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New York Times Chief Foreign Correspondent, John Burns, On Syrian Action, And Britain’s Withdrawal From It

Friday, August 30, 2013  |  posted by Duane Patterson

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HH: Extraordinary news from London tonight where a British Parliament has voted not to endorse military action, David Cameron visibly stunned, I think. John Burns, the New York Times Bureau Chief in London, joins me. John Burns, this is a truly remarkable moment in British Parliamentary history.

JB: Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll be a little bit pedantic and say I’m now chief foreign correspondent, no longer the London Bureau Chief.

HH: Yup.

JB: But it’s been a shock. It was expected to be close, but it’s probably one of the most brute rebuttals, rebuffs of a British prime minister has received in international affairs in decades.

HH: Does it oblige Cameron’s government to fall?

JB: No, no. No, I don’t think it’s that serious, but it certainly weakens his position within his own party. It weakens his position in the British Parliament. But this is a very fluid situation in Syria. And if you take the snapshot this evening, you see the government of David Cameron being rebuffed by Parliament. If you took a snapshot a week from now, should the United Nations report indicate that this was definitely a result of government action, you might see a big change. Cameron is taking the view that the overwhelming probability is that the chemical weapons attack have killed so many hundreds of people was in fact undertaken by the government of Syria, not by other parties, including most potentially, the insurgents there. So we’re looking at a rapidly dynamic situation which could look very different even a week from now.

HH: So John Fisher Burns, is it possible, then, the reporting’s so convoluted over here. It seemed as though Cameron was ruling out going back for authority next week. Are you reading it differently, that he may try yet again?

JB: No, it’s true that the statement he made in the wake of the votes tonight in the Commons sounded as though he had abandoned the possibility of taking military action. But if you look at what he actually said during the debate, he appeared then to take a very different position, which was that inaction by the British government in the face of evidence that proved the Syrian government to be responsible would invite the Assad regime to repeat what happened last week again and again, causing more and more atrocities with chemical weapons. So I think it’s a little early to make a final judgment about this. It’s enough to say right now that if the United States and President Obama do in fact proceed with military action against Syria in the next few days, it will be without Britain as a partner, which is a radical change. As you know, the Iraq war was begun on the basis of a strong bond between the United States and the United Kingdom. And I think that, my guess is, you can know a great deal more about American politics than I do, that the absence of Britain as a partner might very well cause the Obama administration itself to defer its final decision on this until the United Nations weapons inspectors report is in.

HH: Your newspaper’s lead story tonight is that, on the front page of the New York Times, is that the President is sending out signals he’ll act unilaterally. But I am afraid of, since I am a proponent of Syrian intervention, I’m afraid that what you’re suggesting is actually possible, that this President is not that committed to anything. And he needed David Cameron, and he needed the French. And it does not appear as he’s got them right now at his back.

JB: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right about that. It’s a bit of a puzzle to me as to why this attack, whoever undertook it, was perfectly ghastly, and obviously commands some sort of response. What is puzzling, especially in the wake of what happened in the Iraq war, the war being launched on the basis of what proved to be faulty intelligence, why either the government of the United States or the government of the United Kingdom, in the person of Mr. Cameron, would have so hastily committed themselves as it seemed to military action without waiting for the United Nations weapons inspectors report, to see whether in fact it can be rather conclusively shown that the Syrian government was responsible. Why the hurry? This conflict has been going on now for a considerable time, I think two years or more. There are at least 100,000 people dead, all of which is ghastly enough. But would an extra few days, and an extra week, have made that much difference? Surely if this action was to be undertaken, it needed to be undertaken on the basis of conclusive evidence, which it becomes apparently in the debate in the British House of Commons tonight, Mr. Cameron, at least, does not have.

HH: John Fisher Burns of the New York Times, chief foreign correspondent, thank you for joining us on such short notice for that update from London.

End of interview.

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