British Parliament Approves Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

Demonstrators protest against British bombing of Syria outside Downing Street in London. Photo: EPA

LONDON — The British Parliament voted decisively late Wednesday in favor of launching airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Syria.

The 397-223 vote after 10 hours of debate opened the door to British sorties as early as Thursday against Islamic State targets. The Royal Air Force is already taking part in air operations in Iraq against the extremist militia.

Britain faced the "simple question" of whether to launch airstrikes against Islamic State forces in Syria or to wait for the group to attack the country, Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday as he pressed for legislative backing for military action.

"I'm not pretending that the answers are simple," he said at the start of the debate. "The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. The question before the house today is how we keep the British people safe from the threat posed by [the Islamic State movement]."

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn argued against expanding Britain's military involvement in the region, but told his fellow Labour Party members to follow their own conscience.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama welcomed the vote, calling Britain "one of our most valued partners" in fighting Islamic State forces since the beginning of allied action against the group starting in August 2014 in Iraq.

"The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom is rooted in our shared values and mutual commitment to global peace, prosperity and security," he said. "We look forward to having British forces flying with the coalition over Syria and will work to integrate them into our coalition air tasking orders as quickly as possible."

Obama called the Islamic State movement "a global threat that must be defeated by a global response."

Cameron won overwhelming support for his proposal, two years after his previous effort failed to win parliamentary backing for strikes in Syria, a key contributing factor to the decision by Western forces not to launch strikes against Syria's government in response to its use of chemical weapons.

Public opinion in Britain has shifted since 2013, however, especially after the deadly Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which prompted France to push for intensified strikes against Islamic State forces.

Cameron used his speech Wednesday to remind Britons of Islamic State backing for June attacks in Tunisia that claimed the lives of numerous British tourists.

"This is not about whether we want to fight terrorism, it's about how best we do that," he said. "We face a fundamental threat."

The premier noted that British security services have foiled seven planned terrorist attacks since November 2014: "The question is this: Do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat … or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?"

Cameron said the decision to send British forces would be about more than just sending moral support. He said British forces have some of the best precision strike aircraft in Europe, meaning a British contribution would make attacks against Islamic State in Syria more effective.

After the vote, Cameron said parliament had made the "right decision to keep the U.K. safe," according to the British-based Press Association.

The proposal enjoyed wide support with backing from Cameron's Conservative Party, as well as members of the Labour, Liberal Democrats and Democratic Unionist parties.

The only controversy was indignation by some pacifist members of the legislature at earlier comments by Cameron in which he denounced opponents of the plan as "terrorist sympathizers."

Parliament voted in 2014 to allow the British Army to attack Islamic State forces in Iraq.

Islamic State forces control large stretches of Iraq and Syria, where they have moved to set up a governing structures adhering to an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.

The organization has been on the back foot militarily at times in recent months, amid attacks from US allied forces, Russian forces, the Syrian government and rival rebel groups on the ground.


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