A peace campaigner holds up a placard outside Parliament on Aug. 29 in London. (Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images)
LONDON — The British Parliament on Thursday narrowly voted against military action in Syria, possibly forcing the United States to go it alone to strike Syria over a recent chemical attack that killed hundreds of people.
Prime Minister David Cameron said it was clear the Parliament does not want action and “I will act accordingly,” according to the BBC.
The government motion requesting backing for a strike was defeated 285 to 272.
The votes came on a day that the Obama administration postponed disclosure of the intelligence that led it to conclude the regime of Bashar Assad was to blame for the Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed hundreds of people in a region north of Damascus. The British government released its intelligence findings Thursday.
The document released by Downing Street that sets out the government’s legal position says, “military intervention to strike specific targets” would be “legally justifiable.” Cameron, a Conservative Party member, had said earlier he could act without Parliament approval.
Meanwhile, a meeting of the U.N. Security Council’s permanent members ended quickly Thursday with no sign of progress on an agreement over Syria’s crisis. The meeting Thursday afternoon started breaking up after less than an hour, with the ambassadors of China, France, Britain, Russia and the United States walking out.
It was the second time in two days that the five Security Council powers came out of a meeting on Syria with no progress.
The wrangling comes as Russia insisted no action could take place without U.N. approval, and it dispatched two warships to the Mediterranean where at least three U.S. warships have been positioned for days in case of an order to attack. Iran also announced it would coordinate its efforts with Russia to stop any attack.
Britain’s government said earlier that the legal conditions have been clearly met for taking action against Syria for allegedly launching a chemical attack against its people.
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond had said that the leader of the Labor party was giving “succour” to Assad.
“Anything that stops us from giving a clear united view of the British Parliament tonight will give some succour to the regime,” he told Channel 4 News.
The opposition Labor Party had said it wants to see “compelling evidence” of the Syrian regime’s guilt before siding with Cameron’s governing coalition in a parliamentary vote. Labor Party leader Ed Miliband said he was “determined we learn the lessons of the past, including (on) Iraq,” where much ballyhooed evidence of weapons of mass destruction was subsequently deemed to be false.
The potential roadblock to war comes as Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that it is “highly likely” that Assad’s regime was responsible for the alleged chemical attack. A document released by the JLC forms the British government’s first published evidence indicating culpability for the attack.
The independent Doctors Without Borders group says at least 355 people died in the attack. Syria’s regime has denied using chemical weapons.
Meanwhile, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone and was quoted by Iranian state TV as saying that “military action will bring great costs for the region” and “it is necessary to apply all efforts to prevent it.”
According to state TV, Rouhani said both Iran and Russia would work in “extensive cooperation” to prevent any military action against Syria. The Iranian president also called such military action an “open violation” of international laws.
Britain can go to war without the express consent or backing of Parliament but in the wake of the Iraq War in 2003 there have been calls for the government to always seek the approval of Parliament.
On Wednesday, Cameron reversed an earlier to decision to hold a single formal parliamentary vote that would specifically seek authorization for British action. He bowed to opposition demands that a second vote by Parliament be required, but only after U.N. investigators conclude their findings. That is supposed to happen Saturday, according to the U.N.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government had sent a letter to the British government asking for talks.
“We implore you to communicate through civilized dialogue rather than a monologue of blood and fire,” the letter said, according to the BBC, which obtained a copy. The open letter was sent by the Syrian parliament speaker who also invited British MPs to send a delegation to the Mideast nation.
President Obama said Wednesday he has concluded the Syrian regime is behind the attack.
A yet-to-be-released report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining evidence against Syria includes a few key caveats — including acknowledging that the U.S. intelligence community no longer has the certainty it did six months ago of where the regime’s chemical weapons are stored, nor does it have proof Assad ordered chemical weapons use, according to two intelligence officials and two more U.S. officials, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
The officials, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the intelligence report publicly, said intelligence linking Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack is no “slam dunk.”
Dorell and Hjelmgaard write for USA Today.