David Cameron’s hopes of persuading Scottish Nationalists not to reject extending RAF strikes in Syria were dealt a blow yesterday when Alex Salmond insisted his party would only support military action if there was explicit backing from the UN.
There had been signs that the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was softening her party’s approach to bombing in Syria after she confirmed she was prepared to listen to the case for extending British airstrikes against Isis, from Iraq to Syria.
The SNP voted unanimously to oppose UK military action in Syria at its conference in Aberdeen last month, where Sturgeon said it would only add to the “already unimaginable human suffering” in the region rather than help bring it to an end.
She said on Thursday: “I’m not yet convinced the case for airstrikes has been made. That is not to say I will not listen to the case that David Cameron will make.”
On Tuesday, Cameron promised to publish a comprehensive strategy on Syria, responding to a report by the foreign affairs select committee which concluded that the government had failed to make the case for extending airstrikes.
The prime minister could publish the reply when he returns from the climate change talks in Paris next week, depending on the progress made in talks with other countries, including Russia, on combating Isis.
It is thought that 15 Labour MPs are determined to vote for airstrikes, though more may be willing to defy a Labour whip. About 15 Tory MPs might vote against action. The position of the SNP’s 56 MPs on the issue could therefore be crucial to the outcome of a vote in the Commons.
Salmond, speaking on the BBC’s Daily Politics, said there was no change in the SNP position. He added: “A UN resolution is a pre-condition of SNP support for military action. Not, incidentally, just because of the legality, although legalities are quite important in these matters, but also because unless you have that UN consensus you cannot bring peace to Syria.
“In other words, you have a situation where the Russians would be opposed to Daesh (Isis) but bombing the Free Syrian Army, you would have a situation where the Turks are bombing Daesh but also bombing the Kurds, and you couldn’t bring peace to Syria. That is why a UN resolution is certainly a pre-condition to SNP support, but more importantly a pre-condition to bring about peace to the people of Syria.”
Work is going ahead at the UN to secure a resolution with Russia, and table a new draft resolution aimed at securing international co-operation against Isis.
The French are expected to present a text arguing that the Russian solution is in error for accepting the sovereignty of the Syrian government – seen to be code for saying Bashar al-Assad could remain as Syrian president at the end of a peace process leading to UN-monitored elections in 18 months. Diplomatic work is underway to merge the two texts.
Cameron’s chances of winning MPs’ support for an extension of airstrikes will be increased if there is an agreed UN resolution, although Downing Street has said again that UK airstrikes in Syria would be legal anyway as they would be undertaken to “protect Britain”.
The clarity of the case Cameron can put to MPs in the next few days will depend on the extent to which Russia starts to target Isis exclusively, any international agreement on Assad’s future, and whether Russia and the US can agree on the terror groups which will not be part of the peace process in Syria.
The international community is under intense pressure to reach a deal. Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel Garcia-Margallo, on Wednesday called for an agreement with Assad “to kickstart a political transition and above all attack our common enemy”.
He added: “If we want peace, we have to find a way of getting along with Assad, at least in a transition period ... Roosevelt didn’t like Stalin, but he had to get a deal with him in order to defeat the Nazis, who were the greater evil.”
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said he first detected a change in the western position after his country’s president, Vladimir Putin, called for a broad coalition to fight Isis jihadi in Syria and praised the position of the French president, François Hollande. “Right now, sensible politicians are putting secondary things aside and understand that it’s necessary to focus attention on the priority: to prevent efforts by Isil to conquer positions on the huge territory on Earth.”
Lavrov reiterated Russia’s stance that Assad protected the interests of “a significant part of Syrian society” so it would not be possible to reach a settlement “without his participation”.
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