘to trample’ & ‘one who sows discord’,” read a tweet on the account.
News organizations and international governments have been divided over what to call the group, with French President Francois Hollande referring to it as “Daesh” and the United States President Barack Obama calling it “ISIL”. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, while ISIS is the abbreviation for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Conservative MP Rehman Chishti, who has led a campaign for the term “Daesh” to be used, said the prime minister had “listened to the strength of feeling across parliament”. “I hope that media organisations will now follow the government’s lead and also adopt the term,” he said. Following calls from some MPs that it should begin using the term, the BBC said: “While people can debate terminology we’re sure the British public are under absolutely no illusion about the type of organization this is”. “The BBC uses the name the group itself uses, using additional descriptions to help make it clear we are referring to the group as they refer to themselves, such as ‘so-called Islamic State’ or ‘Islamic State group’,” it added.
Experts meanwhile weighed in on the debate, with some criticizing the prime minister’s call to refer to IS as “Daesh” as irrelevant. “I’m sorry, but they really don’t care,” British writer and researcher Shiraz Maher tweeted. – Agencies