David Cameron will urge MPs to support air strikes against Isis in Iraq but is unlikely to ask them to approve military action in Syria against the militant extremist group.
The Independent understands that the Liberal Democrats and Labour are reluctant to endorse air strikes in Syria, forcing the Prime Minister to think again. Last week, he argued that action in Syria would not need the support of the Assad regime, saying: “President Assad has committed war crimes on his own people and is therefore illegitimate.”
However, MPs believe there are serious legal doubts about action in Syria.
There was confusion at the top of the Government today as Downing Street slapped down Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, after he said Britain would not bomb Isis targets in Syria.
It followed Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States would extend its air strikes against Isis in Iraq to Syria. In a White House address, the US President vowed to "degrade and ultimately destroy" Isis and said almost 500 more US troops will be dispatched to Iraq to assist its security forces.
Mr Cameron wants to secure the approval of the Commons before launching air strikes. Soundings by whips suggest there could be a majority in the three main parties for action in Iraq, where the new Government is expected to request such intervention, but not in Syria. One Minister admitted: “For the Lib Dems and Labour, Syria is very different to Iraq.”
Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are likely to back UK air strikes in Iraq if the US puts together a “coalition of the willing” that includes countries in the region. But they would baulk at a US-UK only operation.
Mr Cameron is anxious to avoid a repeat of his humiliating defeat a year ago, when the Commons voted by 285 to 272 to oppose air strikes against the Assad regime after it used chemical weapons against its own people.
Mr Hammond appeared to reflect the private soundings among MPs when he said in Germany: “Let me be clear, Britain will not be taking part in air strikes in Syria. I can be very clear about that. We have already had that discussion in our Parliament last year and we won't be revisiting that position."
But two hours later, Downing Street insisted: “The point he was making was that last year Parliament expressed its view with regard to taking action with air strikes against the Assad regime. In terms of air power and the like, the Prime Minister has not ruled anything out. That is the position. No decisions have been taken in that regard."
One option would be for the Government to give political support to US air strikes in Syria but to restrict UK military support to Iraq.
Some MPs believe that Mr Cameron’s desire to tackle Isis in Syria may have also been tempered by legal doubts.
Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who is also a QC, said: “If a suitable alliance can be formed, there may well be support in Parliament for British participation in offensive action against Isis in Iraq. But Syria poses rather different problems. Without an invitation from Assad, which is wholly unlikely, or a [UN] Security Council resolution, which is equally improbable, military action in Syria against Isis could be regarded as being illegal.”
Sir Menzies added: “The question for Britain, and anyone else who became part of an alliance, would be whether they were willing to join in with the Americans, who almost certainly would not feel constrained by international law to the same extent as European countries.”
John Baron, a Conservative MP, said: “Air strikes into Syria are fraught with risks. The legal, technical and military differences between strikes in Iraq and Syria are marked. The UK should be advising caution.”
Demanding a Commons statement, he said: "This reinforces the need for the Government to state clearly its policy to Parliament given that there appears to be a disparity between the Foreign Secretary and No 10. The issue of air strikes in Syria is of seminal importance."
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman welcomed the strategy outlined by Mr Obama. "We need to deal with Isil both in terms of Iraq and in terms of Syria so we are very supportive of that approach,” he said. But he added: "In terms of specific decisions about participation in further action, we are not at the stage of taking those decisions."
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