I know that many people have strong views on the proposed action in Syria, and MPs across the House of Commons are weighing up the arguments and arriving at different conclusions in a principled way on this most difficult issue. There are consequences whichever way Parliament decides. I have given the issue a great deal of thought, but the horrific events in Paris really brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from Daesh. It could just as easily have been London or Manchester or Glasgow.
In my judgement there is a compelling case for extending air strikes against Daesh to Syria because of this threat.
First, we should be in no doubt about the danger we face from Daesh. We know about their beheadings, crucifixions, throwing gay men off buildings, the enslavement of women and the discovery of a mass grave of older women in Sinjar, and we know they killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc and 130 people in Paris. And crucially they are plotting more attacks on the UK and other countries from their headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.
Second, the emergency motion on Syria passed by the Labour Party Conference in September 2015 set out conditions for air strikes and I think they have been met. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution (2249) passed on 20th November 2015, which very specifically calls on member states:
“to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter…. to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL …. and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”
Third, it is absolutely clear that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – the right of self-defence - to defend the UK and our allies.
Fourth, the European Union and member states – including the UK – are doing a great deal to provide humanitarian assistance, but we must hold the Prime Minister to his pledge to do more, including on the UK’s commitment to reconstruction.
Fifth, on the Syrian civil war, there is now important progress on a peace process through the Vienna talks held by the International Syria Support Group, which has brought together all the major international players behind a common vision of what is needed to bring the Syrian civil war to an end – talks and a ceasefire leading to a transitional government and elections. This is vital because ending the war will help in the defeat of Daesh.
Finally, there is strong support from within the region, including Iraq, for action against Daesh. We are part of a coalition of over 60 nations and we must continue to work with other countries to cut off the flow of finance, fighters and weapons to Daesh in Syria and Iraq. France has asked for our help and solidarity, and I think we have an obligation to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with them and others in opposition to their ideology and brutality.
I also believe there are really important questions for our national security:
· Given that we know what Daesh are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our own self defence against those who are planning these attacks?
· Can we really pass responsibility for defending our national security to other countries?
· If we do not act, what message does it send out about our attitude to the UN and about solidarity with all those other countries that have suffered, including Iraq and our ally France?
· And as we are already undertaking air strikes in Iraq – where Daesh’s hold has been reduced – and are already doing everything but engage in air strikes in Syria (including intelligence, surveillance and refuelling using RAF drones and planes) should we not play our full part?
It is said by some that air strikes don’t achieve anything, but this is not so. Air strikes in Syria have helped the Kurds to resist Daesh’s attempt to take Kobane and in Iraq it helped the Kurds to retake Sinjar. In Iraq, the RAF is already showing how it can carry effectively carry out targeted air strikes to undermine Daesh’s military activities using their particular technological capability and skills. This coalition effort is helping to degrade Daesh’s capacity and seeking to prevent them from expanding the territory they control.
It is also argued that because there is a civil war in Syria and there is currently no coherent body of ground troops in the country to defeat Daesh therefore we should not act. It is certainly the case that the opposition forces that are there are currently engaged in fighting President Assad and that every diplomatic effort should be made to end the Syrian civil war. A political settlement and the formation of a new government that represents all the Syrian people will be a significant step forward in ending the threat from Daesh in the longer term. However, to suggest that air strikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war comes to an end is to underestimate the urgency of the terrorist threat Daesh poses to us and others now and to misunderstand the nature and objectives of the extension to air strikes being proposed.
Some also say that instead of air strikes, the UK should be pursuing other non-military activities to take on Daesh. This is a false choice. In accordance with the UN Resolution we should be taking all necessary measures. The Government’s motion makes clear a commitment to seek to cut off Daesh’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons.
There are legitimate arguments not to take this form of action, but the threat is now and there are rarely a perfect set of circumstances in which to deploy military forces.
The first responsibility of government and of the opposition is to defend the national interest and to defend its people. Therefore, on balance, I believe the right thing to do is to support the extension of air strikes against Daesh to Syria.