Letter from Gareth Thomas MP to constituents in Harrow West regarding his position on the parliamentary vote on intervening in Syria - 03/12/2015
Committing to military action is always one of the most important decisions any MP will have to take. There are consequences whichever way Parliament decides. Both courses of action, extending our military action to Syria against Daesh that many countries are already engaging in, or not, will lead to the loss of life of innocent people. I understand that there are very strongly held views on this, and respect the different conclusions others have taken over this very difficult decision. Having given this considerable thought, and despite some remaining reservations, I am persuaded to vote to extend airstrikes against Daesh to Syria.
The horrific attacks in Paris on 13th November brought home the threat that Daesh poses, and demonstrated their growing capabilities. These attacks followed the suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc earlier this year, the murder of 38 people, including 30 British citizens at a resort in Sousse, Tunisia, in June, and the deaths of 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane over the Sinai desert in October. ISIL has been responsible for more than 40 successful terrorist attacks in the last twelve months. In the UK, the intelligence and security services have disrupted seven attempted terrorist attacks linked to Daesh in the last year.
We have also seen the horrendous impact of Daesh on those who do not conform to their ideology in the region. Gay men have been thrown off buildings, women raped and enslaved, and a mass grave of older women was recently discovered in Sinjar.
As such, I am clear that Daesh must be confronted, and that they represent a threat to our national security, which is why I supported air strikes against Daesh in Iraq in 2014. However, the situation in Syria is obviously very different to that in Iraq, where the Iraqi Government has requested Britain’s military support in taking action against Daesh.
A number of key concerns have been raised with me in the correspondence I have received ahead of the vote, and I have attempted to set out the reasons I have reached my decision on each of these concerns below.
Is it legal?
On 20th November, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2249 which specifically and unambiguously calls on member states to act against Daesh:
“to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter…. to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL …. and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”
Given the horrific attacks in Paris, Beirut, Sinai, Tunisia and Ankara in recent months, it is clear that extending air strikes against Daesh to Syria would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter which gives the right to collective self-defence.
What difference will the UK make?
The US, Russia, France and a number of Gulf states are already carrying out air strikes against Daesh in both Syria and Iraq (Britain is already following a vote in 2014 taking part in air strikes in Iraq). The US has been responsible for most of the air strikes, but the UK has been providing support for activities in Syria against Daesh, including intelligence, surveillance, and gathering reconnaissance information.
I have been advised that the UK has specific military capabilities which our allies do not, including Brimstone missiles which can be redirected after they have been fired to ensure that a target can be monitored, and the course of a missile changed, right up to the point of impact, which I am told will help to reduce the chance of civilian casualties.
I do think that it is important that we stand in solidarity with the nations, including France, that have already suffered a direct attack and have requested our help, and we must also take responsibility for our own self-defence.
How will this impact on Daesh?
In Iraq, there has been progress towards countering Daesh. The Kurdish Peshmerga has recently retaken Sinjar, in northern Iraq, where the Yazidis were forced to flee in July 2014.
Air strikes in Syria to date have focussed on northern Syria to support the Kurds in resisting Daesh’s attempt to take Kobane. There is a coalition of 60 nations coordinating efforts to tackle Daesh, and I understand that they have only recently decided that strikes should now be targeted towards Raqqa, Daesh’s stronghold and command centre.
The Prime Minister has stated that there are 70,000 opposition fighters on the ground in Syria that the UK has identified as troops with whom we could coordinate attacks against Daesh. There is clearly uncertainty around this figure, and the ability of opposition fighters to support strikes against Daesh on the ground.
Ultimately though, I believe the threat Daesh poses to us means that we must take further action to degrade their capability to plan terrorist attacks. In a better situation we would wait for the Syrian civil war to end, but sadly I think the threat to our own national security – and of our allies – is too urgent.
Air strikes must be accompanied by additional tougher action to cut off the flow of funding, fighters and weapons to Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
How is this compatible with the peace process in Syria?
There has been important progress on a peace process through the Vienna talks in recent months. The International Syria Support Group has brought together a wide range of key regional and global actors to discuss the need to bring the Syrian civil war to an end, and a common vision of how this can be achieved – a ceasefire leading to a transitional government and elections.
The Vienna process has stalled on a number of occasions before, but it does seem that one of Assad’s key allies, Vladimir Putin, has shifted his position on the need to secure a political settlement following the recent attack on the Russian passenger plane over the Sinai desert. At the most recent meeting on 14th November, participants from the Arab League, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the UK, the UN, and the US met and agreed to take immediate steps to encourage confidence-building measures to pave the way for a nationwide ceasefire.
Over quarter of a million people have been killed during the conflict in Syria, and half of the population has been forced to flee their homes, with Assad’s regime responsible for more deaths than Daesh. Indeed, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians by Assad’s regime is a significant factor in the rise of support for Daesh.
It is vital that efforts to pursue a diplomatic and negotiated settlement to the conflict in Syria remain the priority. In the long run, a transitional Syrian Government will be best placed to lead action to combat Daesh on the ground, but it is particularly crucial that we accelerate efforts to bring about a ceasefire as quickly as possible given the scale of deaths and displacement caused by Assad and the ongoing conflict.
What is the strategy for supporting refugees and post-conflict reconstruction?
I am disappointed in the way that the Government has responded to the refugee crisis we have seen this year, although I do support the humanitarian assistance they have provided to refugees in camps in the countries surrounding Syria.
The Prime Minister has announced further funding to assist the humanitarian effort, and to support a transitional Government in Syria. I will certainly be holding the Government to account for their promises in this regard.
The UK is hosting a conference in February to lead international efforts to significantly increase the provision of immediate and long-term support for Syrians, both in Syria and refugees who have had to flee.
Daesh cannot be defeated through military means alone, and it will be crucial to ensure that Sunni Muslims are given a proper stake in any political settlement to end the civil war in Syria.
This has been one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make as an MP, and I want to be clear that I have reached a conclusion on what I sincerely believe to be the best course of action. I was very disappointed in the Prime Minister’s disgraceful comment that anyone who does not support the Government’s proposals are ‘terrorist sympathisers’. I recognise that there are strongly held views on both sides of this debate, and it is very finely balanced. The UN resolution states that we must take all necessary measures to suppress Daesh’s capability to carry out terrorist attacks, and ultimately I believe that it is necessary to act to protect our national security, and extend UK air strikes against Daesh to Syria.