Thursday, 3 December 2015

A dramatic debate

Yesterday's day-night event in the Commons on the extension of UK action on Syria was the most dramatic since the great Falklands debate nearly a generation ago. If the standard of speeches did not quite hit the heights of that occasion, it is because there were still giants of oratory around then. There were some good speeches yesterday, especially those against the government motion. As one who was broadly in favour, following most Liberal Democrat MPs (though in a minority among local members, it seems), I was disappointed in the quality of argument on the "pro" side. It was as if, knowing that the resolution was in the bag thanks to the assiduousness of government whips, the supporters felt that no great effort was needed. "Pro" speeches were high on emotion but generally did not address the serious arguments against. I would except those made by members of the TA and former members of the armed forces, who could speak from experience of counter-terrorist action. To be fair, there were speakers against the motion from those groups, too. Indeed, it was noticeable that sentiment for and against cut across interest groups as well as party lines. In particular, some of those strongly in favour of Trident renewal were among the signatories to the major amendment aiming to negate the government's motion.

Those who see the resolution as more than a quantum leap and as carte blanche for a military adventure on the lines of the Bush-Blair Iraq invasion should read the terms of the whole motion. In particular, it stresses the compliance with United Nations resolution 2249, determining that:

ISIL [DAESH] constitutes an 'unprecedented threat to international peace and security' and calls on states to take 'all necessary measures' to prevent terrorist acts by ISIL and to 'eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria';

It further

notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement; welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees; underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria; welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons; notes the requests from France, the US and regional allies for UK military assistance; acknowledges the importance of seeking to avoid civilian casualties, using the UK’s particular capabilities; notes the Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; welcomes the Government's commitment to provide quarterly progress reports to the House; and accordingly supports Her Majesty's Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty's Armed Forces.

I agree that the supposed liberal army of 70,000 souls (based on a figure provided by the Saudis, apparently) who will sweep in to follow our air strikes is largely illusory. I also question the assertion that Daesh is uniquely a threat to citizens on the streets of Britain and that "cutting off the head of the snake" will remove that threat. It seems to me that any well-organised and tech-savvy psychopath, based anywhere in the world, can mastermind an attack like that on Paris - which was carried out not by Syrians or Iraqis, it should be remembered, but by Belgian and French citizens. Nor was enough made of the need to constrict the economic lifelines to Daesh. But even if total elimination of Daesh will not be achieved by our military action, anything we can do to degrade the evil organisation is worthwhile.

The most realistic speech in my opinion was that by Yvette Cooper:

I do not believe that the Prime Minister has made the most effective case, and so I understand why many in this House feel that they are not yet convinced, but I also feel that I cannot say that the coalition airstrikes that are already under way in both Syria and Iraq should stop. If they are not going to stop, and France has asked for our help, I do not think that we can say no. I think that changes need to be made to the Government’s approach, and I will argue for them. I think that there are more limits in the approach they need to take, but I will also vote with the Government on the motion tonight, even though I recognise how difficult that is for so many of us.

The whole House, I think, agrees that we need a strategy that delivers peace and defeats ISIS/Daesh, but I disagree with any suggestion that this can be done as an ISIS-first, or Daesh-first, approach, because that simply will not work. In the end, we know that the Vienna process —the process to replace the Assad regime, which is dropping barrel bombs on so many innocent people across Syria — is crucial to preventing recruitment for ISIS. If we or the coalition are seen somehow to be siding with Assad or strengthening Assad, that will increase recruitment for Daesh as well.

I disagree with the suggestion that there are 70,000 troops who are going to step in and that the purpose of the airstrikes is to provide air cover for those troops to be able to take on and defeat Daesh, because that is not going to happen any time soon. We know that there are not such forces anywhere near Raqqa. We know too that those forces are divided. The airstrikes will not be part of an imminent decisive military campaign.

But I also disagree with those who say that instead of “ISIS first”, we should have “Vienna first”, and wait until the peace process is completed in order to take airstrike action against Daesh. I think the coalition airstrikes are still needed. We know that ISIS is not going to be part of the peace process: it will not negotiate; it is a death cult that glorifies suicide and slaughter. We know too that it has continuous ambitions to expand and continuous ambitions to attack us and attack our allies—to have terror threats not just in Paris, not just in Tunisia, but all over the world, anywhere that it gets the chance. It holds oil, territory and communications that it wants to use to expand. The coalition cannot simply stand back and give it free rein while we work on that vital peace process.

Coalition airstrikes already involve France, Turkey, Jordan, the US, Morocco, Bahrain and Australia. If we have evidence that communication networks are being used to plan attacks in Paris, Berlin, Brussels or London, can we really say that such coalition airstrikes should not take place to take out those communication networks? If we have evidence that supply routes are being used by this barbaric regime to plan to take over more territory and expand into a wider area, do we really think that coalition airstrikes should not take out those supply routes? If we think that coalition airstrikes should continue, can we really say no, when France, having gone through the terrible ordeal of Paris, says it wants our help in continuing the airstrikes now?

I have continually argued in this place and elsewhere for our country to do far more to share in the international support for refugees fleeing the conflict. I still think we should do much more, not just leave it to other countries. The argument about sanctuary also applies to security. I do not think that we can leave it to other countries to take the strain. I cannot ignore the advice from security experts that without coalition airstrikes over the next 12 months, the threat from Daesh — in the region, but also in Europe and in Britain — will be much greater.

I think we have to do our bit to contain the threat from Daesh: not to promise that we can defeat or overthrow it in the short term, because we cannot do so, but at least to contain it. It is also important to ensure we degrade its capacity to obliterate the remaining moderate and opposition forces, however big they may be. When the Vienna process gets moving properly, there must be some opposition forces; the peace debate cannot simply involve Assad and Daesh as the only forces left standing, because that will never bring peace and security to the region.

If we are to do our bit and to take the strain, we need more limited objectives than those the Prime Minister has set out—to act in self-defence and to support the peace process, but not just to create a vacuum for Assad to sweep into. That makes the imperative to avoid civilian casualties even greater. Where there is any risk that people are being used as human shields to cover targets, such airstrikes should not go ahead however important the targets. It makes the imperative of civilian protection even greater, but that is not mentioned in the Government’s motion. It should be the central objective not just for humanitarian reasons—to end the refugee crisis—but to prevent the recruitment that fuels ISIS.

I also think there should be time limits, because I do not support an open-ended commitment to airstrikes until Daesh is defeated—the Foreign Secretary raised that yesterday—because if it is not working in six months or if it proves counterproductive, we should be ready to review this, and we should also be ready to withdraw. We will need to review this. I think we should lend the Government support tonight and keep it under review, not give them an open-ended commitment that this should carry on whatever the consequences.

Finally, I say to the Government that I accept their argument that if we want coalition airstrikes on an international basis, we should be part of that, but I urge them to accept my argument that we should do more to be part of providing sanctuary for refugees fleeing the conflict. There are no easy answers, but I also say, in the interests of cohesion in our politics and in our country, that the way in which we conduct this debate is immensely important. However we vote tonight, none of us is a terrorist sympathiser and none of us will have blood on our hands. The blood has been drawn by ISIS/Daesh in Paris and across the world, and that is who we must stand against.

As anybody who has read previous entries on this blog will know, I do not feel that Assad and his generals have any more blood on their hands than representatives of repressive régimes who our prime minister has been glad-handing in recent months. However, even the Russians seem to have accepted that Assad's removal should be part of a post-conflict settlement, so I yield on this point too.

1 comment:

Frank H Little said...

I see that I am not alone: Mark Valladares also gives qualified support.

It has been pointed out that many of the groups/clans which will move in to take up the space left by Daesh if they are eliminated are also led by reactionary Islamists. However, these are not in the same league of horror as al-Baghdadi and even if we cannot persuade them we can at least tolerate them as we seem to be tolerating the Taliban elsewhere.