David Cameron arrives at 10 Downing Street in central London on August 27, 2013
British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at 10 Downing Street in central London on August 27, 2013, after returning early from a holiday to address the Syria crisis. Cameron will on Thursday make the case to parliament for targeted military action to halt the use of chemical weapons in Syria but faces opposition from lawmakers haunted by Iraq. © Carl Court - AFP
David Cameron arrives at 10 Downing Street in central London on August 27, 2013
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Guy Jackson, AFP
Last updated: August 28, 2013

Cameron to face sceptical parliament in Syria debate

British Prime Minister David Cameron will Thursday make the case to parliament for targeted military action to halt the use of chemical weapons in Syria but faces opposition from lawmakers haunted by the Iraq war.

Cameron and his ministers met with defence chiefs Wednesday and agreed that President Bashar al-Assad's regime was behind the chemical attack near Damascus last week, Downing Street said.

The meeting also agreed a recommendation to put before cabinet Thursday ahead of the parliamentary debate.

"Ministers agreed that the Assad regime was responsible for this attack and that the world shouldn't stand idly by; and that any response should be legal, proportionate and specifically to protect civilians by deterring further chemical weapons use," the spokeswoman added.

Britain also sought backing from the UN Security Council by submitting a draft resolution on Wednesday, calling for action to protect Syrian civilians.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said talks at the UN over a response to the Syrian crisis would continue "over the coming days", but insisted the international community still had a duty to act even if agreement could not be reached in New York.

Hague said: "It is time the United Nations Security Council shoulders its responsibility on Syria which for the last two and a half years it has failed to do."

Cameron is expected to say in the debate that he foresees targeted military strikes to "degrade" the regime's chemical weapons capability, and will urge lawmakers to support such action in a vote.

The choice of words is likely to be aimed at persuading lawmakers that Britain does not intend to be dragged into the wider Syrian conflict, but is acting in response to what he and Obama believe was an attack launched by the regime.

"This is not about getting involved in a Middle Eastern war or changing our stance in Syria or going further into that conflict," Cameron said Tuesday. "It's about chemical weapons: their use is wrong and the world shouldn't stand idly by."

But in a sign that the prime minister has work to do to win over sceptics, some members of the main opposition Labour Party said they would oppose him.

Diane Abbott, a veteran MP who speaks on health issues for Labour, said she would vote against the motion because of the risk that military strikes could lead to wider involvement in the Syrian conflict.

"It is not clear that it (military action) will change Assad's evident determination to fight to the last Syrian and the danger is we get dragged into a civil war in the Middle East," she said.

"I would be in favour of a UN-led intervention but a unilateral American strike will not carry the international community with it and runs the risk of making everything worse."

Abbott also evoked the Iraq conflict -- the British parliament gave then prime minister Tony Blair a mandate to join the US-led offensive in 2003 only to see Britain embroiled in the war for years.

"Iraq was supposed to be a short, sharp military intervention... it created much more killing, brutality and instability and there is a danger (this) will go the same way," Abbott told BBC radio.

As a party, Labour have given Cameron conditional support for the vote, making it clear that they want to see a "clear legal basis" for action, through the "direct involvement" of the UN.

Cameron also faces some dissenting voices within his own centre-right party.

Douglas Carswell, an outspoken Conservative backbencher who is not afraid to clash with his leader, said he would ignore any party orders on how to vote.

"I will make up my mind during the debate," Carswell told the Daily Telegraph. "This is about what sort of country we are and what sort of role we play in the world."

Senior military figures also expressed concerns about intervening in Syria.

Lord Alan West, a former First Sea Lord and a security minister under the premiership of Gordon Brown, said he was "extremely nervous" about the unpredictable nature of missile strikes.

"An attack is extremely dangerous. You cannot predict what will happen," he said.

A YouGov poll for The Sun showed that British voters overwhelmingly oppose the use of British missiles against military sites in Syria.

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