LONDON: Britain’s parliament looks set to vote Wednesday in favour of joining the bombing campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria, despite growing doubts among the public and some MPs.
Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off over 10 hours of scheduled debate by urging MPs to “answer the call” from Britain’s allies and authorise air strikes against IS targets inside Syria.
“The action we propose is legal, it is necessary and it is the right thing to do to keep our country safe,” Cameron said.
But he was forced to fend off calls to apologise, including from opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, after reportedly telling fellow Conservative MPs at a private meeting not to vote with “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” against the strikes.
Corbyn, for his part, warned MPs against an “ill-thought rush to war”.
Ministers are confident that MPs will ultimately say “yes” in a vote expected at around 2200 GMT, while campaigners have promised a new protest outside parliament after a demonstration on Tuesday drew around 4,000 people.
The vote comes after US Secretary of State John Kerry urged NATO to intensify the fight against IS.
British support for strikes has dropped sharply in a week according to an opinion poll published Wednesday, with those in favour down to 48 percent from 59 percent, and those against rising to 31 percent from 21 percent in the YouGov survey for the Times.
“The likeliest explanation is that as the debate about air strikes has intensified, the issue has moved to the forefront of voters’ minds,” YouGov president Peter Kellner wrote in an analysis.
Britain is still scarred by the memory of unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and has played a smaller role in recent foreign military actions, leading to concerns that its global clout is diminishing.
Cameron urged MPs not to allow Iraq to dictate their decision, saying: “This is not 2003. We must not use past mistakes as an excuse for indifference or inaction.”
The prime minister insists military action is needed to prevent attacks like last month’s gun and bomb rampage that killed 130 people in Paris, saying the bombing would be accompanied by a diplomatic push to resolve the Syrian conflict.
Military experts question how much difference Britain would make to the campaign, saying the move may be more about Britain wanting to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with allies like France and the United States.
“It will not make a big operational difference,” Professor Malcolm Chalmers of military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute told AFP.
“It is important symbolically, useful operationally, but not transformative.”
The motion up for debate stresses that Britain will not deploy ground combat troops while noting that allies have requested British assistance.
Britain already has eight Tornado fighter jets operating from its military base in Cyprus plus an unknown number of drones involved in strikes on IS targets in Iraq, an operation it joined last year.
The government has said it will deploy an unspecified number of additional jets if the bombing is approved and says Britain’s Brimstone missiles will be especially in demand to carry out precision strikes.
Labour is letting its MPs vote freely, rather than trying to force them to oppose the bombing in line with the views of its left-wing leader Corbyn.
The opposition party’s decision means dozens of its MPs who want military action will now likely vote with Cameron, although there are deep divisions in the party.
Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner, argues that only a negotiated settlement can bring peace to Syria.
“The doubts and unanswered questions have only grown and multiplied” since Cameron first made his case for the vote in parliament last week, Corbyn said.
In a blow to Cameron on the eve of the vote, parliament’s foreign affairs committee said he had “not adequately addressed” its concerns.
The committee has cast doubt on the legality of the move, its effectiveness in the absence of reliable allies on the ground and its usefulness in the context of finding a diplomatic solution.
While Cameron is expected to win, he will likely face fresh questions from MPs about his claim that there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria ready to help secure territory following air strikes.