British parliament approves airstrikes against ISIS in Syria

British Parliament Approves Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

British Parliament Approves Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

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Dec. 2 2015 6:33 PM

British Parliament Approves Airstrikes Against ISIS in Syria

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LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 02: Protesters gather in Parliament Square ahead of a 'Die In' protest on December 2, 2015 in London, England.

Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

The British House of Commons voted 397 to 223 today to authorize British airstrikes in Syria, and RAF raids against ISIS in the country could begin soon. The motion bars the use of British ground troops in “ground combat operations” and urges the government to take steps to encourage a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria. 

Britain has been carrying out airstrikes in Iraq for over a year but parliament, particularly the opposition Labour Party, has been wary about extending them over the border into Syria. But the recent terrorist attacks in Paris changed the calculations of many MPs and today’s victory for Prime Minister David Cameron seemed assured after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn—staunchly opposed to the motion—allowed members of his caucus to vote their conscience on the issue. Sixty-seven Labour MPs voted with the government. 

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Cameron stoked controversy leading up to the vote by urging members of his party not to vote with “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathizers," and anti-war protests blocked parliament square during today’s debate. The rhetoric was heated inside parliament as well, with Cameron calling for wiping out the “women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters” of ISIS. Corbyn argued that the government’s case for airstrikes in support of local anti-ISIS ground forces "doesn't stack up." 

The most memorable speech of the night came from Shadow Foreign Secretary Hillary Benn, a member of Labour who opposed Corbyn in supporting the strikes. Benn compared ISIS to fascists and invoked the support of the British left for war against Hitler and Mussolini. “Our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil,” he said. The speech was met with applause, rare for a debate like this, and was described by his political rival, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond as “one of the truly great speeches given in the Commons."

The speech certainly makes a strong moral case for confronting ISIS, even if it sidesteps nagging questions about whether airstrikes from Britain or any other country can effectively reverse the group’s gains in Syria or prevent it from organizing attacks abroad. Still, as seen from Washington, where Congress is doing everything it can to avoid formally declaring war against ISIS, it’s oddly refreshing to see a country where the legislature actually has to vote before bombing a new country.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.