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MP responds to consultation on military action in Syria

Diana Johnson MP has published the response below to Hull North constituents who responded to the consultation on this website about the extension of UK air strikes from Iraq into Syria.

 

Introduction

I have received over 500 responses and representations from constituents on Syria. It is very clear from the responses I have received that this is an issue that people care deeply about. What is also clear is that people have followed the debate closely and considered the issues at stake in detail. The vast majority of comments I have received have been very well informed and the arguments made have been insightful and thoughtful.

I am sorry for not responding sooner, but I have been reading the responses I have received in detail and considering the vast array of excellent points raised. Many people drew on their own experience of serving in the army, living in the Middle East or experiencing war to inform their statements and this was particularly useful to me. In light of all the comments and arguments made, it has taken me some time to finalise my own position.

I would have liked to have responded to the points individually, but I have received so many detailed comments that this has not been possible. Below I have tried to summarise the issues that were raised with me, and quote from a few of the responses which I felt articulated points especially well. There are many detailed observations and arguments that I have not managed to cover in this document, but please be assured that I have read and considered them all in some detail.

As well as the responses I have received from constituents, I have attended a briefing for MPs given by the Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, Home Secretary and International Development Secretary, where I and other MPs challenged the Government on their case to start bombing. I also attended, and spoke, in a lengthy debate on the Middle East in Parliament on Monday. I listened to the entire debate on Syria on Wednesday, where many MPs spoke both in favour and against action. In the end it has come to weighing up, between equally valid points of view, which arguments I found the strongest.

Sadly, I have also received some e-mails and several social media posts which threatened me if I supported action. These emails have been completely ignored and have not influenced my decision.

Those clearly for, or against, action

As well as the responses I received on my website, I received a number of e-mails from constituents sent via the ‘Momentum’ Group or the ‘Stop the War’ Group. These e-mails used a standard text. I have considered these e-mails alongside all the views that constituents have presented. These e-mails were categorically and unequivocally against the war and argued against every part of the Government’s case for extending existing UK airstrikes in Iraq to Syria.

Several of these e-mails argued that I should vote against the intervention simply because Jeremy Corbyn has called for MPs to oppose. That is not my view. I have voted on the evidence laid out before me by the Government, after considering all the arguments made by my constituents. I do not share some of the analysis that Jeremy Corbyn has argued for in the Commons. I will always work with my party to ensure that the opinions and values of people of Hull are represented. But I must also act as I believe to be right and I will make my own mind up on the basis of the evidence and arguments.

 Of the individual responses I received, only a small minority were unequivocally in favour or against action. The vast majority of individual responses recognised that there were strong arguments in favour and against action. Nearly every person acknowledged the difficulties in assessing all the arguments:

“I must say there are strong points both in favour and against bombing ISIL.”

Many people stressed “the complexity both in moral and political terms of this dreadful situation”

“It's clearly very difficult and in this house we are split.”

The importance of a proper debate

Many responses emphasised the need for detailed debate and discussion and agreed that we need to assess the Prime Minister’s case for action against the tests for action set out by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee or the Labour Party conference motion:

“The Foreign Affairs Select Committees seven tests for military action seem to ask the questions most of us the public would like answered for our armed forces to get involved”

“The tests set out FASC [Foreign Affairs Select Committee] should be met and the Prime Minister's claim that they have been need to be scrutinized.”

“I can now see the case for military intervention in Syria by the UK. I agree with the Labour Party conference key tests”

As you may know, both the Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP and the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, wrote to the Prime Minister asking for a two full days of debate in Parliament. I reiterated these calls in a debate in Parliament on Monday and again on Tuesday, when the Government announced their plans for the debate.

Unfortunately, the Government have ignored these calls. They announced on Tuesday that both the debate and the vote would happen on Wednesday 2nd December. I think this was the wrong decision. In a debate on the Middle East in Parliament on Monday many MPs (including many Tories) raised concerns or questions about the Government’s case for military action and it is disappointing that these weren’t all answered before the vote occurred. The Prime Minister claimed to be attempting to build a consensus, but he hasn’t taken the action necessary to achieve one.

The timing of this debate is crucial to me. We are on the eve of crucial negotiations between the various moderate Sunni and opposition groups within Syria that will be held in Saudi Arabia in the next couple of weeks. After that there will be a further round of talks in Vienna when we will see if recent events, including the shooting down of a Russian jet by Turkey, have changed Russia’s position. If this debate had been delayed by just a few weeks we would be in a much better position to understand the likely implications of air strikes. Unfortunately, the Government have refused this and this decision undoubtedly makes it harder to come to a clear decision.

The Danger of ISIL/Daesh

The motion the Government put to Parliament is explicitly limited to targeting ISIL/Daesh targets in Syria. It does not extend to action against President Assad. The unique nature of ISIL/Daesh and the threat they pose to the UK was recognised by the majority of responses (both in favour and against action):

“ISIS have pushed the concept of terrorism into new and uncharted territories. Their action in Paris, Tunisia, Egypt, Mali and in the brutality of their so called Caliphate beggars belief. They need to be challenged.”

“… despite being against military action in Iraq in the past and most other military interventions over the years, I would support air strikes against ISIL in Syria. This is the most evil form of fascism I have known in my 64 years on this Earth and the Labour Party has a proud tradition of standing against fascism. Air strikes cannot work alone but are a necessary step in a much wider process.”

But many people questioned how effective airstrikes would be against a terrorist insurgency group.

“bombing will not be effective because ISIL seldom have troop concentrations in the area in question but disperse their forces among the local population”

“It is clear that ISIL is a very dangerous organisation that has committed horrific acts on civilians, aid workers etc; its aims are very worrying and its destruction of ancient sites is very saddening. Bombing them is one strategy but this might force them into embedding themselves within civilian populations, meaning to continue bombing would incur innocent civilain casualties. I am against this type of action. Bombing in Syria might work short-term but to ultimately defeat them they will need to be defeated on the ground.”

The Importance of a Broader Strategy

Those who did support air strikes invariably argued that it has to be part of a wider strategy with other elements:

“While I DO fully back military intervention to stop the spread of ISIL, and (indeed) to constrict it, we MUST have a good plan first.

To think we cannot do this without putting any boots on the ground is folly, even if we were to train and make the moderates there into some form of fighting force, we would need high end troops to do so.”

“It is a difficult decision but with some reluctance I would support the use of force while fully accepting air strikes are not sufficient.”

“I can see the government's point of view on this, particularly in view of the relative success of air support in Iraq. I think that the area currently occupied by ISIL in Syria is too large for bombing not to be of use, and I also agree that our RAF support would be of use. However, I do agree that there will eventually be a point at which 'boots on the ground' will be necessary to deal with these groups.”

The Role of Ground Troops

Many people raised with me their belief that ground troops will be necessary. I agree. Overwhelmingly it was felt that air strikes could not succeed in removing ISIL/Daesh without ground troops to support the air strikes.

“The issues of what ground troops are available and who the spaces may fall to for lack of any realistic definitive measures are by no means guaranteed at this point.”

“I feel that airstrike are not the solution to this situation and even though ground troops would play a big part in putting an end to it, I dont think we, the British, should be the first to go in”

But this raises two questions:

(1) Are the moderate Syrian groups able to provide the ground support that is needed? And

(2) Should we launch bombing raids even without proper ground troops to degrade ISIL/Daesh capabilities and reduce their ability to attack the West?

Most people felt the moderate Syrian forces weren’t sufficient to capture and secure. I agree. Indeed in the Debate on Syria on Wednesday there were estimates that the Free Syrian Army could be as little as 15,000 fighters.

“I do not believe the Syrian opposition to Isil and Assad is strong enough to create a stable opposition, it is fractured and limited. I believe getting rid of one group would still provide poor stability for a way for progress.”

“I do not believe that the governments's case is convincing, The 70000 ground troops the Prime Minister mentions are, as you say, a hotch-potch of different interest groups.”

“Without some kind of locally sourced ground groups ISIS will remain hard to defeat. As you have pointed out these troops don't seem to really exist in any organised form at the moment.”

“The figure of 70,000 troops available to support action is dubious, if not plain fanciful.  There may be a large number of splintered groups opposed to Assad, but the proposed action is against Daesh, not Assad.”

But on the second question, whether or not we should launch air strikes simply to degrade ISIL/Daesh, views were more mixed.

“I think we should commence with action against Isil, in further support of the indigenous forces already fighting them. What happened in Paris cannot be allowed to happen again, and whether or not we want to be involved in a war, we have to accept that we already are at war.”

“I think without a coherent plan including ground troops going in to tackle Isil I cannot support bombing as it would no matter how well planned be indiscriminate and significant numbers of innocent people will be killed. I would however support bombing of Isil targets as part of wider plan using ground troops. I do have a strong view and some military background (17 years in the reserve forces) and believe that that at some point the only way to tackle this will be a coordinated military one. The second issue was the diplomatic process.”

“the long term strategy is far from clear and could simply result in us entering into another war which we cannot quickly withdraw from, which will no doubt pretty much bankrupt us, and which will cost the lives of both our own men and women, and civilians over there"

The Diplomatic Process and Peace Talks

Again, those who supported action argued that action should be commenced alongside diplomacy.

“There must be clear military objectives which when met will mark the end of the military programme. These must be linked to political/diplomatic processes.”

“I am in favour of the U.K. Joining its allies in direct action in Syria provided it is part of an overall coordinated political plan that has at its core a medium/long-term strategy for disengagement and gives ordinary Syrians and other Middle Eastern citizens the right to self-determination in peace”

But many others argued that diplomatic measures should be pursued before action.

“I think with further dialogue a resolution could be reached, to stop the killing and suffering of poor civilians, especially those of women and children.”

My problem is that I do not think we can get a diplomatic solution to ISIL/Daesh. These are not groups we can negotiate with. They are not looking for a negotiated solution, they are looking for a conflict, and again this was something that was recognised by several people who contacted me:

“the complete degradation and abuse of women as shown by ISIL, ie enslaving the women in areas that come under their control and subjecting them to sexual abuse or killing them, is a perversion. The whole ISIL outlook is abomination ie bida' in Arabic.  ISIL has more of the outlook of the Gestapo Death Squads of WWII. I cannot see how there is any possibility of negotiation with people like that.”

But, even if we cannot negotiate away the threat to ISIL/ there is still a lot more to be achieved through diplomacy. Firstly, we need a plan to unite Syrian opposition groups. Secondly, we need an international agreement to remove Assad, so we can focus on ISIL/Daesh. I think the question is whether we should wait to see what further progress can be made diplomatically before starting action, or whether we can commence action alongside the diplomatic process.

I think this argument is very finely balanced. When I attended the Government’s briefing for MPs I challenged them specifically on the need to act now. The Foreign Secretary was very clear in his response to me that there was an urgent need to degrade ISIL/Daesh because they pose an immediate threat to the UK. ISIL have successfully made 9 terrorists attacks this year. They have attempted a further seven attacks against the UK, which have been thwarted. The Government have clear evidence that these attacks were co-ordinated in Syria and those involved have been trained in Syria. Several people who contacted me agreed with the Government that the case for action now had been met:

“Normally I would be looking for a negotiated settlement but it is clear that Isil have no interest in this and want a global caliphate As this poses such a threat to our way of life I believe that there is no alternative but to destroy them and think that the UK must play its part”

I think this argument is a strong one, but it still leaves the question as to whether the action proposed by the Government will be effective and proportionate.

Concerns about Civilian Casualties

In terms of proportionality, nearly all contributions, both in favour and against action, stressed the need for humanitarian considerations to be paramount. Many people were against action on the basis it would worsen the civilian situation in Syria

“I am deeply concerned that air strikes will kill innocent civilians, including these women and children captured and currently held amongst the soldiers.”

“It is impossible to target only ISIL; look at the recent bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan; ISIL can pretend to be civilians […] there are no clear cut targets for bombing.  The risk for real life human civilians is too great.”

“While this is clearly an incredibly complex situation and ISIS is undoubtedly a violent extremist organisation that murders, rapes, exploits and oppresses people it comes into contact with, I cannot support plans to bomb Syria. This is for the simple reason that I believe that to do so will result in the deaths of many more people.”

But those who were in favour of launching action also stressed the need to consider the humanitarian consequences:

“I agree that this must involve a long term strategy to create a stabilised government in Syria following any action, it must be made a safe area for Syrian people to live. Although action against Isil is not just a problem in Syria and Iraq, this is where they must be confronted.”

“… terrorism is a threat. It affects all aspects of lives and growth and stability of the economy. Therefore it is in the national interest to root out the sources of terror. It should be in conjoint with the allied forces and with UN backing. Civilians of Syria should not die or injured only the terrorists should be the target. Air strikes or ground troops, alone or in combination to achieve this objective is logical, justified and essential.”

The humanitarian consequences of military action and particularly civilian casualties are a key concern for me. This issue was covered in detail at the briefing I attended with Cabinet Ministers on Tuesday. The Secretary of State for Defence has detailed how since 2014, in Iraq, the RAF has made 1300 combat missions and made 300 air strikes. I think these raids have been successful, killing 330 ISIL fighters with no civilian casualties. This is because of an incredibly detailed sign-off process for each airstrike, with legal advice sought and measures demanded to reduce civilian casualties. I think this is shown by the statistics mentioned above. The low strike-rate is because the RAF would only bomb if all the conditions necessary to reduce civilian casualties had been met. I was assured this sign-off process would be repeated in Syria.  

However, there is an inherent risk with any bombing campaign. I am acutely aware that no bombing campaign can be conducted without risk. But, while I fully understand those who have an aversion to air strikes because of possible innocent casualties, I think it is important to remember that inaction also has a potential cost.

The civil war in Syria has already led to 250,000 deaths. ISIL/Daesh have been directly targeting civilians on numerous occasions and in Northern Iraq their actions have been described by UN observers as a potential genocide of 30,000 Yazidi Christians. The air strikes commenced in 2014 prevented the death tolls reaching genocide levels. But in the areas ISIL/Daesh did capture they separated men and women, made the younger women sex slaves and killed the elder women. In the areas Peshmerga Kurdish forces have recaptured from ISIL/Daesh they are uncovering mass graves.

So, despite the risk to civilians, I still think that military action would be justified if it can be shown to be effective at tackling ISIL/Daesh. I think this contribution put this point well:

“It is important that the threat of IS in Syria is dealt with. In my view the conditions set for Military intervention have been met. It is our moral duty as a nation to make the world a safer place by taking action in Syria as we are already doing in Iraq. Air strikes against the terrorist group known as Islamic state will help that to happen. Even though I would like to see Labour MPs voting with the government on this, it is important that the rules of engagement are strong enough to prevent civilian casualties.”

Wider Issues

Many people emphasised that the danger to the UK was predominantly coming from home-grown radicalisation. There was also a strong feeling that the UK entering into the conflict could radicalise more young people in the UK.  There were also some very sensible contributions as to how we can do more within the UK to counter this:

Further action at home must be taken again extremists who plan atrocities in this country, and I also think that more should be done to stop young people from becoming brain washed and radicalised in the first place in this country.

“We must spend time and unfortunately money on fighting the ideology of ISIL and infiltrating the terrorist cells both at home and farther afield, to combat the obvious threats to our security.”

“On the domestic front, more needs to be done to link social services (particularly social workers) and Muslim communities to address the social disadvantage, prejudice and disaffection which appear to be the underlying drivers for the radicalisation of our youth”

“Nor do I believe that such strikes would have the effect of reducing the likelihood of UK citizens travelling to Syria to join Daesh forces, or execute terrorist attacks on British soil, either under the direction of, or inspired by, Islamic extremists.”

I absolutely agree with these points. The Government’s counter-extremism strategy, Prevent, and the programme for working with extremists, Channel, have both been key issues for me for several years. I think both programmes have been poorly understood, and under-resourced. Neither programme has properly adapted to the rise of ISIL/Daesh. The Government have made some changes, and I am waiting to see whether these work. I will continue to monitor this. I have also challenged the major internet companies – Twitter, Facebook and Google (Youtube) about the amount of extremist material they are hosting.

A second point that was repeatedly raised was financing for ISIL/Daesh. Again, I think this is a key issue and is one I have been working on for some time. I think the UK could be doing more on this:

(1)    By ensuring stronger EU action on money laundering and terror financing. There are reports that ISIS/Daesh are managing to get funds from the EU by exploiting weaker money laundering regulations in Bulgaria.

 

(2)    By ensuring that we are meticulous in enforcing our existing money laundering regulations. We need to be looking not just at payments entering the UK, but what processes are in place to ensure that any company operating in or through London as a financial centre operates the strictest money laundering procedures anywhere in the world. Both the Police (through the National Crime Agency) and the Financial Conduct Authority (part of the Bank of England) should be enforcing these rules, but I have concerns that they don’t have the resources to do it properly.

My Decision on Action

Having considered all the evidence I have read and the many excellent points made to me by constituents, I think the argument is finely balanced.

I do feel that there is a strong argument that action needs to be taken against ISIL/Daesh. However, I was not convinced that the action the Government are suggesting – extending bombing missions into Syria – will be effective. I share the concerns of many of the constituents that contacted me that bombing alone cannot effectively target ISIL/Daesh and there is a real concern that bombing without a proper plan for what happens next could make things worse. I think there is a real risk of creating a power vacuum which in turn will make it more difficult to get the stable, secure Syria that we all want.

Therefore I voted against the Prime Minister’s motion for military action against ISIL/Daesh in Syria.

It may be that the talks between moderate Sunni elements in Saudi Arabia create a more unified opposition force. It may well be that following this, there could be a breakthrough at the Vienna talks. In this case I think there would be a stronger case for targeting ISIL/Daesh, because there would be a clear opposition force to tackle ISIL/Daesh who we could support. But we cannot be sure about the outcomes of either the talks in Saudi Arabia or Vienna.

At the moment I am concerned that there simply isn’t a coherent ground force to back up bombing. The 70,000 figure that the Prime Minister mentions does not stand up to scrutiny. At best it is a collection of numerous different factions, many of whom are currently consumed with the fight against Assad.

In taking this decision I was very conscious that ISIL/Daesh are a current threat to the UK and will be plotting attacks against the UK from their strongholds in Syria. However, I was not convinced that the bombing campaign proposed by the Prime Minister was the best way to address this threat.

I think it is important to remember that where there is an immediate need to act because a target known to be linked to attacks on the UK is identified, then the Government are already taking action in Syria by drone strikes. This action does not have to be authorised by Parliament because the Prime Minister authorises this action using the Royal Prerogative. The motion in front of Parliament this week was about authorising more than this limited action. On balance, and I think it is extremely close, I do not think the Government have explained how this wider action will help improve the situation.

More generally, the UK’s limited military capabilities – even more limited after recent defence cuts – would be better concentrated on their existing mission in Iraq, while the multi-national forces already working in Syria focus on hitting Daesh targets there.

In the end there was a clear majority in the House of Commons in favour of supporting military action against ISIL/Daesh. I fully respect colleagues who looked at the evidence and came to a different conclusion.

The debate was rounded up by Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, whose speech can be seen at http://goo.gl/fg56Xz.

I will now, of course, give my full and unconditional support to our armed forces as they commence a difficult operation. I know they will show both skill and courage and I know everyone in Hull will want to send them our best wishes. 

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