THE BLOG

How I Will Vote on Bombing ISIL in Syria

01/12/2015 09:44 GMT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Over the past few months, I have received hundreds of emails and letters from constituents about military intervention in Syria. It seems clear that later this week, the Prime Minister will move a vote on whether Britain should join in air strikes, and later today, the Parliamentary Labour Party is to meet to discuss this issue further.

I appreciate that in the coming days, I will have a hugely important decision to make as an MP. Given the brutality of ISIL terrorists - so tragically demonstrated in the atrocities in Tunisia in June and in Paris earlier this month - it is understandable that the strength of feeling on this issue is high. There is no doubt in my mind that for the safety both of Britain, and of the Middle East more broadly, their wicked ideology needs to be destroyed. I therefore have the utmost respect and sympathy for those Parliamentarians who have concluded, for understandable reasons, that the best way to combat ISIL is for Britain to extend its air strikes operation to Syria.

However, I have taken the time to look in detail at the case made for intervention by the Prime Minister - both his statement to the House last Thursday, and also the more detailed written response he published at the same time. Ahead of the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting later today, I want to make clear that whatever the outcome of the discussions, I will be voting against Syrian intervention.

For some, air strikes in Syria can be justified solely on the basis that we are already launching air strikes against the same foe in Iraq. This vote, in their minds, is a mere extension of the war against ISIL to another country.

Whilst I understand this argument, I do not agree with it. Success in both countries cannot be achieved by dropping bombs: there needs to be a force in each country to take over the land ISIL holds, and you need a political solution in the country to win over hearts and minds. In Iraq, there is hope that this can be achieved: alongside the Iraqi Government and Kurds in the north, we are working on a strategy to re-engage Sunni Muslims - the source of ISIL's strength - into the Iraqi political system.

But to defeat ISIL in Syria, we need a solution to the Syrian Civil War: a force which can move into lands held by ISIL, and which can command the confidence of the population in that country. We also need the local and international support to see this conflict through and end the bloodshed. The lesson of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq is that if we pursue military action without any consideration of the political solution and the post-conflict situation, we risk creating a power vacuum and, potentially, making a bad situation worse. As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee rightly highlighted in their report of early-November, the case for Syrian intervention rests, above all else, on proving that such a solution is possible in Syria.

Quite simply, I do not believe that the case has been made that within Syria, British air strikes would move us closer to this kind of solution. Having looked at the Prime Minister's case for intervention, I still have four key concerns.

Firstly, although the Government have at least started to think about the need for a solution on the ground to complement British bombs, it is clear they are still treating this as an afterthought. In September, the Foreign Secretary was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee completely rejecting the need for a solution to the Syrian Civil War to justify intervention. If Britain intervenes, he said, "it will be as an adjunct to the operation we are already carrying out in Iraq. It will not be in order to play a role in the Syrian Civil War." Yet on 26th November, the Prime Minister made the opposite case: "combating ISIL and resolving the broader Syrian conflict", his written response reads, "must be pursued in parallel."

That the Government have dramatically shifted their approach in such a short space of time speaks volumes about the real importance they accord a need for a political solution to justify bombs. The case for intervention is being made by a Minister who has always been in favour of intervention, even when there was no case for a domestic solution to the conflict. Those who see this as critical in justifying intervention bear in mind the low priority Ministers have always accorded to this issue, and I feel this reflects itself in the Prime Minister's response of last week.

Secondly, in any event, the Prime Minister has not convinced me that there is indeed a force in Syria which the West can rely on to defeat ISIL, and which will command the confidence of the Syrian people. He claims that Britain has identified 70,000 moderate rebels, principally from the Free Syrian Army, yet it is difficult to square this with the fact that the United States-led training programme for moderates, which Britain also contributed personnel to, was stopped on 9th October 2015 - in no small part because of difficulties with extremists. It is difficult to square the Prime Minister's confident assertions about moderate rebels with the United States' well-reported difficulties in identifying any trainees, or the widely-acknowledged agreement of experts that the Syrian Civil War has polarised the situation and left few moderates standing.

I am not yet convinced that if Britain intervened, there is currently a force on the ground that can win the support of eastern Sunni Muslims in ISIL-held lands. The Government holds out the prospect that there might shortly be a ceasefire between Assad and "moderate" Syrian forces, at which point both will be able to sweep eastwards. But I have doubts that the Free Syrian Army has either the means to do so or the ability to attract support in the east.

I also fear that Assad's Government - supported by Russian air strikes, and the only force in Syria that is not presently being bombed - could be the main beneficiary of such moves. As the Government has acknowledged, no lasting solution to the Syrian crisis can involve Assad: he is responsible for the bulk of the displaced people within Syria and could never command the confidence of the whole country. Yet the Prime Minister's response simply assumes that he will not benefit from further air strikes: "Assad's forces as currently constituted and led would be unlikely to make an intense effort to take on ISIL." But in my view, this case has not been made. Given the increased Shi'ite influences in his army - principally Hezbollah and Iranian-trained militants - I fear that this would further stoke up sectarian tensions in the region.

Thirdly, I feel that the Government has exaggerated the degree of international consensus about the solution to the Syrian conflict. I of course welcome the agreement of a UN Security Council Resolution on Syrian intervention, but there is wide agreement by international lawyers that it does not technically provide any new legal basis for military action. All major powers, in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), have also agreed a very welcome timetable for a ceasefire and elections in the country; but the Government are under-stating the degree of international disagreement we still have.

For example, the Prime Minister's report claims that in light of ISIL's "likely" role in the explosion of the Russian jet over Sinai, Russia is "beginning to" shift the focus of its air strikes against ISIL. I have yet to have received evidence of this - the Royal United Services Institute has stated that in the first days of Russian bombing, 80% of its targets were non-ISIL. Nor is enough attention being paid to the role of Turkey and the Gulf States in supporting Islamist Sunni groups, as well as Iraq and Iran - both of whom support the Assad regime. The Government would do well to at least acknowledge this, and to set out how they will work with these powers to stop this proxy war.

Finally and most crucially, in his speech last week, I simply do not feel that the Prime Minister made the case for intervention immediately. There is real hope that a ceasefire could be agreed soon, at which point the Prime Minister claims there would be a clear domestic move against ISIL within Syria. But if so, what are the reasons for intervening now, before this agreement has been reached? The domestic situation in which we are intervening is still very uncertain, but very shortly, we might well be in a position to know much more about the situation on the ground. If successful action in Syria hinges on a ceasefire and the onset of talks between parties, then we should observe how these events unfold before rushing into an uncertain situation.

On the contrary, in my view Britain has a much more vital role to play in the coming months in the diplomatic sphere. As the Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted in its report of early-November, whilst British military intervention in the country would make no difference, we could play a far more crucial part in the important negotiations that are to come.

Far from rushing to intervene alongside our friends, I think that Britain has cause to be proud of the diplomatic role we can play and the humanitarian assistance we already provide, and the cautious and considered approach we have taken to foreign intervention in recent years.

The case for intervention hinges on the agreement of a domestic political solution in the country, and in my view, this case is still to be made. It is for this reason that I will be voting against intervention later in the week.