British members of parliament are set to vote on whether to allow the country’s air force to target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in Syria, a move that has exposed divisions within parliament and within the opposition Labour Party.
If successfully passed by the MPs on Wednesday, British fighter jets will be allowed to extend their campaign against ISIL fighters in Iraq to neighbouring Syria, where the group has its headquarters in the city of Raqqa.
David Cameron, the UK prime minister, called for military intervention in ISIL-held areas of Syria after the group’s attacks in Paris on November 13, which left 130 people dead.
Speaking to parliament last week, he said he was urged by US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande to commit his forces to the campaign in Syria.
“These are our closest allies and they want our help … if not now, then when?” Cameron said.
He is backed by much of the British public, according to at least two recent polls.
A YouGov survey found 59 percent of participants wanted air strikes against ISIL in Syria, while 20 percent were opposed.
A ComRes poll found similar results, putting those supporting strikes at 60 percent and those opposing at 24 percent.
Cameron’s main opposition in parliament comes from the Scottish nationalist SNP, whose MPs will vote against any attempt to authorise air strikes, and the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, who is struggling to convince all his MPs to vote against the government.
Corbyn, a former chairman of the Stop the War coalition, which was formed after the Iraq War, faces opposition from his own shadow cabinet.
The Independent reported that a two-hour meeting between Corbyn and his senior officials turned into a “shouting match”.
Labour is expected to give its members a free vote and allow those in favour of striking ISIL in Syria side with Cameron’s Conservatives.
The decision has been criticised by some Labour activists as pandering to the party’s “Blairite” wing (a reference to Tony Blair, the former Labour leader and UK prime minister).
One party member, Scott Nelson, told Al Jazeera that the issue was being used by Corbyn’s rivals within the party to challenge his leadership.
“Labour MPs should vote against bombing Syria and should stand behind Jeremy Corbyn, however many Blairite MPs are using Syria to defy him because they do not like him as Labour leader,” Nelson said.
British political historian Alun Wyburn-Powell told Al Jazeera that Blair’s legacy and the 2003 invasion of Iraq had made much of the Labour party cautious about entering into new wars.
“The Labour Party is wary of supporting military action in Syria, primarily because of Tony Blair’s promotion of the Iraq invasion in 2003. The legality, justification, leadership and feasibility of the action were all open to suspicion,” he said.
Cameron himself is not without critics in his own party. In a letter published in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, MP John Baron warned that the UK was risking repeating the same mistakes it made in Libya.
“In those previous military interventions, we vastly underestimated the complexities of local politics in the countries we were invading. We took too little account of the difficulty of achieving our aims and the resources we would require,” he wrote.
Al Jazeera spoke to one British-Syrian activist who said that both sides of the debate were ignoring the real issues affecting civilians in Syria.
Razan Saffour said the Syrian government led by Assad had inflicted the most damage on civilians and was to blame for the rise of ISIL.
“The strikes are a reaction to the Paris attacks rather than a genuine concern for the suffering of the Syrian people.
“There’s a complete dismissal of the revolution in general, from both sides. And Syrians are nowhere in context … if civilian deaths were a genuine concern, the first action would be to stop and remove Assad entirely.
“Bombing ISIL will be ineffective unless the situation in Syria is resolved, which can only happen with removing the Assad regime.”
MPs are expected to start voting on the motion at 22:00 GMT on Wednesday.
Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM