WASHINGTON -- Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron made his case to members of Parliament on Thursday that Syria's president, Bashar Assad, must be held accountable for using chemical weapons against his own people.
But Cameron rolled back threats that British military action was imminent. He said that the UK would not take action until the United Nations chemical weapons team had presented its findings from an investigation on the ground to the UN Security Council, and until a second vote in Parliament-- following one to be held later this evening-- authorized the use of force against the Assad regime.
"It is this House that will decide what next steps we will take," Cameron told House of Commons members.
Cameron had recalled Parliament from summer recess for an emergency vote, which was originally aimed at approving military action for the prime minister.
But the prime minister now says he will first wait for the UN team to submit its findings, make a "genuine attempt" at rounding up unanimous Security Council support for a forceful response, and will then hold a second vote, likely around Tuesday of next week.
Cameron said it was "unthinkable" that Britain would launch military action against Syria to punish and deter it from chemical weapons use if there was strong opposition at the UN Security Council.
"It would be unthinkable to proceed if there was overwhelming opposition in the (UN) security council," Cameron said.
Nevertheless, 10 Downing is clearly preparing to act even under the assumption that permanent Security Council members Russia and China will block any such resolution.
British attorney general released a statement saying that action would be legal "under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention."
"If action in the security council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria," the statement reads, "by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime."
Members of the opposition Labor Party threatened Cameron with defeat yesterday after it appeared the UK, joining the US, would dismiss UN inaction and move forward without approval from the international body.
Its members also raised the specter of misleading intelligence that led to the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"The UN is not some inconvenient sideshow," Labour leader Ed Miliband said in his speech on Thursday to Parliament.
Cameron acknowledged the comparisons to the Iraq war, insisting that the two Middle East conflicts could not reasonably be compared.
"I am deeply mindful of the lessons of previous conflicts," Cameron said. "This is not like Iraq. What we're seeing in Syria is fundamentally different."
"I think we should reassure our constituents by saying, this is about chemical weapons," Cameron added. "This is not about another Middle Eastern war."
Cameron added that the world agreed on a course of action and on the culpability of the Assad regime, with only a few exceptions. He said the UK and its Western allies stood "a long way apart" from Russia's Vladimir Putin, though they had discussed the Syrian crisis extensively in recent days.
Letter from Syrian lawmakers to British Parliament
Syrian lawmakers sent a letter to British Parliament members on Thursday,
invoking the shots that started World War I and the invasion of Iraq as historic
warning signs that should dissuade them from authorizing action against their
"Local tragedies become regional wars that explode
into global conflict because of breakdowns in communication,” the letter
The letter threatened that each member who voted in favor of
military intervention would be held "personally liable" for their
The exceptionally personal letter, written as a plea, appealed
to the human sensibilities of the British MPs.
"We write to you as fellow
human beings," it reads, "for, if you bomb us, shall we not bleed?" But
conversely, Cameron asserted that the Syrian government had to be held to
international standards after committing crimes against humanity on their fellow
He pointed to "extensive, open-source" intelligence that
included video of entire families dead in their beds, with no flesh wounds, from
the chemical attack that devastated the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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