British airstrikes against Daesh in Syria

Decisions to use force should never be taken lightly; nor should a decision to further embroil our country in a fiendishly complex regionalised civil war to which there are no easy answers.

I envied those on both sides who believed at the time, with unshakable moral certainty and absolute confidence in the outcome, that the case for or against extending British airstrikes against Daesh (ISIL) in Iraq to Syria was clear-cut. Having deliberated over the matter for many months prior to the Commons vote I must confess I felt no such conviction. The question of whether or not to extend bombing to Syria was finely balanced and the fact that the Iraq-Syria border has been dissolved as a matter of practical reality did not make it any simpler.

Consideration of this weighty decision was made more difficult by the highly charged environment that surrounded it. It is deeply regrettable that the issue became intertwined with the internal dynamics of the Parliamentary Labour Party and enveloped by a media agenda that still views everything through the prism of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

The choice before us at the time was too important for that. Each Member of Parliament had to reach a decision based on what they thought was right and what was in the best interests of the people they were elected to represent. The judgement of many friends and colleagues on this matter differed from mine but in determining how they voted each had the right to be free to exercise their personal judgement. As much as some would wish otherwise, ours remains a representative democracy. MPs are not delegates.

That Daesh need to be defeated is still not in question. They are a murderous perversion of Islam that pose a clear and present danger to civilian populations — Christian, Yazidi and Muslim alike — in Iraq and Syria and to the stability of the wider region. The tragic events in Paris underlined the threat that they pose to our own safety and security at home — a threat that is already present and which will exist as long as they do.

Nor, any longer, were there compelling reasons to dispute the legal and political grounds for military action. While UN Security Council Resolution 2249, unanimously passed on 20 November 2015, did not explicitly authorise or provide a new legal basis for the use of force, it did give Council support to action being taken by calling on Member States to use “all necessary measures” to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Daesh, and to deny them safe haven in Iraq and Syria.

I do not subscribe to pacifism and have little time for the relativist, isolationist worldview prevalent among sections of the Left today. I am proud of my party’s long history of internationalism. If an intervention can prevent genocide or crimes against humanity, it should be undertaken. The shadow of Iraq inevitably looms large over any proposed military intervention but it is an error to view every potential action through its prism. In any case, the lesson of that intervention — which I marched against as a student — is not that military intervention is always wrong but that we have a duty to forensically interrogate the strategic thinking underpinning any proposed action to ensure it is part of a thought-through political, diplomatic and humanitarian plan to make this country and the world a safer place.

Therefore, in approaching the issue of British airstrikes against Daesh in Syria, there were two overriding questions for me. First, would the proposed action be effective in hastening the defeat of Daesh? Second, would it enhance our security at home or simply place additional strain on the intelligence, community policing and a counter-terrorism capability that are our best defence against terror on our streets?

I had long harboured doubts that RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria would achieve these objectives. However, in the light of the atrocities in Paris, other attacks in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and recent developments at the UN, I was willing to listen and to be convinced.

Sadly, after listening to the Prime Minister’s statement I remained unsure of what expanding the existing bombing campaign in Iraq would actually accomplish. My uncertainty was not simply related to the lack of clarity about the material impact that British airstrikes would have given the fact that, with token assistance from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, US forces had, at the time, flown some 57,000 sorties while completing 8,300 air strikes over a 17-month period with precious little to show for it. If our action, however minor, were part of a coordinated international military, political and diplomatic effort that, in conjunction with credible local forces on the ground inside Syria, looked like it had a reasonable chance of success it would have been worthwhile. However, little in the Prime Minister’s statement convinced me that it was.

There were host of pertinent questions thrown up by the Government’s proposal: were we doing all we can to disrupt Daesh’s funding? What pressure was being placed on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States to stem all forms of support to Daesh? Were the resources earmarked for humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction in Syria adequate?

However, two areas of serious concern stood out for me:

First, aerial bombardment is rarely decisive unless it supports an effective ground campaign. In Iraq, US-led Coalition airstrikes against Daesh forces are designed to pave the way for local Iraqi army units and Kurdish Peshmerga forces to retake occupied territory. They have had some success in this regard — most notably the expulsion of Daesh from Sinjar — although overall progress to date has been painfully slow (7,000+ airstrikes have shrunk the size of the self-declared Caliphate by 25 per cent but most of the area in question is sparsely populated and strategically unimportant).

With regards to Syria, I saw little compelling evidence of the existence of comparable ground forces that could credibly uproot Daesh. In his statement, the Prime Minister repeatedly made reference to an estimated 70,000 moderate Sunni forces on the ground that air power could assist in taking territory and freeing civilians from terror. I was not alone in questioning the ability of such forces to mobilise against Daesh — the Conservative Chair of the Commons’ Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis MP, made similar points during the debate.

Set aside consideration of what a ‘non-extremist’ means in the context of the Syrian civil war and it could have been argued that there are a number of ‘mainstream’ groups — the factions of the Southern Front, the Northern Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya and Faylaq al-Sham — on the ground who could have been considered nationalistic, locally-rooted Islamic moderates who had been vetted by the CIA and were in receipt of weapons and money from the US and other allied intelligence services.

There a range of problems with the notion that these groups could be harnessed as credible partners against Daesh. They are dispersed and it is unclear how many are operationally capable of waging an effective ground campaign against that organisation. That these groups would even agree to make Daesh their main target would require local political ceasefires with regime forces that still remain highly unlikely (it is worth recalling that a number of these groups were only recently under sustained bombardment from Russia in a bid to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s rump state). Many also fight alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch which is a player in all provinces except Latakia, and it is difficult to see how they would be able to free themselves from Nusra’s influence in the long-term. Given the centrality of credible, moderate partners on the ground to the likely success of military action against Daesh and a sustainable peace settlement, the Prime Minister’s strategy in this area struck me as half-baked to say the very least.

Second, military action is no substitute for, and will not be effective in the absence of, a comprehensive diplomatic and strategy to end the carnage and see President Bashar al-Assad leave office. The creation of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and the participation of all the major of regional and international powers in the Vienna process are encouraging signs in this regard. Yet, the prospect of tangible political settlement appear as distant as ever.

It is difficult to overstate the unlikelihood of a political process materialising that would enable a cease fire given the difficulty in harnessing so many fiercely opposed forces toward a political solution. Indeed, the crucial foundations of such a process were still unclear. For example, which opposition groups would be invited to take part in any formal talks? Would they include the larger, more avowedly conservative Islamist movements on the ground such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham?

Despite intensified diplomatic efforts to build the consensus necessary for a more effective and coordinated international campaign against Daesh, a political agreement was still a distant prospect. Until it is resolved there will remain two coalitions converging on Syria: a US-led one and a Russia-led including Iran, whose military efforts will remain separate and in conflict.

The Prime Minister went to great efforts to convince Parliament that an extension of British airstrikes against Daesh in Syria is necessary and would achieve its stated objectives. His measured tone and the manner in which he has sought to build consensus around military action was appreciated. However, on balance I believed that his case was a weak one which, stripped of its wishful thinking, amounted to little more than a belief that military action is the litmus test of solidarity with our allies and our security.