SYRIA AIR STRIKES

STATEMENT FROM IAN MURRAY ON SYRIA DEBATE AND VOTE

It is clear that this is an issue about which people feel very strongly. I have received hundreds of emails from constituents in recent days and I hope that this response will cover all the points that have been raised. 

I would like to begin by emphasizing that, in common with the votes on military action in Syria and Libya in recent years, this decision has weighed heavily on my conscience. The question of whether to intervene militarily in another country raises moral and ethical concerns that demand profound and earnest consideration. It is vital that people see that these concerns have been rigorously assessed and evaluated. I am therefore writing to you, and the hundreds of other constituents who have contacted me, to explain my position ahead of the vote in Parliament, which will follow a full day of debate tomorrow (Wednesday).

 

I hope you will forgive the length of this email. As always, I want to deal with this matter in as much detail as I can, in order to ensure that everyone has all the information available and fully understands the process by which I have reached my decision.   I have also included a number of links should you wish to read in more detail (just click on the links).

 

MY DECISION

 

In the event that you do not want to read the details let me say at the outset that I have come to the decision that I will be VOTING AGAINST the Government at the vote on Wednesday to extend air strikes into Syria.  However, whilst I have come to this difficult decision I will also not criticise others for coming to a different view.  These are hugely difficult issues and everyone deserves the respect of how they have come to their own decision.  These decisions can often be very marginal.  We all hope we just do the right thing.

 

I will explain my reasons below.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

I know that everyone will have been shocked by the recent tragic terrorist atrocities in Paris, Beirut, Egypt, Mali, and in other countries around the world. I am sure all our thoughts are with those who have been affected.  These events are, to varying degrees, inextricably linked to the ongoing civil war in Syria. This is a complex and devastating conflict, which has led to immense loss of civilian life.  250,000 innocent Syrian people have been killed, the vast majority at the hands of their own President, Bashir al-Assad.

 

In addition to this loss of life, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their own country. To put the extent of this humanitarian crisis in context, if the equivalent was happening in the UK, over 32 million UK citizens would currently be displaced.  Against this backdrop, it is not hard to understand why so many Syrians have been prepared to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, though it is impossible to imagine what they have been through.

 

The events in Paris have brought these issues much closer to home and underlined the threat that IS/Da’esh pose to our domestic security. The safety and security of British citizens must be our overriding concern and primary consideration in the debate over what action should or should not be taken, both at home and abroad.

 

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has stated in recent weeks, in the past six months alone, our security and intelligence services have prevented seven attacks on British soil. Both the Head of MI5 and the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee have confirmed that the UK is a top tier target for terrorist activity. It is important to understand that IS/Da’esh combatants, both foreign and domestic, will plan and seek to execute attacks on us regardless of whether we extend air strikes into Syria. This deadly and fanatical death cult demands a multifaceted response to wipe out their military capability and erode their base of support both financially and in terms of recruitment.

 

PRIME MINISTER’S STATEMENT

 

Last Thursday, the Prime Minister came to the House of Commons to outline his response to the critical report from the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee (you can read the report here and his response here).

 

He made a case for extending air strikes into Syria but that case, to my mind, has not been met.

 

It is my strongly held view that we need a comprehensive strategy to bring about an end to the Syrian civil war and defeat IS/Da’esh. Such a strategy must include:

 

• A successful diplomatic effort to secure a stable and orderly transition from an Assad-led Syrian government to a national government reflecting the religious, ethnic and political diversity of the Syrian population.

 

Many have said that every diplomatic effort must be made to bring an end to this crisis.  These diplomatic efforts are continuing, both through the Vienna peace talks, and with communities on the ground in Syria and the surrounding countries. While Russian influence here will be critical, it remains unclear whether they share our goals in this regard.

 

• A coordinated humanitarian response to the devastation and displacement affecting the Syrian people.

 

While the UK has already pledged and spent over £1.2bn on providing aid to displaced Syrians, and is taking in 20,000 refugees from the camps over the coming years, the overall scale and scope of the response from both the UK and other EU countries has not been commensurate to the crisis we face. 

 

 

• Ensure the cutting off of resources, oil, arms and finances, etc.  

 

This is being done but more effort needs to be made to ensure that this stems the growth of, and serves to diminish, IS/Da’esh.

 

• A major Programme of reconstruction to help the Syrians rebuild their country.

 

The Prime Minister has announced over £1bn to be allocated to a reconstruction fund.

 

• A military response to defeat IS/Da’esh, with ground forces drawn from the region (not the USA or UK) as per the successful air strikes in Iraq, with the international community providing relevant support – including air support.

 

This is the crux of the issue.  The UK is already involved in air strikes in the region.  The Iraqi Government, under the auspices of the UN Charter, formally requested assistance in the form of air strikes from the UK and other allies to prevent the spread of IS/Da’esh in Iraq and to push them back permanently. 

 

Critical to the success of these strikes was the extent to which they were reinforced by military action on the ground. Air strikes by the UK and other nations have targeted areas of Iraq where IS/Da’esh is deeply entrenched, eradicating them or causing them to withdraw. This in turn has allowed Iraqi and Kurdish forces to move in and reclaim the vacated territory, securing it against the threat of IS/Da’esh insurgency in the future. 

 

This strategy has met with a degree of success. In the 15 months since operations began, IS/Da’esh has retreated in Iraq and been removed from Sinjar.  There have also been no civilian casualties. 

 

However, at present, and in light of the limited parliamentary approval that has been given, the UK air capability stops at the Iraqi border with Syria.

 

In considering whether or not that approval should be extended, we must first establish whether conditions on the ground in Syria are similar to those prevalent in Iraq which have enabled the air strikes to be successful – that is, the presence of ground forces to advance into and retake areas formerly occupied by IS/Da’esh. It is my view that, at present, these conditions are not prevalent to the requisite degree. There is no evidentiary basis to the claim that there is a 70,000 strong Free Syrian Army under one command and able to regain and hold terrain cleared by air strikes. The Prime Minister, in his statement to the House, said that “we believe there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters – principally the Free Syrian Army – who do not belong to extremist groups.” However, belief is not sufficient – we must be able to act with a degree of certainty. 

 

As such, and until further evidence comes to light, the Prime Minister’s proposals remain intellectually and strategically incoherent.

 

AUGUST 2013 SYRIA INTERVENTION VOTE

 

In August 2013, the Labour Party took the correct decision not to support the Government in a vote to intervene with air strikes in Syria to remove President Assad.  Although President Assad was killing, persecuting and displacing millions of his own people, and there was clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons, we took the decision not to intervene on the basis that there was no evidence that doing so would achieve a favourable outcome.

 

The multidimensional nature of the conflict meant that it was highly unlikely to be resolved by external intervention.  I was comfortable with that position and the defeat of the Government demonstrated that they had failed to make the case for intervention. It is my view that this situation has not altered substantially in the intervening years, and that, were we simply to remove Assad without having developed a proper contingency plan, Syria would only be rendered more unstable in the future.  

 

IS/DA’ESH

 

The terrorist organisation known as IS/Da’esh does not recognise international borders or boundaries and is fundamentally opposed to Western values.  It has been the source of the most horrific terrorist attacks and is planning more in both the UK and other countries around the world.  The debased ideology of IS/Da’esh has seen them throw homosexual people from buildings and murder and rape countless women and children. Mass graves have been found where they have operated in Iraq. ISIL/Da’esh are a significant threat to both the entire region and the world.  These attacks are being funded and co-ordinated from their headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. As noted above, UK and global intelligence agencies are strongly of the view that IS/Da’esh will persist with terrorist attacks regardless of what, if any, action is taken by the UK in Syria.

 

LEGAL BASIS

 

The UN has passed a unanimous resolution providing a legal basis for further action in Syria necessary to “prevent and supress terrorist acts”:

 

“5.   Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh, in Syria and Iraq, to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as ANF, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council, and as may further be agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the statement of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;”.  The link to the UN report is here.

 

This does not explicitly invoke a Chapter 7 military action, but it is unequivocal in its assertion that further action should be taken, and all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including Russia, have signed this resolution.

 

In addition to this, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, France has invoked EU Treaty Article 42.7, which stipulates that, where an EU member state is subject to a terrorist attack or armed territorial incursion, other member states will have towards it “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power”, in accordance with Article 51 (the right to self-defence) of the UN Charter.

 

Labour MP, Kier Starmer, who was a former Director of Public Prosecutions has written a very good article on this. You can read it here.

 

I therefore believe that the UN and EU have been clear that they want a co-ordinated approach to the Syrian crisis.

 

LIBYA

 

Many commentators have compared the Syrian situation to that in Libya.  I do not think these comparisons should be made, as the two situations are not readily comparable.  Libya had a full UN Security Council resolution to create no fly zones and to prevent the massacre of millions of civilians in Benghazi. The problem was a lack of post-civil war planning. That is a mistake that we simply cannot afford to make again.

 

QUESTIONS

 

In weighing up the evidence presented above and reaching a final conclusion, there are a number of key questions that still need to be answered.

 

  1. 1.     Are air strikes necessary?

There are a large number of countries, including the US and France, already taking military action in Syria, in the form of co-ordinated air strikes.  The UK is already providing air-to-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to Coalition strikes in Syria. 

The first question is whether UK air strikes are necessary and justifiable. In order to make the case for UK air strikes to be extended, compelling evidence must be adduced on a number of points: 

Firstly, whether the UK’s air capability has additional, more targeted and useful weaponry than that of other countries currently engaged in air strikes in Syria.  

Secondly, the degree to which the specific request from our close ally France for assistance in the effort to eradicate IS/Da’esh in order to enhance the security of the UK and other EU member states places a legal or moral obligation on the UK to intervene. 

Thirdly, given that IS/Da’esh does not itself recognise international boundaries and borders, whether the parliamentary approval for air strikes in Iraq should be considered to be delimited by the Iraqi territorial border.   

Finally, we must ensure that any military action taken is subordinate to a diplomatic solution to the conflict. We cannot win this from the air alone.

  1. 2.     Contingency plans: What happens next in Syria?

 

There is little doubt that the only way to eradicate IS/Da’esh is to establish a strong and stable regime in Syria that is sustainable in the long term.  That will not be easy to achieve.  We need to work to create the circumstances wherein the millions of Syrians who have fled the civil war can return home and rebuild their country. 

 

The Prime Minister was unable to answer the question about what strategy there was for dealing with President Assad. Specifically, he was unable to tell us whether a peaceful settlement to the current crisis was reliant upon a deal being struck that allows President Assad to remain as President. Given the crimes that President Assad has committed against his own people, such a deal would be morally unpalatable and politically unsustainable.

 

The Vienna talks will continue in search of a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. The question is whether there has to be action now, or whether a sustainable conclusion can be reached through a diplomatic accord that satisfies all relevant parties.  

 

  1. 3.     Ground forces?

 

The Government has made it clear that the UK will NOT involve any ground forces and we would expect to see that emphasised in their motion to Parliament.  While that categorical assurance is welcome, it is also the crux of the problem. 

 

It is my strongly held view that airstrikes not matched by ground action will not be successful. As outlined above, the reason the Iraqi air strikes against IS/Da’esh have been successful is that they have been backed by Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces which have been able to retake territory and prevent IS/Da’esh returning to and retaking those areas they have been forced to vacate.  Without air strikes IS/Da’esh would not have been driven from these areas.  However, without ground support, the air strikes would have been futile, as there would be have been nothing to prevent IS/Da’esh from returning to retake the territory.

 

All the evidence suggests that there are insufficient ground forces in Syria to render air strikes effective by occupying the territory vacated by IS/Da’esh.  The Free Syrian Army claims to have 70,000 ground troops but these figures are heavily disputed, and any troops that do exist are not under a single command, are likely to be geographically dispersed, and will not, therefore, have the capability to provide adequate ground support for air strikes. 

 

Indeed, in a recent visit to cities in the region, members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee were told by military experts that “there would be a struggle to find 20,000” Free Syrian Army rebels.

 

LABOUR PARTY POSITION AND CONFERENCE MOTION

 

Many have asked about the Labour Party emergency motion that was passed at our conference in September.  This motion says we should not back air strikes unless four specific conditions are met.  It is arguable that those four conditions have been met by the Prime Minister given his statement and they may even be covered in the proposed motion that the House of Commons will debate on Wednesday.  Therefore, I’m not sure that this can be relied upon as events have moved on considerably since it was passed.

 

CONCLUSION

 

I hope the evidence I have presented in this letter is helpful in explaining the process by which I have reached my decision not to support air strikes in Syria.

 

In the final analysis, every single MP must ask themselves the same two questions.

 

  1. Will taking military action in Syria make us safer than not taking action?

2. Will taking military action in Syria in the form of air strikes lay the foundations for regime change in Syria that will lead to long term peace and stability both in that country, and in the surrounding areas?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer to those questions. Certainly, the Prime Minister has not answered them.  

I hope, at the very least, the Government motion will recognise the very real concerns and ensure that it guarantees no ground troops, commits to enhanced humanitarian aid, emphasises the commitments to resources to rebuild Syria, addresses the diplomatic efforts being undertaken, supports the need to use all available sanctions to cut off ISIL from their resources and allows for the Prime Minister to update the House of Commons on a regular basis.

That is why I will be voting against the Government’s motion.

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Ian Murray for Edinburgh South