Making the decision to commit our armed forces and into conflict is not a responsibility I bear lightly. Such decisions have never informed my desire to represent our community in Parliament: essentially, I didn’t enter politics in order to commit our forces into the theatre of conflict.
These issues should always transcend party politics and the ongoing debate within the Labour Party regarding this issue has not formed part of my considerations in making this decision. My considerations have been centred purely upon the merits of the case, the risks of joining our international partners in the ongoing intervention and the risks of not joining our allies in the fight against the fascists of Daesh.
After months of considerations, which began before the Paris massacre, and after following our recent debate closely, I decided that the best course of action was to vote in favour of extending Britain’s already existing intervention in Iraq into Syria. This has not been an easy decision, but it is one I have taken great care in reaching.
As part of reaching this decision, I have reflected upon nine individual issues that relate to the intervention. These issues are:
The principle of intervention
The experience of our intervention against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq
The risk to British national security
The legality of intervention
The impact on refugees
The impact on civilians
The hope for a political and diplomatic solution in Syria
The issue of international cooperation
Consideration of the humanitarian crisis
I will explain my reasoning relating to each of these points in detail below.
I understand that some will disagree with the conclusion that I have reached. I genuinely respect their opinions and judgements and I hope that they are able to respect that I have reached this position as a result of careful consideration.
On November 13th, 130 innocent people were indiscriminately murdered on the streets of Paris. 130 people who were enjoying nights out with friends and family, at a football match, at a rock concert and at bars and restaurants. Prior to this, in June, scores of holidaymakers – including many British – were gunned down on a Tunisian beach.
These are just two examples of the barbarism perpetrated by ISIL/Daesh. They are a brutal, fascist organisation committing violent acts of oppression in Syria and Iraq. They rape and pillage their way across the region executing many hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people. Their tyranny has been ignored for too long and must be confronted.
As I stated earlier, this issue of course transcends party lines, but the Labour Party has a proud tradition of fighting fascism wherever we meet it. The fascism of ISIL/Daesh must be confronted. As thousands are being killed, tortured, raped and maimed at the hands of this fascist organisation, it is my belief that as a matter of principle we should look to degrade the capabilities of these terrorists and if possible, destroy their organisation.
Cleary, in addition to intervention, the principle of confronting ideologies such as this must be accompanied by a coherent plan; a plan that is based on political solutions and diplomatic efforts as well as upon military means. I will outline why I believe that the principle of intervention is accompanied by such a plan.
In this debate, we shouldn’t lose sight of the critical fact that we are already engaged in the fight against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq and have been for over a year. The vote in the House of Commons to approve of this intervention was a much more significant decision to make – strategically and militarily – than the continuation of this action over the non-existent border between Iraq and Syria. The vote in Parliament yesterday extended this action (so far proven to be effective) across the border into Syria. It is important to remember that this border does not exist with regard to the attempts of Daesh to create a caliphate: they do not acknowledge the border and our efforts against them should reflect this point.
In September 2014, following the brutal murder of aid worker Alan Henning, I was one of an overwhelming majority that voted in favour of Britain undertaking air strikes on ISIL/Daesh targets in Iraq. I still believe that this was the right course of action and our ongoing commitment to the Government of Iraq has been sadly missing from much of the debate on extending our intervention across the border into Syria.
Our experience in Iraq and the record of our servicemen and women show just what can be achieved. Much has been made of our forces’ capability for precision targeting and this is borne out in the evidence of our engagement in Iraq. The capability of ISIL/Daesh in Iraq has been seriously degraded. They have lost a third of their territory and a significant number of ISIL/Daesh targets have been killed.
Crucially, and I will discuss this more later, during our intervention in Iraq, our intelligence states there hasn’t been a single civilian casualty as a result of British attacks on ISIL/Daesh targets. The intelligence we have and the capability of armed forces mean that we can strike ISIL/Daesh targets with great precision.
The capability of our forces are such that we can make a real dent in ISIL/Daesh’s ability to wage terror in Iraq, Syria and around the world.
Opponents of the expansion of our intervention in Iraq into Syria should be clear with regard to our Iraq operation. Our efforts in Iraq are working and opponents of the logical extension of this work must be clear about whether or not they wish these operations to proceed.
Many have argued that attacking ISIL/Daesh in Syria will increase the risk of terrorist attacks in Britain. Not only is the argument rejected by our Security Services, it bears no reflection upon the threats faced by British people.
In the last 12 months, our Security Services have foiled no fewer than seven planned terrorist attacks either planned or inspired by ISIL/Daesh. Top security chiefs have made clear that intelligence shows we are already in the ‘top tier’ of targets for ISIL/Daesh. We should also acknowledge that on the beach of Tunisia and in the streets of Paris, British people have died at the hands of terrorists from ISIL/Daesh.
Only by degrading the military capability of the group in Syria will we be able to reduce their capability to bring terror to British people. We should also understand that we are already engaged in the fight against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq – and supporting the efforts of other international partners taking action in Syria – and there is no suggestion we would be placed at further risk by crossing a border into Syria that the terrorists themselves do not recognise.
I do not claim that our actions will prevent attacks on British soil. Daesh hates us for who and what we are, not for what we have done or may do.
In debates about intervention, many points are made about past failings. This is completely understandable, entirely legitimate and it is right to state that lessons should be learned. In the wake of the Paris atrocities, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution which states that:
‘Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures…to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Daesh.’
This is a clear and unequivocal statement by the international community authorising action to be taken against this fascist cult. The issue of non-legal action is not applicable to this decision. Action is deemed legal under this resolution.
The Government and I diverge on the issue of refugees. Following the publication of the Government’s strategy last week, I raised the issue of refugees with the Prime Minister. Though civilian casualties are not thought to be likely given our experience in Iraq since September 2014 (though my personal view is that this is possible), the number of displaced peoples could be increased by British action.
As a result, I would like to see the Government commit to reassessing how many refugees Britain is willing to offer safe haven to. I have made clear that I think the taking of 20,000 refugees over five years is shamefully low. Britain has a proud history of offering safe haven to those fleeing persecution. We should never lose sight that those fleeing the barbarism of ISIL/Daesh in Syria are fleeing the same terror that was brought to the beach of Tunisia and the streets of Paris.
Therefore, I welcome the commitment to look again the refugee issue by the Prime Minister in his contribution to the debate. On this issue and on the wider debate, the vote doesn’t mark the end of scrutiny on the Government’s actions. I will continue to press for more support for Syrian refugees and more humanitarian support for those who remain in Syria. The Government should know that its actions will be heavily scrutinised. You can find my recent questions to the Prime Minister on this issue, and his responses here.
As I mentioned earlier, the impact of intervention upon civilians is a key consideration of mine. Over the course of the Syrian civil war, over a quarter of a million people have been killed. Many of these were civilians caught up in the bloody conflict. I cannot accept the argument which states that civilians will be safer if we turn our back on the fight against ISIL/Daesh in Syria.
Our experience in Iraq fighting these terrorist have shown that Britain can achieve its military aims without harming civilians. Government figures state that not one civilian has been killed as part of target British missions in Iraq and our precision capabilities means that civilians can be protected. I am aware of the painful irony inherent within these claims: that bombing will save lives. However, the use of more precise British capability to either assist or supplement the less precise capabilities deployed by other partners is likely to save more lives than may otherwise have been lost. There has been a willingness for some opposed to the intervention to paint British intervention as blanket bombing of Syria. This is simply not the case. Our airstrikes would be highly precise. This method has been proven to work in Iraq.
As profoundly difficult as these issues are, it is disingenuous to state that we should not intervene because our intervention may mean that civilians are killed. This doesn’t take into account that civilians have not been killed by our actions in Iraq and it also doesn’t take into account that thousands of civilians are being killed at the hands of ISIL/Daesh and Assad. As I write, the worst atrocities are likely underway.
We should also bear in mind the powerful point raised by Hilary Benn in his closing speech yesterday:
“I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh, which targets innocent people.”
Political and Diplomatic Solution
With regard to Assad, the future of Syria depends upon him leaving office. This is now widely accepted amongst the international community. Following extensive diplomatic talks including in Vienna on the 14th November, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed a timetable for political negotiations. The ISSG includes Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and the USA. This group agreed to start political negotiations before the end of the year with a view to having a transitional Government in place within six months followed by a new constitution and free elections within 18 months.
This is significant progress, but in order to build a stable Syria for the future, ISIL/Daesh must be defeated. We must degrade and destroy ISIL/Daesh so they retreat from their heartlands to allow moderate Syrian fighters and others from the region the opportunity to re-take, secure and administer territory. Only by doing this can a secure and stable Syria be established.
This international agreement for progressing the political and diplomatic endeavours is a key plank of defeating ISIL/Daesh and securing a peaceful future for Syria. This effort must be in coordination with any military efforts in order for intervention to be successful. I am glad the Government is taking a leading role in the ISSG and I welcome the commitment to keep Parliament updated on progress.
With this in mind, we should also recognise our commitments to our allies. The USA and France as well as our partners in the region have requested that we join their already underway intervention in Syria. France, our nearest and one of our closest allies, has been attacked by a group that is a fundamental threat to the security of the British people. We have a duty to defend our way of life, our allies, our own national security and to stand should to shoulder with our allies in the fight against ISIL/Daesh.
In his closing speech, Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn demonstrated how our international obligations and our desire to protect our own national security go hand in hand and how this means we should confront ISIL/Daesh in Syria:
“Daesh is plotting more attacks, so the question for each of us and for our national security is this: given that we know what it is doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security? If we do not act, what message will that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including Iraq and our ally, France? France wants use to stand with it, and President Hollande, the leader of our sister Socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help. As we are undertaking airstrikes in Iraq, where Daesh’s hold has been reduced, and as we are doing everything but engaging in airstrikes in Syria, should we not play our full part?”
The suffering seen across the region must be recognised by all on all sides of this debate. I am proud that Britain has contributed so generously to alleviating the humanitarian crisis in the region. I will continue to press for the Government to do more.
We must all acknowledge that if we do not defeat ISIL/Daesh and find a permanent political solution to the Syrian civil war, the humanitarian crisis will continue. Only by destroying ISIL/Daesh in Syria will we be able to rebuild the country and end the suffering of many millions of displaced peoples.
The first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens. ISIL/Daesh present a clear and present risk to the security of Britain and British people. With seven failed plots this year, the efforts of the terrorists to cause us harm cannot be overstated. Only by defeating ISIL/Daesh in the region can this risk be reduced and only through a political and diplomatic solution aimed at bringing the Syrian civil war to an end can we secure those captured ISIL/Daesh territories and defeat this fascist group for good.
I have set out above why I believe that extending our intervention against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq into Syria, across a border that isn’t respected by ISIL/Daesh, is the right course of action. This is why I voted in favour of extending our intervention.
I hope that those who disagree with my conclusion will respect that I have reached it in a considered manner based solely upon the available evidence and only with regard to the issues relating to Daesh in Syria and Iraq.
The decision to commit our servicemen and women into a theatre of conflict is one I do not lightly. I take my responsibilities in this regard extremely seriously and it is with a real solemnity that I have considered each of the issues discussed here.
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to you if you are in any way disappointed by my decision. I genuinely understand any such disappointment but have acted and voted in accordance not only with my conscience and reasoning, but with what I sincerely believe represents the best interests of our community, our country and all those suffering at the hands of this murderous sect.
I am happy to discuss these issues with you at any time.
With sincere best wishes,