The Decision To Extend Air Strikes Against Daesh from Iraq into Syria: Why Did I Vote Yes?

Many residents of Walthamstow have been in touch with me regarding the vote on Wednesday in Parliament to authorise the extension of air strikes against Daesh from Iraq into Syria. I’m pasting below the email I have sent out to residents for information:

Hello!

Thank you for being in touch with me regarding the decision parliament made regarding whether or not to extend air strikes against Daesh (ISIL) from Iraq to Syria.

I decided in the end to vote for this proposal — I want to set out why and the details of a public discussion I am proposing on this issue this coming Sunday in Walthamstow. I apologise for sending a lengthy email to all who have been in touch both for and against this proposal as well as with questions- given the volume of correspondence I have had I wanted to try to get back to as many of you as quickly as possible, and I hope the detail below will cover many of the points you raised.

I know that many of you disagreed with my decision to support this proposal. I did not choose to vote this way lightly. Throughout the last week I have sought to listen to hundreds of local people on this matter on and offline, as well as to meet with experts and attend briefings about the situation in Syria as well as the threat posed by Daesh.

I envy the certainty of those who considered this to be a simple issue. It became clear to me that both options on offer- to oppose or approve the extension of military action- could lead to the loss of innocent lives. Like many I have deep concerns about the details of the plans for ending the Syrian Civil War and so the timing action alongside these efforts- but recognize without tackling Daesh securing peace in Syria will be impossible. Throughout the last few days I have sought to use social media and in particular Facebook to update residents on the differing issues MPs were discussing in relation to this and some of my thoughts on them- if these are of interest to you, you can find this here.

So why did I on balance decide to vote yes? Firstly, because I am convinced there is a clear and present threat to the UK from Daesh and it is a danger to all citizens. From the emails I received many of you said you feared any extension of air strikes against Daesh targets in Syria could lead to radicalization, and a greater risk level for Britain. Britain is already taking military action against Daesh in Iraq (and has been since October 2014) and we are in the top tier of countries for them to attack, so we are already considered to be at the highest level of risk — with at least seven attempts to attack UK citizens recorded already this year here in our country. We also know this year Daesh were implicated in the killing of 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc and 130 people in Paris. There is also intelligence that they are plotting more attacks on the UK and other countries from their headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

There is a strong likelihood there will be more terror attempts on British soil, and involving British citizens- Daesh will not stop planning carnage as part of their twisted ideology. One of the points of debate in this vote was whether the UK should continue to pass responsibility for defending our national security to other countries, or play our full role in fighting them directly. We know they seek to kill people of all faith and none — and insult Islam which is a peaceful religion in the process. I know of and share concerns about rising islamophobia in our community- including reports of violent incidents as well as the language and debates taking place. Tackling islamophobia is something I consider that we all have a role in which to play, regardless of our own personal religious background. For example, following the terrorist attack in Paris I was proud to join many in Walthamstow who challenged those who locally called for Muslims to denounce these deaths on the basis it is for all humanity to condemn these acts, not those of one faith alone. So too I have been working with local women to look at how we can improve the reporting of islamophobic hate crime in our area, sought to support local mosques in holding open days as well as raising concerns about the management of the Prevent programme in our schools in Walthamstow. There are many more ways we together as Walthamstow can take forward this work so I would like therefore to extend to you all an invitation to take part in developing our nascent local community islamophobia project. If this would be of interest please reply to this email to say so.

Taking on the fascists in Daesh is not simply about the safety and security of UK citizens. We also know of the threat they currently pose to the people living within their Caliphate- of the beheadings and crucifixions, their actions in throwing gay men off buildings and the enslavement of women. The recent discovery of a mass grave of Yazidi women, who were slaughtered by Daesh as they were too old to be sold into sexual slavery, only further reinforces the direct and current threat they pose to the people of Syria and Iraq themselves and the need to act.

I am under no illusions that air strikes alone can stop Daesh-but it is clear they can and do disrupt their activity significantly, which can then help regain territory from them and local forces protect their citizens from them. Since 2014, Britain has already taken part in air strikes, alongside a coalition of over 60 countries, that have been working in this way in Iraq with reports of 15–20% of territory including the Sinjar province reclaimed as a result. In Syria itself, air strikes have already supported the Kurdish people to retake Kobane.

For the UK, our role in these air strikes to date has stopped at the Iraq/Syria border as our armed forces did not have authority from parliament to enter Syrian territory itself. In contrast Daesh do not recognise these territorial boundaries of either Iraq or Syria in their activities. Some residents queried with me whether, given other nations including America and France, are already active in Syria, Britain’s involvement would make any difference to the outcomes. Briefings from representatives of the armed forces confirmed the RAF has significant capabilities for precision airstrikes, aerial reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling support. On a daily basis, its Tornado aircraft and unmanned drones are causing very severe damage to Isis in Iraq. Therefore the use of these capabilities over Syria would put additional and extreme pressure above and beyond that of our coalition partners on Daesh’s networks.

In our debates we sought explicit confirmation and detail as to how air strikes have been solely targeted at Daesh. The proposal we voted on was also similarly restricted to targeting Daesh in Syria solely with this made explicit in the wording. This work includes disrupting their ownership of oil depots and resources — crucial in their financing which many of you have raised as something to focus upon- as well as targeting those directly plotting terrorist attacks. The process of choosing and authorizing such targets is overseen directly by the Defence Secretary — this also means that should loss of life occur to civilians (for the record around 330 Daesh members have been killed in RAF airstrikes and there has not been a single civilian casualty in Iraq) he can be called to the parliamentary dispatch box to explain. I state this not to suggest this system is without flaws or the possibilities of civilian casualties, but to highlight the level of scrutiny applied to the use of missiles by British forces to avert such occurrences and opportunity for the UK public to hold directly to account those responsible for these strikes.

So too MPs discussed how we should respond to the request of the United Nations to defeat Daesh. A UN Security Council Resolution (2249) was passed on 20th November 2015, which very specifically calls on member states:

“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.”

To me the existence of a UN resolution — something missing from the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 and one of the key reasons I did not support it at the time– is very powerful. It is a testament to how serious the threat posed by Daesh is to all communities that such a resolution has been passed and that it uses language to require action, not simply support it. During the discussions on this proposal, we were given guidance that any such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter — the right of self-defence — to defend the UK and our allies. Indeed, following the attack in Paris, France invoked article 42.7 — the mutual defence clause of our EU Treaty agreements, agreed coalition partnerships with the US and Russia, and adopted in 2249 before the UN Security Council.

Formally this treaty implies a duty for France’s allies to help them through a responsibility of solidarity. In practice it means as a country we are committed to working positively with France to meet their immediate needs, and to provide material assistance, once the French government decides on a course of action under international law. In truth there would be no penalties for turning away from this request, simply the damage to our relationship with France and the international community, and to our standing within it. However, as someone proud of Labour’s tradition of internationalism and joining with allies around the world to fight fascism, that France and the Socialist Government of Francois Hollande specifically requested our assistance in Syria, was also important to my decision.

Yet I also agree with those of you who argued bombing alone never brings peace, and that Daesh have been able to grow because of the chaos of the Syrian Civil War. Thus, ending the Syrian Civil War is crucial in the fight against Daesh as well as for a peaceful future of the Syrian people. This requires a political, not military solution. Whist Daesh cannot be negotiated with given their barbaric intent, in the region there are a range of key stakeholders who can be involved effectively in securing peace.

That is why an intensified diplomatic effort is now underway and important progress was made by the International Syria Support Group in Vienna in both October and November. For the first time, it has brought together all the major international players — the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States — behind a common vision of what is needed to bring the Syrian civil war to an end. In mid-December the group will meet and ‘review progress towards implementation of a ceasefire and the beginning of the political process’.

Crucially, these talks have committed to a transitional government, and so the removal of Assad, with plans for full elections within eighteen months. This matters because the overwhelming majority of those fleeing from Syria are fleeing the persecution of Assad, who has been bombing his own people. I was opposed to the proposal in 2013 to take action against Assad because I did not believe the Government had a clear plan for the safety and security of the Syrian people if Assad could be removed. Assad must go to be able to restore peace to Syria and help the millions of Syrians who wish to return home have confidence in the safety of their home nation. Thus, these talks represent a real step forward in achieving this and a longer term democratic future for Syria that was not on the table in 2013.

However, one of the reasons I found this vote difficult to decide upon was my concern that this process was in its early infancy, and it involves many regional actors whose relationships with each other can be described as complex at best. As with any diplomatic process there is therefore a risk that it will stall, and that this could fragment the process of bringing together opposition to Daesh on the ground. The Saudi Arabian Government will be hosting a conference in Riyadh to bring together the differing groups of opposition fighters to Daesh to provide the ground support in Syria alongside the air strikes. There have been conflicting reports of how many opposition fighters there are- with the figure 70,000 being discussed in parliament. I share concerns about the robustness of this figure and also the time it will take to for them to work together. However, I also recognise tackling Daesh will give confidence to some of those groups to do this, and support the other regional partners in this process to engage with them to build the strength of this opposition to Daesh.

Furthermore, in the briefings we attended there was a lot of discussion about the ground forces required to follow up any progress made by air strikes, and that whoever this was it should be led by those from the region and not western nations. The Government again gave assurances that no requests would be made for British troops to participate in this action. When I met with residents in Walthamstow I confirmed that this was a ‘red line’ for me, and it remains so. They also confirmed that should it prove difficult to mobilise the Syrian Free Army, the ISSG were already discussing support from regional partners instead.

Finally, I know for many residents the plight of those fleeing the murderous intent of both Assad and Daesh was of grave concern- as is our current Government’s poor response to this issue. I want to see the Government take a much more proactive approach to helping the refugees from Syria and supporting humanitarian action. At present The European Union and its Member States collectively are leading the international response. More than €4.4 billion has been allocated for relief and recovery assistance to Syrians in their country and to refugees and their host communities in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. I’m pleased to know now that the UK will co-host a conference in February 2016 ‘to ensure that the international community delivers a significant increase in the provision of immediate and long-term support to vulnerable Syrians in Syria, and to Syrian refugees and their host communities’. In addition to this I’ve been pushing the Government on the services and support they give to Syrian refugees to come to the UK for safety and believe there is much more that we can do — I have been raising this in parliament and will continue to do so. This was also a condition of the Labour Party conference motion regarding the circumstances under which Labour would support action along with a UN resolution, commitment to only attack Daesh targets and a plan for the peace process for Syria — circumstances I believe have been met and so further support the extension of air strikes into Syria.

I hope the above information is of interest- I do not expect to convince residents who opposed this extension of air strikes to change their minds, but I do wish to try to account for the deliberations I made and the decision I took as your MP. As part of this, I am also organizing a public meeting about this issue for Walthamstow residents- as there has been extensive national media interest in this debate I have been asked by the local police to put in place a number of measures to ensure that this event is for Walthamstow people only.

This meeting will be at 4pm on Sunday 6th December 2015 in a central Walthamstow location. If you would like to join this discussion — where I am happy to discuss the vote as well as the next steps in the process of defeating Daesh and supporting peace in Syria- please reply to this email with your name and postal address so that we can verify you are on the electoral roll in Walthamstow and send you further details for joining this event. I am also making an open plea to members and activists of other political parties who have made public statements about their intentions regarding this event not to disrupt this meeting, and to enable Walthamstow residents to have this opportunity for a direct discussion with myself as their MP.

I have also had requests for details of how many emails I have had on this subject and their nature. At the time of sending this email and logging them, I have had 587 emails about this issue from local residents. The substantial majority of these opposed extending air strikes — as did the public meeting I held at short notice last Sunday on this issue to ask for people’s concerns too and many of the social media comments I have received. Many of you also emailed responses to the questions that I posed and I am extremely grateful for the multiple thoughtful and informed replies I received as well as to those within our community to whom I spoke to about this issue ahead of the vote. In deciding to support the decision to extend strikes I took all of these representations into account, as well as the additional information with which I was provided within parliament and my own assessment of the risks and unknowns in the proposal before MPs. That I came to a different conclusion to those residents who opposed these measures does not mean I do not respect or share some of their concerns, many of which colleagues in parliament also held. Indeed, I know many of you followed the debates we had in parliament and came to a different conclusion — I hope you will be able to join me on Sunday to discuss this as well.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email and to let me know your views- whilst we may not agree on the final decision that I came to on this matter, I hope you will feel able to continue to discuss and debate such concerns with me as your elected representative as I have very much valued this opportunity to hear from you on this complex matter.

With kind regards

Stella