As things stand I will not vote in favour of bombing Syria.
In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, when people are understandably outraged and frightened, politicians are saying “ We must be seen to do something.” It is a completely legitimate emotion to feel a strong desire to act now. The difficulty is that whatever actions we take must be truly effective, rather than just a gesture of solidarity with France. We have heard a lot of high rhetoric from Number 10- such as “ now is the time to be more Churchill than Chamberlain.”
But when I went to listen to Thursday’s statement I was very disappointed since what we needed was answers to specific questions and what we learned instead is that there is no strategy for dealing with ISIL/ Daesh.
First of all it is not clear what a bombing campaign will achieve. There are already several forces bombing Raqqa with considerable power, so saying that bombing Raqqa will “cut the head off the snake” is to misunderstand the nature of the threat. Many ISIL/ Daesh terrorists are in territory controlled by other forces. It overlooks the fact also that most of the terrorists who threaten us in Europe are home grown, inspired by ISIL/ DAESH online propaganda. John Baron, a Conservative MP on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, has said “ we just don’t need the deployment of more force.”
Raqqa is also, we must never forget, a city of several thousand civilians who are trapped inside ISIL/ Daesh territory. Bombing will kill civilians, create more refugees, and it will destroy their houses, their roads and their schools. If MPs are to vote for a policy that risks all this collateral damage we need to have a clear reason why.
When it came to the strategy the Prime Minister agreed with me on Thursday that you cannot bomb a country into a Western-style democracy from 30,000 feet. He claimed that there were 70,000 “ moderate Sunnis” ready to sweep ISIL/ Daesh from power and take over the territory.
Not many people believe this claim, including Julian Lewis Chair of the Defence Select Committee who asked “ where are these magical 70,000 fighters”. Reports suggest that these 70,000 troops are spread over many isolated pockets under rebel control, may be separated from ISIL/ Daesh by territory held by Assad Forces, and are clustered in the western end of the country, and in the squeezed Kurdish region, fighting Turkish insurgents as well as ISIL/ Daesh. They are, according to the Spectator, split into around 110 factions, some of which are being bombed by the Russians. Those who are members of the Free Syrian Army are fighting Assad, who has Russian support, and if they leave the territory they are currently holding to support the prime minister ( and no-one seems to have asked them if they would) they would lose their existing ground.
You can read my question and his answer here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151126/debtext/151126-0002.htm#151126-0002.htm_spnew16
We know from the failure of interventions in Iraq and Libya, both of which are now broken states with extremist insurgencies, that jihadis thrive in the power vacuum created in the wake of destructive bombing. There are many jihadi groups in the region who could might simply replace ISIL/ Daesh as a threat, such as the Islamic Army, The Army of Conquest, the Khorasan Group, the Al Nusra Front. Many of them are client organisations for other powers in the region. No wonder Crispin Blunt, Conservative head of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said the government was “without a coherent and long term plan” if it did not have a “ political strategy” and clearly the Prime Minister does not have a credible one.
Most importantly of all, any action we take must make Syria a more stable place: not just for the sake of Syrians but for our sake too. There is no international agreement on what a post conflict Stria would look like, nor is there any plan for how to get there. If we get involved in this multi-party civil war it seems that we either have to make an unholy pact with the brutal Assad regime- which you may remember we were being asked to bomb two years ago- to align with our Russian Allies, or we have to back diverse third parties. As I have laid out here this war is made up of many players, with very different agendas. It is therefore imperative that we have an international agreement on peace and how to rebuild this once unique and extraordinary country.
I am not a pacifist but I am a pragmatist. We all want the same thing: for British people to be safe and to defeat ISIL/ Daesh. What we need is a comprehensive strategy that will work, or will have a good chance of working. To begin bombing without one is not facing up to the problem it is running away from the complex questions at hand. I couldn’t vote with my conscience for action without these questions being answered.
The Prime minister has been urging us to get involved with military action in Syria for a long time. He previously wanted us to bomb Assad, now he wants to bomb the other side, this neatly encapsulates how vague and slapdash our strategy for the country is.
I believe instead that Britain’s role in tacking ISIL/ Daesh should include taking an active part in negotiating an international response at the United Nations. That response should include tough action to cut off its finances and access to weapons. We should also challenge the ideology wherever it springs up. Lastly, if later it is necessary to take military action as part of an internationally coordinated strategy we should do so.
Cameron’s renewed call for military action in Syria is a form of Groundhog Day; surely the lessons of both Iraq and Libya teach us that military action in without a post conflict plan leaves countries unstable, unsafe, and miserable, and ultimately breeding grounds for Jihadi extremists, who are the very people we are seeking to defend ourselves from.
You can see what I have said about this in the media here:
here a charming man called Liar Politicians has put my BBC interview up on youtube