Cat Smith has written a Facebook post explaining why she has joined the growing numbers of Labour MPs who are declaring their intention to vote against air strikes on Syria.
I want to see a world free of the barbarity of ISIS / Daesh – cruelty which has overwhelmingly been targeted at Syrian and Iraqi civilians, but has now also directed impacted or inspired outrages against innocent people spanning from West Africa to Europe. Their perversion of the Islamic faith is vehemently rejected by Muslims the world over but must be tackled as a battle of ideas as well as through depleting its ability to control land, resources and arms.
The core of the choice before MPs this week must be ‘will our actions improve the situation or worsen it?’ Sadly, this question seems to have been avoided or incorrectly answered several times in recent history. Stating merely that ‘something must be done’ has led us to overthrow governments in Iraq and Libya with little thought to the consequences. The subsequent years of chaos created the conditions where violent jihadi groups, all but non-existent previously, have become extremely powerful and well armed. The mistakes of Iraq and Libya must not be repeated yet again.
Having heard David Cameron set out his argument in Parliament last week and studied his written briefing, I am far from satisfied that UK air strikes would help improve the situation either in Syria or enhance our security in the UK.
The Prime Minister’s case relies on a number of highly contested assumptions.
As all agree that air strikes alone cannot defeat ISIS, his case rests hugely on the claim that there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ allies who could be called on take and hold territory if further air strikes were made. Whilst assessing the exact numbers and capabilities of these irregular forces is never going to be precise, what is obvious is that this is no ‘army’, but a collection of disparate groups with distinct and often competing interests.
They are not forces ‘held in reserve’ awaiting UK air strikes but, in the case of many, are fully engaged fighting not against ISIS / Daesh, but against the Assad government. Without a more general political settlement in Syria this is unlikely to change. However, when laying out his plans to us last week, David Cameron said, “I am also clear about the sequencing that needs to take place. This is an ISIL-first strategy.”
We should remember that this is far from the Prime Minister’s first strategy for military action in Syria. In 2013, he asked Parliament to approve air strikes against the forces of the Assad government and was only blocked from doing so by the votes of Labour MPs. I was not an MP at the time, but was in full agreement with colleagues who argued that the destruction of the Syrian army would not have led to a peaceful and stable Syria.
Had David Cameron’s 2013 strategy been followed, there is a very real prospect that the groups who went on to become ISIS would have been in charge of the majority, if not all, of Syrian territory and had access to many more weapons, including chemical weapons.
It is also worth remembering that it was the diplomatic settlement involving Russia that saw these weapons removed. If we are serious about a solution to this crisis, we have to involve all parties to the conflict, not just our allies.
The fact that Parliament blocked the Prime Minister from attacking those fighting what became ISIS led to the US abandoning their plans for such attacks. But now, the question of whether UK forces take part in air strikes is most definitely not the same as whether air strikes occur at all.
Air strikes against Daesh have been occurring for a year and a half so it is relevant to question what realistic impact a UK contribution would have. I don’t often agree with the Daily Mail, but as their Leader column said this week, “America has flown 57,000 sorties over Iraq and Syria in 17 months, carrying out 8,300 strikes without noticeable strategic effect. It is fantasy to pretend our handful of Tornados might turn the tide”.
US pilots are reported to be struggling to identify targets to strike.
There are many steps towards degrading ISIS / Daesh that must be pursued much more strongly. The UK government this week estimated ISIS are receiving $1.5m every single day from oil. Their control of oil fields would be of no value unless there are those willing to buy and transport what they produce. This trade must be stopped, as must the flows of supplies and fighters which currently cross the Turkish border without interference. Funding from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – our nominal allies – must also cease.
Rather than create further refugees to add to the millions who have already been displaced by this awful conflict, our priority should be the diplomatic process that can create an agreed pathway to a stable Syria. The renewed efforts, correctly this time including all those countries with influence over the Assad government, have a real chance of creating the political and military space that would allow for Daesh to be militarily engaged and defeated by domestic Syrian forces.
Achieving the lasting peace that Syrians desperately need and removing the territory from which ISIS have been able to plan terror attacks can only ever be one element of improving our security at home. Reducing support for the violent ideologies which promote terrorism needs a very broad range of approaches, from education and the alleviation of poverty to a consistent approach to human rights abuses whether carried out by friends or foes. Domestically, the cuts that have already been imposed on our police forces have made their job of detecting and disrupting terror plots harder, whilst the way the government’s ‘Prevent’ agenda is being pursued risks alienating sections of the community who are at the front line of combating the ideologies behind violent extremism.
I will be engaging in the debates that will continue over the coming days and will review any further evidence released by the government. However, I do not wish to see the brave air crew of the RAF placed in danger on a mission I do not believe will achieve its desired outcomes nor provide greater security for us at home.
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