Airstrikes in Syria

I have been contacted by hundreds of constituents regarding the recent vote in Parliament to extend air strikes to Syria. Due to the volume of correspondence I have received on the issue, I have pasted below my response on the matter:

As I am sure you are aware, the motion to extend military action to Syria passed yesterday with 397 voting in favour of military action and 223 voting against it. This significant majority of 174 included myself. I appreciate that there are strong opinions on both sides, but please be assured that I did not take this decision lightly. I have wrestled with my conscience and I did not relish having to make this decision. Unfortunately, I was one of the few not called upon by the Speaker to speak, but I remained in my seat in the House of Commons for over 10 hours yesterday and listened intently to more than 100 of my Parliamentary colleagues’ views. I have outlined some of the views of my colleagues below which I found particularly influential and would like to share with you.

The Prime Minister highlighted that we face a fundamental threat to the safety of British citizens, and that we must not shirk our responsibility for our own national security or hand it to others. The Prime Minister also emphasised what I feel is the most fundamental question – How do we keep the British population safe from the threat posed by Daesh? We have already lost British citizens at the hands of these terrorists. We cannot simply sit back and wait for a successful attack to take place on British soil before we act. The scale of the threat that we face from Daesh is unprecedented. They are not interested in peace and they are not prepared to negotiate. They have already taken the lives of British hostages and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia. This attack in Tunisia saw a member of our constituency tragically lose their father. In the last 12 months, our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to or inspired by Daesh.

The Prime Minister also made some key points yesterday, of which I have attempted to summarise below. He explained that air strikes will not increase the risk to our security, as Daesh attack us because of who we are, not because of what we do. Britain has the capacity to make a significant difference, as we represent between a quarter and a third of the precision strike capacity in the coalition of forces. This is also why we cannot just increase the number of airstrikes in Iraq to free up other coalition members to increase action in Syria. A recent example of the RAF being eight minutes away from and not being able to act on requests for urgent help in Syria demonstrate this. While air strikes are not sufficient alone, they can target oil supplies, infrastructure, headquarters, training camps and weapon supplies. We can strike at the heart of Daesh and eradicate their supplies.

However, the Prime Minister confirmed that these air strikes are not the end of our strategy to secure lasting political settlement in Syria. Counter-terrorism, counter-extremism, political and diplomatic processed and vital humanitarian work must all play a crucial part. We must launch a comprehensive review to remove extremism and extremism funding in the UK. Additionally, the support provided by diplomatic and political processes goes beyond just United Nations involvement. The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) are partaking in an ongoing phase of international negotiations to resolve the conflict in Syria. The ISSG reiterated in Vienna that there is a clear ambition to see a transition government within six months and a new constitution and fresh elections within eighteen months, but first Daesh must be defeated. There must also be proper reconstruction post conflict to stabilise the region. This is why the UK has committed to at least £1billion in aid to go the new Syrian government when they emerge to rebuild.

I was also affected by the speech of the former Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, who emphasised that the proposals before us amounted to a relatively minor extension of action already being taken in Iraq. Yesterday, we were voting to extend the existing international area to cover the other side of a border which does not exist as far as Daesh are concerned. Those fearing civilian casualties should be aware that we are already undertaking military action in Iraq at the request of the civilian government, and as the Prime Minister stated, there have been no civilian casualties reported as a result of British airstrikes in Iraq in fifteen months. Like we responded to Iraq, our French allies have explicitly asked us for support. The United Nations have authorised all 193 nations to act, and we must respond.

Additionally, I and many other colleagues from all sides were particularly moved by the closing speech made by the Shadow Defence Minister, Hillary Benn, who emphasised that the Paris attacks have brought home the clear and present danger we face from Daesh. It could have easily been us, and it still could be. Given all we know that Daesh are doing and the losses already suffered – gay men thrown from buildings, mass graves of women deemed too old to be sold as prostitutes and killed, 30 British tourists killed in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people killed in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc and the 130 people killed in Paris – can we really stand by and refuse to act fully in self defence against those who conduct and plan these attacks? None of us want to harm civilians. What is important is our desire to protect civilians from Daesh. It is time for us to do our bit like we have done in the past to stand up against the denial of human rights and stand up for justice.

In addition to the speeches made by my parliamentary colleagues, I have also drawn on my own personal experiences in making this decision. Yesterday, I reflected on the time when I visited a Syrian refugee camp some time ago. I spent a long time listening to the accounts of the people there. I heard how they were persecuted by Assad, starved of food and water and forced to scavenge for food. If that was not bad enough, they were then persecuted by Daesh when they moved in and took control. Stories were recalled of capture, persecution and random executions. They were left with no alternative but to flee. They made it clear to me that there is no negotiating for peace with Daesh. They pleaded with me not to stand by and watch this happen. They pleaded for me to help.

I then thought back to when I visited the site of the Battery factory and spoke to those who witnessed the atrocious genocide in Bosnia. We later went to the village to meet with the Mothers of Srebrenica, who told us of their personal accounts. One Mother described how she lost her father, husband, brother and two sons in one day. She described how painful this had been. All these years later the pain was still clearly visible as she broke down in tears. She told us what had made it worse was how the world stood by and watched. I went up to her afterwards to tell her how sorry I was that we stood by, but I felt pathetic. She was kind enough to tell me it wasn’t my fault, as she doubted I would have been in parliament at the time, but she said if there was ever such a situation again, where people are slaughtered and persecuted, to remember her story. With those words ringing in my ears yesterday, I could not simply stand by and watch.  

Many of you who have contacted me have said that we must learn from the past mistakes in Iraq. I agree that we must learn from these mistakes, but it is important to note that the decision to take action in Iraq was taken without the required authorisation of the United Nations. The United Nations will only authorise the use of force as a last resort, when there is no alternative and peaceful course of action to take. The resolution to take military action against the threat we face from Daesh was passed unanimously by all 193 members of the United Nations. There is no alternative.

Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and we must, do so again. We cannot simply stand by and watch.