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British Parliament Debates Approving Airstrikes Against ISIS In Syria


British prime minister David Cameron today told Parliament that the U.K. should join the U.S. and France in bombing raids on ISIS and Syria.


DAVID CAMERON: We should answer the call from our allies. The action we propose is legal. It is necessary, and it is the right thing to do to keep our country safe.

SIEGEL: And the House of Commons agrees. Members voted to allow British airstrikes in Syria but only after 11 and a half hours of contentious - as you could hear - debate. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in London and joins us now. And Ofeibea, why did the British Parliament debate this - vote so long? What was so controversial?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: There was so many impassioned speeches, emotional speeches, Robert, from the government side, from the conservatives and from the opposition labor. I mean, people had opinions about whether they should vote with or vote against. Now, the labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said that the case for war - Prime Minister Cameron's case for war, quotes, "does not stack up." But his party was split, you know, with senior labor figures including those in the Shadow Cabinet voting with the government. And saying that they have to show Islamic State that they are taking the war to them, that they cannot bring mayhem to Britain. So many people - it was incredible actually watching because so many members of the members of Parliament had so much to say for why they were voting either for or against.

SIEGEL: Two years ago, Prime Minister Cameron went to Parliament asking for permission to bomb - to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces if the U.N. found that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. He lost that vote despite having an - obviously a majority of the House of Commons supporting his government. Did the Paris attacks completely change the calculus among lawmakers this time?

QUIST-ARCTON: I don't know about completely, but it certainly had an effect. Paris is just across the tunnel. And I think also many of the politicians, many of the MPs were - even though they might have voted for or against were saying, yes, perhaps the Royal Air Force should be helping, especially the U.S. and French allies in its fight against ISIS, but we do not want to see civilians hit. We do not want to see children hurt. And, of course, they were giving the examples of British involvement in Iraq, in Afghanistan and more recently in Libya. So these were all the discussions and debate that was churning in Parliament before people made their decision.

SIEGEL: What about the tone of this debate today, Ofeibea, apart from its enormous length? We heard some - a bit of shouting there earlier underneath David Cameron.

QUIST-ARCTON: It was more huge emotion. I think lots of MPs really wanted to get the reasons across why they were voting either yes or no. And the Prime Minister yesterday - he's been treading very carefully not - trying not to oversell. But yesterday, he said that those who were going to vote no were sympathizers of terrorism. That went down very badly, and people wanted to explain why they were voting no, not just for the heck of it.

SIEGEL: And he's backed off that tone today?

QUIST-ARCTON: He didn't say sorry. He said that those who were voting either yes or those voting no - it was an honorable vote. That's as far as he went.

SIEGEL: If there's to be a British, also now French and American forces, involved in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, how much might that actually affect the air campaign against ISIS?

QUIST-ARCTON: And, of course, the Germans are expected to vote on Friday. I mean, the British it's going to be reconnaissance and refueling planes. You know, in general, perhaps not a huge amount of difference but a really symbolic difference. And in general showing Western consensus and togetherness. I think that is what many people feel was very important in the British Parliament throughout this evening.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in London. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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