Last night, parliament voted to extend RAF air strikes to Syria. As I have repeatedly stressed in recent days, deciding whether to support the government was one of the most difficult I have ever had to make. In the end, I voted against, for reasons that I will set out below.
That said, the decision was marginal. The recent tragic terrorist atrocities in Paris, Beirut, Egypt, and other countries around the world, demand a response. They could easily have been in Manchester, Glasgow or even Edinburgh. These attacks were all linked to the civil war in Syria and the wider conflict that continues to engulf large swathes of North Africa and the Middle East. At the centre of this destructive vortex is the terrorist group IS/Da’esh, a fanatical jihadist death cult intent on inflicting mass murder. We all agree that they must and will be defeated. Meanwhile, the carnage in Syria is tragic and terrible to witness. It also must end.
Some 250,000 lives have been lost, many women and children, and the man responsible for much of this misery and death is the country’s leader, President Assad.
At the same time, IS/Da’esh’s debased terrorist ideology has seen them throw gay men off buildings, deal out beatings for trivial transgressions and slaughter indiscriminately. Mass graves of women and children have been discovered in Iraq. The Syrian people need our help.
However, military action must never be sanctioned unless we are sure that it will be effective, and in the final analysis, I was not convinced by the government’s case. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, the reason UN-approved UK air strikes in Iraq have been effective is because they have been supported by action from local ground forces and support from the Iraqi government. Iraqi and Kurdish forces have moved rapidly to retake and retain the territories vacated by Da’esh. In Syria, the claim is that there are 70,000 Free Syrian Army troops on the ground that can perform a similar role; however, there is little evidence to uphold this assertion.
On a recent visit to the region, MPs on the foreign affairs select committee were told by military experts that “there would be a struggle to find 20,000”. What’s more, this force is likely to be scattered and disparate, and certainly won’t be under one unitary command. Many are radical groups who do not share our aims and are unlikely to prove co-operative.
Secondly, I was also unconvinced by the argument that air strikes will make us safer. No-one can know that for sure. As I have stated above, Da’esh are terrorist fanatics; they abhor Western values and culture and will continue to attack us regardless. According to the security services, we are already a top target.
Finally, I do not believe that air strikes will end the civil war and lay the foundations for long-term peace and stability in both Syria, and across the region. A long-term, multilateral strategy predicated on diplomacy is under way. Talks are continuing in Vienna and those talks must be the focus. We must stem the flow of supplies, weapons and munitions to Da’esh, and reach an international agreement on the future of Syrian President Assad for sustainable peace. No stone is being left unturned as you read this, without air strikes, and that should continue.
There is no simple solution. We have seen horrific loss of life and the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. Parliament has decided air strikes are part of the answer. I hope, for their sakes, and for those of the Syrian people, that they are right.
Ian Murray is Labour MP for Edinburgh South