It is the decision that every MP dreads: the vote to send other people’s sons and daughters to fight and possibly die overseas. I had a sense that this decision on Syria was going to come at some point soon, so I have taken great care to educate myself about the issues, the region, the politics, and the people in what is a very complex and distressing situation. The horrific stories splashed across our newspapers of barbaric killings, torture, rape and mass murder, particularly focused on women and minorities as well as aid workers, and the courage of the Kurds and others in fighting for their way of life, have brought a sharp and urgent focus to my thoughts.
In coming to my decision I have absorbed as much information as I can and consulted widely. I had face-to-face discussions with the Home Secretary, the Defence Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East, as well as attending a number of briefings and meetings over the last few weeks.
I have received lots of emails from constituents, with a variety of views, and have read them all, as well as speaking to people in the constituency. I have discussed the issue with other knowledgeable MPs with contacts and experience in the region, who I respect, not all of whom are known for toeing the party line and, of course, I have read many, many articles and essays. I also listened carefully to key speeches during the debate in the House of Commons.
Before I explain the various factors that have weighed heavily with me, it is worth perhaps explaining what the vote was actually about, not least since there seem to be a number of misconceptions about what is intended.
First, this was not a vote to decide if the UK will start to “bomb” Da’esh or “go to war”. We were already “bombing” Da’esh in Iraq and it is only just over a year ago that the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to do so as they rampaged across that country. Had we not done so, it is widely agreed that Baghdad would have fallen and we would be dealing with a much more powerful enemy. We were simply asked to extend our bombing of Da’esh targets in Iraq to Da’esh targets in northeast Syria.
We were in fact, already highly active over Syria. Our aircraft were regularly used for reconnaissance and targeting, and we were assisting with inflight refueling. So this is not a new conflict, rather an extension, allowing the RAF to pursue our enemies across a now largely non-existent border that Da’esh do not recognize.
Second, This is not a ‘western invasion’ into the Middle East. The UN has mandated a campaign that not only includes western allies such as France, the USA and Australia, but Middle Eastern allies such as Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. All the countries are agreed that western boots on the ground would be counter productive and it must be for Muslim forces to take territory.
Third, this is not another Iraq. The Government has not had to spin a case that Da’esh are a danger to us, as they had to with Saddam Hussein. We already know Da’esh exist and there is wide agreement that they have us in their sights and they must be defeated. So this is an argument about how we fight Da’esh not whether we do at all.
And then there is the history. Whatever the rights and wrongs of western conduct in the Middle East over the last two decades, we cannot undo the past. John Nicholson MP said in the debate that “Saddam Hussein was the monster that controlled the monsters” and his removal has unleashed a series of uncontrollable horrors across the whole region. There may be some truth in this. But we must make a decision about the situation we face now, today, and we cannot sadly do so on the basis that we can rewind the tape and try again.
Of primary concern to me as a UK MP is the threat that Da’esh pose to this country. The Home Secretary has stated that there have been seven Da’esh connected plots disrupted in this country in 2015 and it is clear from my discussion with her that we are a primary target for Da’esh terrorism. We saw this on the beaches of Tunisia when 30 British citizens were amongst the 38 people callously murdered during their holiday.
We know that Da’esh has an “external operations centre” which directs such terrorist attacks overseas and we have seen this in action most recently in Ankara and Beirut, in the downing of Russian airliner, and horrifically, in the Paris massacres. Just two weeks ago Da’esh claimed responsibility for a suicide bomber who killed 12 members of the Presidential Guard travelling on a bus in central Tunis.
So the primary question is, will an extension of action against Da’esh make it more difficult from them to attack us here? The government maintains that it will. I specifically asked the Home Secretary if any action would raise the likelihood of an attack in the short term. She maintained that we are already at the top of their target list, so the answer is no.
The next concern I have is for the Syrians who remain: Would military action by the UK cause civilian casualties? In conversation with the Defence Secretary he underlined the extremely tight rules of engagement in operation for UK forces, the operation of which in Iraq had not resulted in any civilian casualties in 14 months of air strikes. Indeed he himself approves the all non-opportunistic targets, and this issue is his primary concern in approving a strike. We are told that our weaponry is incredibly sophisticated, more so than our allies’, and our intervention in the existing campaign can only improve the accuracy of airstrikes to specific Da’esh targets. Many of our targets will be the oil infrastructure that helps finance Da’esh and where the chance of civilian casualties is low.
Of course the risk of civilian casualties can never be totally mitigated. But this has to be balanced against the mass slaughter of ordinary Syrian people by Da’esh, in particular those who are disabled, gay, Christian, Yazidi or any Muslim who refuses to endorse their vile ideology. They seem to have a special hatred for women and there have been horrific reports of mass graves discovered in Iraq filled with women who were deemed not suitable to be raped or sold for sex. (I can hardly believe I am writing about such barbarity). It is obvious that the biggest threat to civilians in northeast Syria is actually this vicious group.
Then there is the issue of our international allies, many of whom have asked for our help. As Paris lies bleeding, the French have called for our aid. Can we hesitate? As several people said during the debate, that attack could easily have happened in London, and if it had, and the French had refused to join us in action against Da’esh, what would our reaction have been? And what prospect would that have held out for our future collective security? In truth our ongoing security rests on us being a reliable and steadfast ally – this is the whole basis on which NATO is constructed and we neglect this responsibility at our peril. That is not to say we follow blindly, but that our view of threats to our security should be collective. To paraphrase Tom Tugendhat MP in the debate: If the French are not safe, neither are we, and action to make the French safer, makes us safer.
There are also others who also deserve our protection such as the Kurds, who are already bravely fighting Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. If we can provide air cover for their troops as they advance then surely we have a moral obligation to do so.
We know from our action in Iraq that air strikes can make a difference. Syrian forces of various kinds have reclaimed about 30% of Da’esh territory seized in 2014. Sinjar province has been liberated, and the Kurds are now at the gates of Mosul, all under coalition air cover.
Then there is the legality of our action under international law. There is no doubt that the UN resolution 2259 following the Paris massacre mandates us to do “something”. It is worth reproducing it the relevant section:
“5. (theUN) Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;”
I am not a particularly religious person but I did note that the Archbishop of Canterbury said in the House of Lords that he felt the conditions for a “Just War” has been satisfied and was content with military action.
Finally we all agree that air strikes cannot achieve victory on their own. A wider political and economic strategy is needed.
There are now important signs of political progress to a new Syrian government that is able to meet the needs of its entire people, and with whom we can work on the ground. The International Syria Support Group has brought together the major international players. They have agreed an ambitious time frame including the aim of a transitional government within six months; and a new constitution and elections within 18 months. Having Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States sitting across the table from each other trying to come to an agreement is significant development, and I am led to believe that there is a real desire from all parties to come to an agreement.
Efforts to bring about a political transition and the coalition’s military effort to degrade Daesh are complementary. They are both supported by the DFID-led humanitarian efforts and the planning for post-conflict stabilisation in Syria. Britain has given over £1.1 billion to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people in Syria and refugees in the region. Britain is prepared to commit at least £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction. Over time the focus will shift to rebuilding of Syria’s infrastructure.
There are still significant issues to be resolved: The conduct of the Turks towards the Kurds, the persistent rumours of Saudi citizens involvement with “Isis”, Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the general stability of Lebanon, but political progress is definitely being made and we must work hard for more.
For all these reasons I decided to support the government.