Technically, Cameron could still authorize military strikes over the objection of Parliament, but top government officials — including the prime minister himself — indicated that was not an option following Thursday’s defeat.
“It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action,” Cameron said after losing the vote. “I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”
The rejection — which dealt Cameron the most powerful setback of his premiership and came as one lawmaker shouted “resign” as the vote was read out — amounted to an extraordinary turn of events in Britain. Only two days ago, this nation appeared ready to fast-track a plan to join a U.S.-led coalition.
But over the past 24 hours, Cameron, a hawk on Syria who has long argued for a tougher response, has encountered a level of domestic political resistance that caught his government off guard. It suggested the extent of the damage done here from the faulty intelligence and mission creep that steered British troops into Iraq a decade ago.
During the debate in the House of Commons, Cameron confronted an avalanche of skepticism. In his impassioned call for action, the prime minister defended President Obama and U.S. humanitarian motives in Syria, while also acknowledging that Britons — who polls show are overwhelmingly opposed to military intervention — were understandably gun-shy after the mishaps in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“The well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode,” Cameron said.
The door, observers said, could be open to indirect military cooperation, including intelligence sharing. But any direct military involvement — such as British missiles being launched into Syria — now appeared largely out of question.
The reluctance to back a possible U.S.-led mission, analysts said, marked a rare and major jolt to U.S.-British relations, the strategic pillar of transatlantic policy for decades that has seen Washington and London forge one of the closest military alliances of modern times.