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UK military action in Syria likely within days

Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally against taking military action against Islamic State in Syria, held outside Downing Street in London, November 28, 2015.
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Demonstrators listen to speakers at a rally against taking military action against Islamic State in Syria, held outside Downing Street in London, November 28, 2015.

David Cameron is expected to launch British military action in Syria within days after Jeremy Corbyn in effect guaranteed that the prime minister could secure a Commons majority for war.

Mr Corbyn backed down on Monday on his previous plan to order his divided party to oppose extending RAF air strikes to Isis targets in Syria; instead Labour MPs will now be given a free vote.

The prime minister reacted quickly to Mr Corbyn's capitulation, announcing after he returned from the Paris climate summit that he would recommend to the cabinet on Tuesday that a one-day debate and vote on military intervention in Syria be held on Wednesday.

Mr Cameron's announcement reflects his confidence that he can now command a Commons majority. He had previously warned that defeat would deliver a "propaganda coup" to Isis.

Dozens of Labour MPs are expected to join Conservatives, Northern Ireland unionists and even Liberal Democrats — who opposed the 2003 Iraq war — in supporting Mr Cameron's call to arms.

"Isil poses a very direct threat to the United Kingdom," Mr Cameron said last night. "As we have already seen in Iraq, British air strikes can play a key role in degrading them; but they are only part of a comprehensive strategy for Syria."

Over the weekend, Mr Corbyn had engaged in brinkmanship with his own shadow cabinet, insisting that its members would have to yield to his authority and the wishes of party activists by opposing military action.

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But during a fraught meeting on Monday afternoon Mr Corbyn backed down, saying that MPs would not be told how to vote in the looming Commons debate over extending air strikes to Syria.

That was despite the Labour leader's insistence that the government had failed to make a convincing case for intervening in the prolonged civil war.

The atmosphere at the shadow cabinet meeting worsened as Mr Corbyn tried to insist that — despite allowing a free vote — Labour would still set an official policy of opposing air strikes.

Andy Burnham, shadow home secretary, said that was "unacceptable". Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, said that policy would mean he would have to speak from the backbenches during the Syria debate — to avoid opposing party policy.

Under this pressure from colleagues around the table, Mr Corbyn abandoned that idea.

The double climbdown averts a rash of resignations inside Britain's main opposition party — but will highlight the deep disagreement among its MPs.

Just minutes into the meeting, details emerged of how Mr Corbyn would try to paper over the most severe split in the party since he became leader on September 12.

The truce involves an agreement that Labour is keeping the policy it set at autumn conference: that the government must meet five tests before going to war in Syria.

"That allows those like Hilary Benn who believe the tests have been met to argue in favour," said one senior source. "It allows those who think they haven't to make the opposite case."

The shadow cabinet agreed to hold Mr Cameron to account on outstanding questions raised by his case for bombing.

Those revolve around a negotiated settlement of Syria's civil war, cutting off supplies to Isis, the refugee crisis and more details on rebel forces on the ground who could seize territory evacuated by retreating Isis jihadis. The prime minister had claimed last week that there were 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels ready to move in.

Mr Corbyn said at the weekend that he doubted the existence of substantial numbers of moderate Syrian forces able to help take ground vacated by Isis after any RAF air strike. "I seriously question the number, I seriously question the motives and loyalty of those forces," he said.