Answers to the key questions on Syria

Online and in the comments on my last article, members of the public are raising legitimate questions which were, I think, answered in last night’s debate.

To read the media, one would think we had voted for a general war: we did not. The motion, as I reported, was tightly drafted.

The speeches made by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, and his Labour shadow, Hilary Benn, made the case clearly. Mr Benn’s speech was outstanding: it may be found here by using the index on the right. I thoroughly recommend it.

Since they do answer the vast majority of questions, I reproduce their speeches below with my own emphasis.

Hilary Benn said this:

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): Before I respond to the debate, I would like to say this directly to the Prime Minister: although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I will walk into different Division Lobbies tonight, I am proud to speak from the same Dispatch Box as him. He is not a terrorist sympathiser. He is an honest, principled, decent and good man, and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today, which is simply to say, “I am sorry.”

We have had an intense and impassioned debate, and rightly so given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests on the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us, and the lives that we hold in our hands tonight. Whatever decision we reach, I hope that we will treat one another with respect.

We have heard a number of outstanding speeches. Sadly, time will prevent me from acknowledging them all. I would just like to single out the contributions, both for and against the motion, from my right hon. Friends the Members for Derby South (Margaret Beckett), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper); my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh); my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden); my hon. Friends the Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood), for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood); the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat); the right hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie); and the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey).

The question that confronts us in a very complex conflict is, at its heart, very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the cruel yoke of Daesh? The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger that we face from Daesh. It could just as easily have been London, Glasgow, Leeds, or Birmingham and it could still be. I believe that we have a moral and practical duty to extend the action that we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. I am also clear—and I say this to my colleagues—that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states

“to take all necessary measures…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”.

The United Nations is asking us to do something; it is asking us to do something now; it is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq.

Mr Baron rose—

Hilary Benn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, it was a Labour Government who helped to found the United Nations at the end of the second world war. Why did we do so? It was because we wanted the nations of the world working together to deal with threats to international peace and security, and Daesh is unquestionably that. Given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, and that such action would be lawful under article 51 of the UN charter—because every state has the right to defend itself—why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region, including from Iraq? We are part of a coalition of more than 60 countries, standing together shoulder to shoulder to oppose the ideology and brutality of Daesh.

We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hope of achieving a ceasefire—now that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing— leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of—they just want to be able to go home.

No one in the debate doubts the deadly serious threat that we face from Daesh and what it does, although we sometimes find it hard to live with the reality. In June, four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. In August, the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Asaad, was beheaded, and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. In recent weeks, mass graves in Sinjar have been discovered, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex. Daesh has killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia; 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane; 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruç; 130 people in Paris, including those young people in the Bataclan, whom Daesh, in trying to justify its bloody slaughter, called apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children.

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 us 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?

It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes achieve nothing. Not so: the House should look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. It will remember that 14 months ago, people were saying that it was almost at the gates of Baghdad, which is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi Government’s request for help to defeat it. Its military capacity and freedom of movement have been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Of course, airstrikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference, because they give it a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory. 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.

On the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there has been much debate about the figure of 70,000, and the Government must explain that better. But we know that most of those troops are engaged in fighting President Assad. I will tell Members what else we know: whatever the number—70,000, 40,000, 80,000—the current size of the opposition forces means that the longer we leave it to take action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number. So to suggest that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others, and to misunderstand the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is proposed.

Of course we should take action—there is no contradiction between the two—to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money, fighters and weapons, of course we should give humanitarian aid, of course we should offer shelter to more refugees, including in this country, and yes, we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.

I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. It is also clear that many Members have wrestled and, who knows, in the time that is left may still be wrestling with their conscience about what is the right thing to do. But I say the threat is now and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces.

We heard powerful testimony earlier from the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) when she quoted that passage. Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan Regional Government High Representative in London, said last week:

“Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq overnight and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan Region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France and the actions of our own Peshmerga saved us… We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We have pushed them back and recently captured Sinjar …Again Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.”

That is the argument for treating the two countries as one if we are serious about defeating Daesh.

I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. We are faced by fascists—not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this Chamber tonight and all the people we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy—the means by which we will make our decision tonight—in contempt.

What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. It is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists, trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It is why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. My view is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. That is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight. [Applause.]

Philip Hammond said:

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Philip Hammond): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on an outstanding exposition of the case for the motion. It will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in the House of Commons.

The proposal before the House is clear, simple and specific: to extend the airstrikes that we are already carrying out against ISIL in Iraq across a border that they themselves do not recognise and into their heartland in Syria. The Prime Minister set out the compelling arguments in favour of taking this action as part of a comprehensive strategy for Syria. In response, the Leader of the Opposition set out his well known and well understood principled objections to military intervention, objections that he has developed over many years and which are obviously sincerely held. I respect those objections as such, although I believe them to be profoundly misguided.

It is clear from the shadow Foreign Secretary’s speech, and from those of the right hon. Members for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) and many others, that for many Opposition Members the real issue of conscience at stake here is our obligation to act in the best interests of the UK and for the protection of British citizens.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the Leader of the Opposition’s speech was his repeated refusal to confirm whether it is his party’s policy to support the current action in Iraq, which this House voted for overwhelmingly in September 2014. Not only is he opposed to extending action to protect Britain against Daesh, but we have to assume from his silence that he wants to roll back the action that we are taking in Iraq now to protect the Kurds, the Yazidis and others and to support the steady erosion of ISIL control by the Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga. I ask Opposition Members whether that is now the position of the Labour party, despite its long and honourable tradition of fighting what the right hon. Member for Leeds Central has himself described as fascism. I hope that we will have confirmation as soon as possible that the Labour party remains committed to the current action in Iraq.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr Hammond: I will not give way, because time is very short.

I believe that today we saw the House at its best. A total of 104 Members have spoken. We heard forensic analysis and passionate conviction. I think that we can collectively be satisfied that, as a House, we have done justice to the gravity of the subject. With so many contributions and only a few minutes remaining, I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me if I do not acknowledge them all individually, but I will do my best to try to address the principal themes and questions that have arisen during the debate.

One of the key issues is the need to understand what the military plan is and who will deliver it. I have to say that there appears to be some confusion about that, so let me try to clarify it. We all agree that airstrikes alone will not finish ISIL, but they will deliver immediate benefit. They will reduce ISIL’s external attack planning capability, making Britain safer, and they will, over time, degrade ISIL and force a change in its behaviour. However, airstrikes alone will not create a vacuum.

During the debate, some hon. Members have sought to have it both ways, arguing that bombing ISIL in Raqqa will not make a difference, and at the same time suggesting that bombing ISIL in Raqqa will immediately create a power vacuum. Ultimately, there will need to be a ground assault on Raqqa, supported by continued airstrikes. However, as the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said, that will come not in days or weeks, but in months and perhaps years, and that is before it even begins, let alone ends. We have had questions about ground forces—where are the ground forces going to come from? The context of this is a comprehensive strategy—a military track against ISIL and a political track against Assad. The time for retaking ISIL’s heartland in Syria will be when the civil war is ended, a transitional Government are in place, and the world can then once again support the Syrian Government so that that Syrian army, the Syrian opposition forces and the Kurdish forces can turn their guns on ISIL, liberating their own country from this evil organisation, supported by the coalition with weapons, with training, with technical support, and with air power.

Much has been made during the course of this debate about the number of opposition fighters available to join in that effort. The number of 70,000 is a number produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee. It is a number corroborated by the evidence of our US allies. But the situation on the ground is complex. There is a spectrum of views included in that 70,000-strong force. Yes, it includes a large element of secularists who have views that we would recognise as democratic, and yes, it also includes Islamists, but there are Islamists in the parliaments of Kuwait and Tunisia. We can work with Islamists who accept the democratic process and are prepared to take part in it.

The second issue that has arisen during the course of this debate is a question about the overall strategy. The Prime Minister was absolutely clear that military action is just one part of a comprehensive strategy. There has to be a political track and there has to be a humanitarian track. It is clear that we have to pursue the political track in parallel with the military. It is the only way to end the civil war in Syria and bring about the defeat of ISIL. Now we have an international Syria support group—the Vienna process. That is a major change in the context here, bringing together all the major international players behind a common vision of what is needed to end the war. It includes Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the US, UK, France, Turkey and China. For the first time, all these countries have accepted the need for Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition based on the Geneva principles—a transition that will leave the institutions of the state intact, avoiding the mistakes that were made in Iraq. Of course differences remain between the parties, particularly about Assad how will transition out, but they have agreed together a time frame for political negotiations, including transitional government within six months and a new constitution and free and fair elections within 18 months.

I know that there are those who question the commitment of the United States or the engagement of Russia in this process, so I want, if I may, to quote from a letter that I have received this morning from the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry. He says:

“The United States has long believed that while military action can reinforce diplomacy there can be no military solution to the civil war in Syria. We have to pursue a political track. And at the same time there can be no political deal with Daesh. They have to be degraded by military force.”

He goes on to say that

“the Vienna process presents the best opportunity in four years for an agreement that can establish a ceasefire and create a political process leading to a new constitution and democratic elections.”

Importantly, he concludes by telling me this:

“Senior Russian officials have helped lead the effort to find a common way forward and have expressed firm commitment to the Geneva principles. Russian leaders have indicated both publicly and privately on numerous occasions that they are open to a political transition, including a new constitution and elections.”

The third issue that came up several times during the course of today is the question of whether airstrikes will make a difference. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central and several other Members made the point that they were effective in halting the precipitate advance of Daesh in Iraq last year and are now contributing to the erosion of Daesh positions in Iran. The UK already provides a significant element of the high-precision strike available to the coalition, and that high-precision strike will be vital to the campaign in Raqqa.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) asked about the rules of engagement. Rules of engagement are classified, but I can tell him that the UK’s rules of engagement are among the most restrictive in the world. Bringing British discipline, British skills and British precision weapons to bear will save lives as we prosecute this campaign. We will minimise civilian casualties. There is no military logic and no moral logic to prosecuting ISIL in Iraq but not targeting its HQ in Syria.

Finally, I want to turn to the fourth issue that has arisen during the course of this debate: will Britain’s taking part in airstrikes increase the threat to our security?

In 2014, there were 15 ISIL external attack plans. This year, so far, there have been 150. The scale of this problem is rising exponentially. ISIL already poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom: 30 British tourists killed on the beaches of Tunisia, what could have been a British plane downed over the deserts of Sinai and seven different terrorist plots disrupted by the security services in the UK in the past 12 months.

The judgment of the Joint Intelligence Committee and the director general of the Security Service is that the UK is already a top tier of ISIL’s target list. They hate us for who we are, not for what we do. We have to be clear—I think the right hon. Member for Derby South was the first to say this—that the risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of action. We have to act now to degrade this threat to our security, and we will do it by targeting their heartland and their control centre.

We are not debating tonight, as some would have us believe, whether or not to “go to war”. Fifteen months ago, this House voted overwhelmingly to begin airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq. The simple question that we are deciding tonight is whether to extend those operations to tackle ISIL in their heartland in Syria—targeting the head of the snake. This is not a fight that we have chosen. By the atrocities they have committed, by the murderous regime of brutality and terror they have inflicted on the people of Iraq and Syria, and by their clear intent and capability to strike us in the UK and at British citizens abroad, ISIL have made that choice for us. To answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), yes, ISIL do represent a direct and imminent threat to the UK and to British citizens.

The decision tonight is this: do we take the fight to them, or do we wait for them to bring the fight to us? Do we strike them in Syria, or do we wait for them to strike us on the streets of London? What kind of country would we be if we refused to act in the face of a threat to our security as clear as the one that ISIL poses? Indeed, what kind of country would we be if we were unmoved by the murder, the rape, the beheadings and the slavery that ISIL imposes on its subjects? And what kind of country would we be if we ignored the calls for help from our nearest neighbours even as they grieve for their dead? We cannot contract out the responsibility for our national security. We cannot rely on others to take actions to protect our citizens that we are not willing to take ourselves.

The threat is clear. Our ability to respond to it is undoubted. The moral imperative to act is compelling. The legal case to do so is watertight. We do not propose military action lightly and we do not propose it in isolation. We will vigorously pursue the Vienna process to ceasefire, transition and a new representative Government in Syria. We will lead the international community in planning and delivering post-conflict reconstruction. Let us tonight give a clear and simple message to our allies, to the enemy and to our brave armed forces, who we are asking to do the job for us. Let us show beyond doubt what kind of a country we are by endorsing decisively the motion before us this evening.

I appreciate many people will not accept these arguments but I say to them that we have decided this question peacefully in our Parliament in a way which Daesh would not allow. When people prefer beheading you with a knife to negotiation, the choice is clear: either resist with lethal force to preserve the institutions which keep us secure, prosperous and free or surrender to their tyranny. I have made my choice and I am happy to answer for it.

I am grateful to the many people who have sent expressions of support and especially those who have disagreed but thanked me for explaining my view.

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Comments & Responses

2 Responses so far.

  1. Sanjay says:

    I thought your job was to represent the views of High Wycombe – not your own personal beliefs in this matter? Did you engage with the community to find out how HW wanted you to vote?

  2. Lee says:

    I’d be interested to know if you faced any hostility in the area due to your vote, as other MP’s seem to have?

    Sanjay – MP’s are not (nor should they be) required to hold straw polls on issues before voting on them. I’d expect that Steve and many other MP’s are considerably more well read on this issue than the average voter, and is in a better position to make a decision than they are. This is why we elect representatives and don’t call a referendum for every piece of legislation or vote.

    Well done Steve, despite the noise from anti-war campaigners I believe most of the country is quietly with you.