In the wake of Parliament’s vote against military intervention in Syria, talk has turned to Britain’s seemingly less-special relationship with the United States. Britain’s decision marks President Barack Obama’s most recent foreign policy problem – America’s closest ally is unwilling to come to its aid.
On Thursday evening, Britain’s House of Commons rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to sanction military action in Syria by an opposition majority of 13, or 272 votes to 285. The vote could potentially hinder Obama’s efforts to take Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to task for its suspected use of chemical weapons.
In what has been seen as a damaging blow to his authority, Cameron has been forced to rule out joining any American military action in Syria despite having pledged to support President Obama.
“It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said Thursday. “I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
After recalling Parliament to seek approval of the motion that missile strikes were necessary in preventing further chemical weapons attacks, Cameron failed to convince lawmakers in his own party to endorse Britain’s involvement. Members of Parliament, who voted against the measure, cited the long war in Iraq as the major deterrent from entering into a conflict with Syria.
Cameron has thus unwittingly become the first British prime minister in decades not to provide troops to a joint military operation with the US, breaking step with years of tradition. While Britain’s support is not indispensable to US military action, the disagreement has exposed a potential rift in Anglo-American relations.
Speaking after the negative vote, White House officials made clear that the president’s decision regarding Syria would be based on America’s best interests, not the geopolitics of other nations.
“We have seen the result of the Parliament vote in the U.K. tonight,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “The U.S. will continue to consult with the U.K. government—one of our closest allies and friends.
“As we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” she added. “He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”
The suggestion that the US might act independently was raised even before the vote in British Parliament Thursday night.The New York Times reported that “administration officials” told them President Obama was “prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria” even without the aid of key allies.
Despite America’s resolve to push forward with a strike, which may occur as soon as United Nations inspectors leave Damascus on Saturday, it is clear that Britain’s decision has come as a surprise to some US intelligence officials.
Speaking hours before the vote in Parliament, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Diane Feinstein told Time magazine, “I think the UK makes a difference. I think if the president were to decide to go there’s a very high likelihood that the United Kingdom would be with us.”
As a torrent of speculation poured in Friday morning about the strained nature of the US-UK “special relationship,” Chancellor George Osborne cautioned that the commentary was entirely overblown.
“The relationship with the US is very deep and operates on many levels,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “In the contacts between the White House and Downing Street last night there was understanding we’re a democracy and have to go through the processes associated with our culture.”
But, anxiety persists among some in Britain’s government that this vote will play into a shift away from its longstanding alliance with the US.
Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, told the BBC News that he expected the US Congress might be less willing to maintain intelligence sharing, missile sharing and free trade, after Thursday’s vote.
Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight program, British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said that the level of opposition in Parliament has surprised Americans.
“It is certainly going to put a strain on the special relationship.”