By William James and Kylie MacLellan
Prime Minister David Cameron urged lawmakers on Wednesday to approve bombing raids against Islamic State in Syria, saying Britain should join a US-led campaign to destroy militants he said were plotting attacks on the West.
As Cameron set out his case for war in what was expected to be at least a 10-hour debate, he was interrupted by opponents demanding he apologise for suggesting in a private meeting that those against air strikes were “terrorist sympathisers”.
Many British voters are wary of being dragged into another war in the Middle East: They view Western intervention in Iraq and Libya as a failure that sowed chaos across the region and thus helped fuel the rise of the ultra-radical Islamic State.
But the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people have stiffened the resolve of some lawmakers and divided the opposition Labour Party, convincing Cameron he could win the support of parliament for extending air strikes beyond Iraq.
Cameron admitted that the Syrian civil war that has raged since 2011 could not be resolved by military action alone but said Islamic State militants – which he said should be called Daesh – were plotting attacks on Britain.
Daesh is the pejorative word used by opponents or people who do not support Islamic State to refer to the jihadist group.
“These terrorists are plotting to kill us and to radicalise our children right now. They attack us because of who we are, not because of what we do,” Cameron told a packed House of Commons.
“The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat, and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?”
A vote was due around 2200 GMT. If lawmakers support Cameron, British Tornado GR4 bombers could leave an air base in Cyprus for bombing raids in Syria within hours.
Germany’s parliament is also expected to vote on Friday in favour of joining the campaign against Islamic State, although only to provide military support for air strikes rather than actually taking part in them.
Britain is unlikely to change the military balance given the involvement of the United States, but if Cameron does win backing from parliament it would signify a growing Western consensus for taking the battle to militants in Syria.
France and the United States are already bombing Islamist militants in Syria, while Russia has bombed mainly other rebels, according to conflict monitors and Western officials, in an intervention launched on Sept. 30 to bolster its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The West says Assad must go.
Cameron said high-precision, laser-guided Brimstone missiles would help to make a real difference by hitting the de facto Islamic State capital of Raqqa and its oil-trading business.
“We can make a real difference,” he said. “These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends.”
Keen to avoid a repeat of a humiliating 2013 parliamentary defeat over plans to bomb the Assad’s forces, Cameron had made it clear he would not bring a vote to parliament if he did not think he could win it.
He was confident of getting the majority he needs after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran anti-war campaigner who says air strikes would be ineffective and kill civilians, allowed Labour lawmakers to vote according to their conscience in order to quell a rebellion in his party over military action.
But anger over local media reports that Cameron told Conservative lawmakers at a private meeting late on Tuesday not to vote with Corbyn “and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” could harden opposition.
Corbyn said there should be no room for “abuse” in politics and joined at least 10 other lawmakers to call on Cameron to apologise. Cameron did not deny making the comment and did not apologise.
Opposition to air strikes kept on recalling the events of 2003 when Britain helped the United States to invade Iraq after asserting – wrongly, as it later turned out – that dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
“The spectre of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya looms over this debate,” Corbyn said, accusing Cameron of “an ill-thought-out rush to war.”
Julian Lewis, Conservative chairman of the Commons Defence Committee and a critic of extending air strikes, said the government was in denial about the effectiveness of bombing without deploying viable ground troops.
Lewis compared Cameron’s assertion that there were as many as 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria with the infamous “dodgy dossier” on Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair used to justify joining the American invasion of Iraq.
“Instead of dodgy dossiers, we now have bogus battalions of moderate fighters,” he said.
A YouGov opinion poll showed voter support for military action in Syria had fallen to the lowest level since September 2014, with 48 per cent of respondents supporting strikes and 31 per cent opposing.
Corbyn said air strikes would have little military impact and that Cameron had failed to set out which forces in Syria would fight the ground war.
“The logic of an extended air campaign is, in fact, towards mission creep and Western boots on the ground,” Corbyn said.