I’m still very uncertain about the right outcome from tonight’s vote in the House of Commons on expanding military action against Daesh from Iraq to Syria.
It is a bit of an odd position for me to be in. Barely a year or so ago I was fully in favour of air strikes against Bashar al Assad and the Government of Syria, with the aim of supporting the Free Syrian Army. Assad had crossed a red line by using chemical weapons, but the move to war faltered when Ed Miliband whipped Labour MPs against the plans. When the British Government lost the vote in the House of Commons, the US Government also pulled out of plans to bomb Assad.
Now we’re bombing a group who were not around in these numbers back then. Daesh, or ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, or whatever they are called today, took control of half of Syria and a third of Iraq almost overnight.
It is important to note that this is not a new war – this is instead a war which only 43 MPs voted against when we started it. This is instead mission creep. This is the expansion of our military strategy in Iraq.
The House of Commons debated the extension of war as though it were a new war, for the most part, with many of the questions now being asked perhaps more properly aimed at the vote last year. There were powerful speeches from former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, and an historic speech from Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. There were some less helpful interventions, including the summing up by Philip Hammond, which misjudged the mood of MPs after Mr Benn’s terrific oratory.
The convention of House of Commons votes on military action has been brought about because of the opposition to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Before Tony Blair’s adventure, the Prime Minister would use the Royal Prerogative to authorise military action. Why does it matter that this is no longer how it is done? Well because the last time this Prime Minister, David Cameron, went to the House of Commons and asked for authorisation to take military action against Syria, back when he wanted to bomb Assad, the House of Commons said no.
It was that no that led to today. Firstly, you can draw a direct correlation between our failure to deal with Assad and the rise of Daesh. Secondly our allies, especially the United States, began to question whether we had become an unreliable ally. It was as much to deal with that perception that the Government wanted to extend military operations.
This particular operation has the benefit of being legal – whatever Len McLuskey might want to suggest – by virtue of an authorising resolution by the United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2249. I think that it is also warranted; Daesh are, in the words of Hilary Benn, fascists. Just look at what they have been doing in the territory over which they hold sway.
Mr Benn summarised it thus: “We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex.
“We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc. 130 people in Paris including those young people in the Bataclan whom Daesh – in trying to justify their bloody slaughter – called ‘apostates engaged in prostitution and vice’. If it had happened here, they could have been our children. And we know that they are plotting more attacks.”
These people are modern day Nazis. And just like the Nazis they must be defeated. It is right that the world – including Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Qatar and Bharain – take action against them.
There are those who say that we shouldn’t take action against Daesh in Syria because it will make things less safe for people here at home. I hold absolutely no truck with that argument. Seven times this year the security services have disrupted advanced attempts by Daesh to attack us here. We’ve been bombing Daesh positions in Iraq for a year. It is luck, and good policing, more than anything else that has kept them from attacking us in London. With luck we will stay safe; but the terror threat in the UK has been “a terror attack is likely” for at least ten years.
Daesh are actively trying to attack us here at home, where we live. It is for this reason that action against them is legal under Article 51 of the UN Charter – the doctrine of self-defence.
So the law says that we are justified in attacking them where they live. Certainly humanity suggests that we are justified in assisting attempts to remove these fascists from their mastery over so many people. But this is where my support for our military operations falls apart; I simply do not believe we have the capacity to make an effective difference.
Our military campaign in Iraq has been successful. Despite the fact that our aging Tornado fleet barely has half a dozen operational aircraft, we have used our Brimstone missiles alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army to push Daesh out of Sinjar, and back away from Baghdad. But crucially the only way you can take and hold territory is with ground troops. You cannot win anything with air power alone. And in Syria the ground offensive is very different to that in Iraq.
Militarily of course it is ridiculous to say that if Daesh fighters cross an imaginary line in the sand, they cannot be attacked by British aircraft. That ruling has no doubt caused real problems for the coalition. If an aircraft is providing close air support to troops on the ground, who are in pursuit of Daesh fighters, yet that aircraft is British, there comes a point when suddenly it has to break off any attacks. It will take a while for another aircraft to arrive on station, so that then allows the Daesh fighters to melt away across the border.
It must also be frustrating for pilots who are flying missions over Iraq to see Daesh fighters who are the wrong side of a line on a map that Daesh don’t recognise, and not be able to attack them.
All of this is improved by the decision taken by the House of Commons tonight. Where the Government’s strategy falls down is the mythical 70,000 ground troops who will take on Daesh in Raqqa.
Without ground troops the air campaign cannot work. But the ground troops simply don’t exist in Syria. Sure, if you exclude the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Al Nusra, and any element of the Free Syrian Army with whom we will not work you still get a figure of around 75,000. But these fighters are not an army, like they are in Iraq. They are a disparate band of tribesmen who mostly hate each other more than they hate Daesh. These tribal hatreds run deep in Syria, and the wounding of the Assad regime has allowed them to boil over.
The Government will come to regret using the number 70,000. It will end up being like Tony Blair’s infamous 45 minute charge against Saddam Hussein. It simply isn’t credible to expect them to discontinue their fight to the death with Assad’s Government troops and turn around and attack Daesh.
Given the flaws of the Government’s strategy, I cannot support active targeting of military targets in Syria. Last night the Government made a mistake, and embroiled us further in a fight that cannot be won, where the best outcome is unclear, where our strategic partners have differing objectives, and where military strategy is at best confused.
We should not be bombing Syria.