[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, on The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria, HC 457, and the Prime Minister’s response, published on the internet on 26 November; the Seventh Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2014-15, on The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH), HC 690, and the Government's response, Twelfth Special Report, Session 2014-15, HC 1126; and oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 1 December 2015, UK military operations in Syria and Iraq, HC 657.]
Before I call the Prime Minister to move the motion, I should inform the House that I have selected amendment (b) in the name of Mr John Baron and others. The amendment will be debated together with the main motion. At the end of the debate, Mr Baron will be invited to move the amendment formally and the questions will then be put, first on the amendment and then on the main motion.
I beg to move,
That this House notes that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom; welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 which determines that ISIL constitutes an ‘unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calls on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent terrorist acts by ISIL and to ‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria’; further notes the clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter; notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement; welcomes the Government’s continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees; underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria; welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons; notes the requests from France, the US and regional allies for UK military assistance; acknowledges the importance of seeking to avoid civilian casualties, using the UK’s particular capabilities; notes the Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; welcomes the Government’s commitment to provide quarterly progress reports to the House; and accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
The question before the House today is how we keep the British people safe from the threat posed by ISIL. Let me be clear from the outset that this is not about whether we want to fight terrorism but about how best we do that. I respect that Governments of all political colours in this country have had to fight terrorism and have had to take the people with them as they do so. I respect people who come to a different view from the Government and from the one that I will set out today, and those who vote accordingly. I hope that that provides some reassurance to Members across the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. He is right to say in his opening statement how important it is to respect opinion on all sides of the House, so will he apologise for the remarks he made in a meeting last night against my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Labour Benches?
I could not have been clearer in my opening remarks: I respect people who disagree; I respect the fact that Governments of all colours have had to fight terrorism; and I respect the fact that we are all discussing how to fight terrorism, not whether to fight terrorism.
In moving this motion, I am not pretending—
Mr Speaker, I will take dozens of interventions in the time that I have. I am conscious of not taking up too much time as so many people want to speak, but I promise that I will give way a lot during my speech. Let me make a bit of progress at the start.
In moving this motion, I am not pretending that the answers are simple. The situation in Syria is incredibly complex. I am not overstating the contribution our incredible servicemen and women can make; nor am I ignoring the risks of military action or pretending that military action is any more than one part of the answer. I am absolutely clear that we must pursue a comprehensive strategy that also includes political, diplomatic and humanitarian action, and I know that the long-term solution in Syria—as in Iraq—must ultimately be a Government that represent all of its people and one that can work with us to defeat the evil organisation of ISIL for good.
In a moment.
Notwithstanding all of that, there is a simple question at the heart of the debate today. We face a fundamental threat to our security. ISIL has brutally murdered British hostages. It has inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia, and it has plotted atrocities on the streets here at home. Since November last year our security services have foiled no fewer than seven different plots against our people, so this threat is very real. The question is this: do we work with our allies to degrade and destroy this threat, and do we go after these terrorists in their heartlands, from where they are plotting to kill British people, or do we sit back and wait for them to attack us?
It would be helpful if the Prime Minister could retract his inappropriate comments from last night, but will he be reassured that no one on the Labour Benches will make a decision based on any such remarks, or be threatened and not do what we believe is the right thing—whether those threats come from online activists or, indeed, from our own Dispatch Box?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Everyone in this House should make up their mind based on the arguments in this House. There is honour in voting for; there is honour in voting against. That is the way the House should operate, and that is why I wanted to be absolutely clear, at the start of my speech, that this is about how we fight terrorism, not whether we fight it.
I will make some progress, and then I will give way.
In answering this question, we should remember that 15 months ago, facing a threat from ISIL in Iraq, the House voted 524 to 43 to authorise airstrikes in Iraq. Since then, our brilliant RAF pilots have helped local forces to halt ISIL’s advance and recover 30% of the territory ISIL had captured. On Monday, I spoke to the President of Iraq in Paris, and he expressed his gratitude for the vital work our forces were doing. Yet, when our planes reach the Syrian border—a border that ISIL itself does not recognise—we can no longer act to defend either his country or ours, even though ISIL’s headquarters are in Raqqa in Syria and it is from there that many of the plots against our country are formed.
The Prime Minister is facing an amendment signed by 110 Members from six different political parties. I have examined that list very carefully, and I cannot identify a single terrorist sympathiser among them. Will he now apologise for his deeply insulting remarks?
I have made it clear that this is about how we fight terrorism, and that there is honour in any vote.
We possess the capabilities to reduce this threat to our security, and my argument today is that we should not wait any longer before doing so. We should answer the call from our allies. The action we propose is legal, necessary and the right thing to do to keep our country safe. My strong view is that the House should make it clear that we will take up our responsibilities, rather than pass them off and put our own national security in the hands of others.
I have just returned from Baghdad and Irbil, where ISIL is on the back foot. Ramadi is surrounded, Sinjar has been liberated and the route between Mosul and Raqqa has been cut off, but everyone on the ground tells me that unless we attack ISIL in Syria, there is no point liberating Mosul or the rest of Iraq, because all ISIL will do is regroup in Syria and come back to attack that country and our country.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The UN Security Council has set out very clearly that the fact that this so-called caliphate exists in Syria as well as Iraq is a direct threat to Iraq and its Government. He talks about some of the better news from Iraq. I would add to that what has happened in Tikrit since that has been taken from ISIL. We have seen 70% of its population return. I am sure we will talk later in this debate about the importance of humanitarian aid and reconstruction. That can work only with good government in those towns and in the absence of ISIL/Daesh.
I will make a little more progress and then take some more interventions from the different political parties.
Since my statement last week, the House has had an opportunity to ask questions of our security experts. I have arranged a briefing for all Members, as well as more detailed briefings for Privy Counsellors. I have spoken further to our allies, including President Obama, Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and the King of Jordan, the last of whom has written in The Daily Telegraph today expressing his wish for Britain to stand with Jordan in eliminating this global threat.
I have also listened carefully to the questions asked by Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that hon. Members can see the influence that the House has had on the motion before us: the stress on post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction; the importance of standing by our allies; the importance of only targeting ISIL and not deploying ground troops in combat operations; the need to avoid civilian casualties; the importance of ceasefires and a political settlement; and the commitment to regular updates to the House. I have drawn these points from across the House and put them in the motion, because I want as many people as possible to feel able to support this action.
First, may I say that I will be supporting the Prime Minister today, although I think he needs to apologise for his comments about the Labour party? May I also ask him what the UK Government will do to minimise the number of civilian casualties?
The right hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. In Iraq, for a year and three months there have been no reports of civilian casualties related to the strikes that Britain has taken. Our starting point is to avoid civilian casualties altogether, and I have argued, and will indeed do so again today, that our precision weapons and the skill of our pilots make civilian casualties less likely. So Britain being involved in the strikes in Iraq can both be effective in prosecuting the campaign against ISIL and help us to avoid civilian casualties.
Is the Prime Minister aware of press reports that in the recent past 60,000 Syrian troops have been murdered by ISIL and our allies have waited until after those murderous acts have taken place to attack? Therefore, a key part of the motion for many of us is the reference to our action being “exclusively against ISIL”. If ISIL is involved in attacking Syrian Government troops, will we be bombing ISIL in defence of those troops, or will we wait idly by, as our allies have done up to now, for ISIL to kill those troops, and then bomb?
What I say to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, is that the motion says “exclusively” ISIL because that was a promise I made in this House in response to points made from both sides of the House. As far as I am concerned, wherever members of ISIL are, wherever they can be properly targeted, that is what we should do. Let me just make this point, because I think it is important when we come to the argument about ground troops. In my discussions with the King of Jordan, he made the point that in the south of Syria there is already not only co-operation among the Jordanian Government, the French and the Americans, and the Free Syrian Army, but a growing ceasefire between the regime troops and the Free Syrian Army so that they can turn their guns on ISIL. That is what I have said: this is an ISIL-first strategy. They are the threat. They are the ones we should be targeting. This is about our national security.
Let me make a little progress and then I will take more interventions. In my remarks, I want to address the most important points that are being raised, and I will of course take as many interventions as I can.
I believe the key questions that have been raised are these: first, could acting in this way actually increase the risk to our security by making an attack on Britain more likely? Secondly, does Britain really have the capability to make a significant difference? Thirdly—this is the question asked by a number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond)—why do we not just increase our level of airstrikes in Iraq to free up capacity among other members of the coalition so that they can carry out more airstrikes in Syria? Fourthly, will there really be the ground forces needed to make this operation a success? Fifthly, what is the strategy for defeating ISIL and securing a lasting political settlement in Syria? Sixthly, is there a proper reconstruction and post-conflict stabilisation plan for Syria? I want to try, in the time I have available, to answer all of those in turn.
The Prime Minister will know how members of my party feel when it comes to fighting and dealing with terrorism, and for that there will always be support, no matter where terrorism raises its head. The motion states that
“the Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations”.
If it becomes necessary at a later date to do that, will he guarantee that he will come back to this House to seek approval for that?
This is something not only that I do not want to do, but that I think would be a mistake if we did it. The argument was made to us by the Iraqi Government that the presence of western ground troops can be a radicalising force and can be counterproductive, and that is our view. I would say to the hon. Gentleman, and to colleagues behind me who are concerned about this issue, that I accept that this means that our strategy takes longer to be successful, because we rely on Iraqi ground troops in Iraq, we rely on the patchwork of Free Syrian Army troops in Syria, and in time we hope for Syrian ground troops from a transitional regime. All of that takes longer, and one of the clear messages that has to come across today is that, yes, we do have a strategy, and although it is a complex picture and it will take time, we are acting in the right way.
Let me make one more point before I take some more interventions, because I want to say a word about the terminology we use to describe this evil death cult.Having carefully considered the strong representation made to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) and having listened to many Members of Parliament across the House, I feel that it is time to join our key ally, France, the Arab League, and other members of the international community in using, as frequently as possible, the terminology “Daesh” rather than ISIL. This evil death cult is neither a true representation of Islam nor a state.
I am very interested to hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about what name we should call Daesh. If we are talking about terminology, should he not take this opportunity to withdraw the names that he is calling those who will not be voting with him tonight? Not only is it offensive to use the words “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”, but it is dangerous and untrue.
Let me turn to the important questions, and I will take interventions as I go through them.
First, could acting increase the risk to our security? That is one of the most important questions that we have to answer. Privy Counsellors across the House have had a briefing from the Chair of the independent Joint Intelligence Committee. Obviously, I cannot share all the classified material, but I can say this: Paris was different not just because it was so close to us or because it was so horrific in scale, but because it showed the extent of terror planning from Daesh in Syria and the approach of sending people back from Syria to Europe. This was the head of the snake in Raqqa in action, so it is not surprising that the judgment of the Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and of the director general of the Security Service is that the risk of a similar attack in the UK is real, and that the UK is already in the top tier of countries on ISIL’s target list.
I want to make this point and then I will take some more interventions.
If there is an attack on the UK in the coming weeks or months, there will be those who try to say that it has happened because of our airstrikes. I do not believe that that will be the case. Daesh has been trying to attack us for the past year, as we know from the seven different plots that our security services have foiled. In the light of that threat from Daesh, the terrorist threat to the UK was raised to severe last August, which means that an attack is highly likely.
I will give way in two minutes. Some 800 people, including families and children, have been radicalised to such an extent that they have travelled to this so-called caliphate. The House should be under no illusion: these terrorists are plotting to kill us and to radicalise our children right now. They attack us because of who we are, and not because of what we do.
All of us on the Opposition Benches share the Prime Minister’s horror of Daesh and its death cult and abhor terrorism. Will he take this further opportunity to identify which Members on these Benches he regards as terrorist sympathisers?
Everyone in this House can speak for themselves. What I am saying is that, when it comes to the risks of military action, the risks of inaction are far greater than the risks of what I propose.
Next there are those who ask whether Britain conducting strikes in Syria will really make a difference.
Let me make my argument, and then I will take the hon. Gentleman’s question.
This point has been raised in briefing after briefing. I believe that we can make a real difference. I told the House last week about our dynamic targeting, our Brimstone missiles, the Raptor pod on our Tornadoes and the intelligence-gathering work of our Reaper drones. I will not repeat all that today, but there is another way of putting this, which is equally powerful. There is a lot of strike capacity in the coalition, but when it comes to precision-strike capability whether covering Iraq or Syria, let me say this: last week, the whole international coalition had some 26 aircraft available, eight of which were British Tornadoes. Typically, the UK actually represents between a quarter and a third of the international coalition’s precision bombing capability. We also have about a quarter of the unmanned strike capability flying in the region. Therefore, we have a significant proportion of high-precision strike capability, which is why this decision is so important.
The Prime Minister is right to sing the praises of the RAF pilots. The son of my constituent, Mike Poole, was tragically killed in a Tornado, in 2012, while training for the RAF. Mike Poole has specifically asked me this question: does the Air Force have coalition warning systems to deal with the crowded airspace in northern Iraq and in Syria, if we make that decision today? Such a system is absolutely essential for the safety of our pilots.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, and I pay tribute to his constituent’s son. We will be part of the de-confliction process that already exists between those coalition partners flying in Syria and the Russians. Of course, our own aeroplanes have the most advanced defensive air suites possible to make sure that they are kept safe. The argument that I was making is one reason why members of the international coalition, including President Obama and President Hollande, who made these points to me personally, believe that British planes would make a real difference in Syria, just as they are already doing in Iraq.
I am extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. It is important in this debate that there is respect across the House. In that spirit of respect, he must—he has been asked before—apologise for the slur that was put on every Opposition Member last night. He should do it now, and let us have a proper debate.
We are going to vote either way tonight—either vote is an honourable vote. I suggest that we get on with the debate that the country wants to hear.
In many ways, what I have just said helps to answer the next question that some Members have asked about why we do not simply increase our level of airstrikes in Iraq to free up coalition capacity for strikes in Syria. We have the capabilities that other members of the Coalition want to benefit from, and it makes absolutely no sense to stop using these capabilities at a border between Iraq and Syria that Daesh simply does not recognise or respect.
Let me make this argument, because it is an important, detailed point. There was a recent incident in which Syrian opposition forces needed urgent support in their fight against Daesh. British Tornadoes were eight minutes away, just over the border in Iraq—no one else was close—but Britain could not help, so the Syrian opposition forces had to wait 40 minutes in a perilous situation while other coalition forces were scrambled. That sort of delay endangers the lives of those fighting Daesh on the ground, and does nothing for our reputation with our vital allies.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. Does he understand that at a time when too many aircraft are already chasing too few targets, many of us are concerned about the lack of a comprehensive strategy, both military and non-military, including an exit strategy? One of the fundamental differences between Iraq and Syria is that in Iraq there are nearly 1 million personnel on the Government payroll, and still we are having trouble pushing ISIL back. In Syria, with the 70,000 moderates, we risk forgetting the lesson of Libya. What is the Prime Minister’s reaction to the decision yesterday by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he had not adequately addressed our concerns?
Let me answer both of my hon. Friend’s questions. The second question is perhaps answered with something in which I am sure the whole House will want to join me in, which is wishing the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) well, given his recent illness. He is normally always at the Foreign Affairs Committee, and always voting on non-party grounds on the basis of the arguments in which he believes.
Where my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and I disagree is on this: I believe that there is a strategy, of which military action is only one part. The key answer to his question is that we want to see a new Syrian transitional Government whose troops will then be our allies in squeezing out and destroying the so-called caliphate altogether. My disagreement with my hon. Friend is that I believe that we cannot wait for that happen. The threat is now; ISIL/Daesh is planning attacks now. We can act in Syria as we act in Iraq, and in doing so, we can enhance the long-term security and safety of our country, which is why we should act.
May I first of all thank the Prime Minister for that change in terminology, and all Members of Parliament across the House for their support? Will the Prime Minister join me in urging the BBC to review its bizarre policy? It wrote to me to say that it cannot use the word “Daesh” because it would breach its impartiality rules. We are at war with terrorists, and we have to defeat their ideology and appeal: we have to be united. Will he join me in urging the BBC to review its bizarre policy?
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I have already corresponded with the BBC about its use of “IS”—Islamic State—which I think is even worse than either saying “so-called IS” or, indeed, “ISIL”. “Daesh” is clearly an improvement, and it is important that we all try and use this language.
Let me make some progress, then I will give way again.
There is a much more fundamental answer as to why we should carry out airstrikes in Syria ourselves, and it is this. Raqqa in Syria is the headquarters of this threat to our security. It is in Syria where it pumps and sells the oil that does so much to help finance its evil acts, and as I have said, it is in Syria where many of the plots against our country are formed, so we must act in Syria to deal with these threats ourselves.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way. I would have preferred to hear an apology, but I want to discuss the facts. The fact is that we are proposing to target very different things from those that we are targeting in northern Iraq and I would like to ask the Prime Minister two questions. First, what practical steps will be used to reduce civilian casualties? Secondly, what sorts of targets will we be going against that will reduce the terrorist threat to the UK in terms of operations directed against our citizens?
Let me answer the hon. Gentleman very directly. On the sorts of targets that we can go after, clearly it is the leaders of this death cult itself, the training camps, the communications hubs and those who are plotting against us. As I shall argue in a minute, the limited action that we took against Khan and Hussain, which was, if you like, an airstrikes on Syria, has already had an impact on ISIL—on Daesh. That is a very important point.
How do we avoid civilian casualties? We have a policy—a start point—of wanting zero civilian casualties. One year and three months into those Iraqi operations, we have not had any reports of civilian casualties. I am not saying that there are no casualties in war; of course there are. We are putting ourselves into a very difficult situation, which is hugely complex. In many ways it is a difficult argument to get across, but its heart is a simple point—will we be safer and better off in the long term if we can get rid of the so-called caliphate which is radicalising Muslims, turning people against us and plotting atrocities on the streets of Britain?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are already hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian casualties—those who are thrown off buildings, burned, decapitated, crucified, and those who have had to flee Syria, away from their co-religionists who have so bastardised that religion? Those are the civilian casualties we are trying to help.
Let me make some progress. Let me turn to the question of whether there will be ground forces to make this operation a success. Those who say that there are not as any ground troops as we would like, and that they are not all in the right places, are correct. We are not dealing with an ideal situation, but let me make a series of important points. First, we should be clear what airstrikes alone can achieve. We do not need ground troops to target the supply of oil which Daesh uses to fund terrorism. We do not need ground troops to hit Daesh’s headquarters, its infrastructure, its supply routes, its training facilities and its weapons supplies. It is clear that airstrikes can have an effect, as in the case of Khan and Hussain that I just mentioned. Irrespective of ground forces, our RAF can do serious damage to Daesh’s ability right now to bring terror to our streets and we should give it that support.
How would the Prime Minister respond to the point that since Daesh’s offensive against Baghdad was blunted by air power, it has changed its tactics and dispersed its forces, and particularly in Raqqa, a town of 600,000 people at present, has dispersed its operations all through that city into small units which make it impervious to attacks from our Tornadoes, given the small number of Tornadoes we have?
What the hon. Gentleman says is right. Of course Daesh has changed its tactics from the early days when airstrikes were even more effective, but that is not an argument for doing nothing. It is an argument for using airstrikes where we can, but having a longer-term strategy to deliver the necessary ground troops through the transition. The argument before the House is simple: do we wait for perfection, which is a transitional Government in Syria, or do we start the work now of degrading and destroying that organisation at the request of our allies, at the request of the Gulf states, in the knowledge from our security experts that it will make a difference?
Let me make a little progress, then I will take interventions from both sides.
As I said last week, the full answer to the question of ground forces cannot be achieved until there is a new Syrian Government who represent all the Syrian people—not just Sunni, Shi’a and Alawite, but Christian, Druze and others. It is this new Government who will be the natural partners for our forces in defeating Daesh for good. But there are some ground forces that we can work with in the meantime. Last week I told the House—
Let me give the explanation, and then colleagues can intervene if they like.
Last week I told the House that we believe that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters who do not belong to extremist groups and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Daesh. The House will appreciate that there are some limits on what I can say about these groups, not least because I cannot risk the safety of these courageous people, who are being targeted daily by the regime, by Daesh or by both. But I know that this is an area of great interest and concern to the House, so let me try to say a little more.
The 70,000 figure is an estimate from our independent Joint Intelligence Committee, based on detailed analysis, updated daily and drawing on a wide range of open sources and intelligence. The majority of the 70,000 are from the Free Syrian Army. Alongside the 70,000, there are some 20,000 Kurdish fighters with whom we can also work. I am not arguing—this is a crucial point—that all of the 70,000 are somehow ideal partners. However, some left the Syrian army because of Assad’s brutality, and clearly they can play a role in the future of Syria. That view is also taken by the Russians, who are prepared to talk with these people.
I thank the Prime Minister for giving way, and for the helpful way he is explaining matters to colleagues across the House. He spoke about a long-term strategy to see a new Government in Syria. There is wide agreement on that among our allies, but possibly more of a challenge with Russia. What conversations has he had with President Putin, either directly or via the United States, on the short and longer-term prospects for President Assad?
I have had those conversations with President Putin on many occasions, most recently at the G20 summit in Antalya, and President Obama had a meeting with him at the climate change conference in Paris. As I have said before in this House, there was an enormous gap between Britain, America, France and, indeed, Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Russia on the other hand; we wanted Assad to go instantly and they wanted him to stay, potentially forever. That gap has narrowed, and I think that it will narrow further as the vital talks in Vienna get under way.
Let me make a point about the Vienna talks, because I think that some people worry that it is a process without an end. The clear ambition in the talks is to see a transitional Government within six months, and a new constitution and fresh elections within 18 months, so there is real momentum behind them.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that, alongside any military intervention in Syria that the House might authorise tonight, he remains completely committed to the Government’s huge humanitarian effort, which has kept so many people alive in the region?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I can certainly confirm that. We are the second largest bilateral donor in the world, after America, and we will keep that up, not least with the vital conference that we are co-chairing in London next year, when we will bring together the whole world to ensure that we fill the gap in the funding that is available.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister, who is presenting his case well. Had he come to the House and asked for a very narrow licence to take out ISIL’s external planning capability, I think that would have commanded widespread consent, but he is asking for a wider authority. I want to draw him on the difference between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq there are ground forces in place, but in Syria there are not. I invite him to say a little more at the very least about what ground forces he envisages joining us in the seizure of Raqqa.
Let me try to answer that as directly as possible, because it goes to the nub of the difficulty of this case. I do not think that we can separate the task of taking out the command and control of Daesh’s operations against the UK, France, Belgium and elsewhere from the task of degrading and destroying the so-called caliphate that it has created; the two are intricately linked. Indeed, as I argued before the House last week, as long as the so-called caliphate exists, it is a threat to us, not least because it is radicalising Muslims from around the world who are going to fight for that organisation and potentially then return to attack us.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second question about ground troops, as I have explained, there are three parts to the argument. First, we must not underestimate the things we can do without ground troops. Secondly, although the ground troops that are there are not ideal and there are not as many of them as we would like, they are people we are working with and who we can work with more. Thirdly, the real plan is that as we get a transitional Government in Syria that can represent all the Syrian people, there will be more ground troops for us to work with to defeat Daesh and the caliphate, which will keep our country safe. I know that will take a long time and that it will be complex, but that is the strategy, and we need to start with the first step, which is going after these terrorists today.
I think the Prime Minister has to acknowledge that the ground troops that we can work with will be absolutely essential for his long-term strategy. At the moment he has not shown to me that as we defeat ISIL, we will not simply create a vacuum into which Assad will move and we will be fighting another enemy. Just a final word—perhaps I give him some motherly advice—if he got up now and said, “Whoever does not walk with me through the Division Lobby is not a terrorist sympathiser”, he would improve his standing in this House enormously.
I am very happy to repeat what the hon. Lady said. As I have said, people who vote in either Division Lobby do so with honour. I could not have been clearer about that. If she is saying that there are not enough ground troops, she is right. If she is saying that they are not always in the right places, she is right. But the question for us is, should we act now in order to try to start to turn the tide?
Let me make some progress, but I will certainly give way to the leader of the SNP in a moment. I just want to be clear about the 70,000. That figure does not include a further 25,000 extremist fighters in groups which reject political participation and reject co-ordination with non-Muslims, so although they fight Daesh they cannot and will not be our partners. So there are ground forces who will take the fight to Daesh, and in many cases we can work with them and we can assist them.
I want to make one final point and then I will give way to the leader of the SNP.
If we do not act now, we should be clear that there will be even fewer ground forces over time as Daesh will get even stronger. In my view, we simply cannot afford to wait. We have to act now.
Would the Prime Minister clarify for every Member of the House the advice that he and others have been given in relation to the 70,000 forces that he speaks of? How many of those 70,000 are classified as moderate and how many of them are classified as fundamentalists with whom we can never work?
On the 70,000, the advice I have is that the majority are made up of the Free Syrian Army, but of course the Free Syrian Army has different leadership in different parts of the country. The 70,000 excludes those in extremist groups like al-Nusra that we will not work with. As I have said very clearly, I am not arguing that the 70,000 are ideal partners; some of them do have views that we do not agree with. But the definition of the 70,000 is those people that we have been prepared to work with and continue to be prepared to work with. Let me make this point again: if we do not take action against Daesh now, the number of ground forces we can work with will get less and less and less. If we want to end up with a situation where there is the butcher Assad on one side and a stronger ISIL on the other side, not acting is one of the things that will bring that about.
I know from my time in government how long, how hard and how anxiously the Prime Minister thinks about these questions, but will he ensure that we complete the military aspect of this campaign, if at all possible, so that we can then get on to the really important, but perhaps the most difficult aspect of the questions that he has posed—namely, the post-conflict stabilisation and the reconstruction of Syria, because without this early stage there will not be a Syria left to reconstruct?
My right hon. and learned Friend, who himself always thought about these things very carefully, is right. That is the end goal, and we should not take our eyes off the prize, which is a reconstructed Syria with a Government that can represent all the people; which is a Syria at peace so that we do not have the migration crisis and we do not have the terrorism crisis. That is the goal.
Let me turn to the overall strategy. Again, I set this out in the House last week.
I will make some progress.
Let me say a little more about each of the non-military elements: counter-terrorism, counter-extremism, the political and diplomatic processes, and the vital humanitarian work that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier) just referred to. Our counter-terrorism strategy gives Britain a comprehensive plan to prevent and foil plots at home and also to address the poisonous extremist ideology that is the root cause of the threat that we face. As part of this, I can announce today that we will establish a comprehensive review to root out any remaining funding of extremism within the UK. This will examine specifically the nature, scale and origin of the funding of Islamist extremist activity in the UK, including any overseas sources. It will report to myself and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary next spring.
I want to make this point before I give way again. I know there are some who suggest that military action could in some way undermine our counter-extremism strategy by radicalising British Muslims, so let me take this head on. British Muslims are appalled by Daesh. These women-raping, Muslim-murdering, medieval monsters are hijacking the peaceful religion of Islam for their warped ends. As the King of Jordan says in an article today, these people are not Muslims, they are “outlaws” from Islam. We must stand with our Muslim friends, here and around the world, as they reclaim their religion from these terrorists. Far from an attack on Islam, we are engaged in a defence of Islam, and far from a risk of radicalising British Muslims by acting, failing to act would actually be to betray British Muslims and the wider religion of Islam in its very hour of need.
The Turks are taking part in this action and urging us to do the same. The Saudis are taking part in this action and urging us to do the same. The Jordanians have taken part in this action and urge us to do the same. I have in my notes quote after quote from leader after leader in the Gulf world begging and pleading with Britain to take part so that we can take the fight to this death cult that threatens us all so much.
The second part of our strategy is our support for the diplomatic and political process. Let me say a word about how this process can lead to the ceasefires between the regime and the opposition that are so essential for the next stages of this political transition. It begins with identifying the right people to put around the table. Next week, we expect the Syrian regime to nominate a team of people to negotiate under the auspices of the United Nations. Over the last 18 months, political and armed opposition positions have converged. We know the main groups and their ideas. In the coming days, Saudi Arabia will host an inclusive meeting for opposition representatives in Riyadh. The United Nations will take forward discussions on steps towards a ceasefire, including at the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group, which we expect to take place before Christmas.
The aim is clear, as I have said—a transitional Government in six months, a new constitution, and free and fair elections within 18 months. I would argue that the key elements of a deal are emerging: ceasefires, opposition groups coming together, the regime looking at negotiation, and the key players—America and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran—and key regional players such as Turkey all in the room together. My argument is this: hitting Daesh does not hurt this process; it helps this process, which is the eventual goal.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the murders on the beach in Tunisia and the carnage in Paris on 13 November have changed everything, and that the British people would find it rather odd if it took more than that for Britain to stand shoulder to shoulder with a number of other countries and take on Daesh?
My hon. Friend speaks for many. They attack us because of who we are, not because of what we do, and they want to attack us again and again. The question for us is, do we answer the call of our allies, some of our closest friends in the world—the French and the Americans—who want us to join them and Arab partners in this work, or do we ignore that call? If we ignore that call, think for a moment what that says about Britain as an ally. Think for a moment what it says to the countries in the region who will be asking themselves, “If Britain won’t come to the aid of France, its neighbour, in these circumstances, just how reliable a neighbour, a friend and an ally is this country?”
Let me make some progress on the vital subjects of humanitarian relief and the longer-term stabilisation, because I am conscious of the time. I set out for the House last week our support for refugees in the region, the extra £1 billion that we would be prepared to commit to Syria’s reconstruction, and the broad international alliance that we would work with in the rebuilding phase. However, let us be clear—my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) made this point—that people will not return to Syria if part of it is under the control of an organisation that enslaves Yazidis, throws gay people off buildings, beheads aid workers and forces children to marry before they are even 10 years old. We cannot separate the humanitarian work and the reconstruction work from dealing with Daesh itself.
I welcome any comments that distance British Muslims and Muslims in Scotland from Daesh. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s use of that terminology. I ask him this question as a new Member of the House who is looking to seasoned parliamentarians and those who have been in this Chamber for some time, as new Members do on such occasions. Given that the language that is being used could be considered unbecoming of a parliamentarian, for the benefit of new Members, will the Prime Minister withdraw his remarks in relation to terrorist sympathisers?
I think everyone is now focused on the main issues in front of us. That is what we should be focused on.
Let me turn to the plan for post-conflict reconstruction to support a new Syrian Government when they emerge. I have said that we would be prepared to commit at least £1 billion to Syria’s reconstruction. The initial priorities would be protection, security, stabilisation and confidence-building measures, including meeting basic humanitarian needs such as education, health and shelter, and, of course, helping refugees to return. Over time, the focus would shift to the longer-term rebuilding of Syria’s shattered infrastructure, harnessing the expertise of the international financial institutions and the private sector. As I said last week, we are not in the business of trying to dismantle the Syrian state or its institutions. We would aim to allocate reconstruction funds against a plan agreed between a new, inclusive Syrian Government and the international community, once the conflict had ended. That is the absolute key.
What really matters to my constituents is whether they will be safer after this process. The Prime Minister is making a strong case for attacking the heart of this terrorist organisation. Will he assure the House that, as well as taking action in Syria, he will shore up security services and policing in the United Kingdom?
That is what our constituents want to know. What are we doing to strengthen our borders? What are we doing to exchange intelligence information across Europe? What are we doing to strengthen our intelligence and policing agencies, which the Chancellor spoke about so much last week? We should see all of this through the prism of national security. That is our first duty. When our allies are asking us to act, the intelligence is there and we have the knowledge that we can make a difference, I believe that we should act.
Let me take an intervention from the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
The Prime Minister rightly says how important it is that we not only stand with our allies and friends in Europe, but are seen to stand with them. However, he has not so far stood with those European allies on the matter of taking our fair share of refugees from this crisis and other crises. Will he look again at the request from Save the Children that this country take 3,000 orphaned child refugees who are currently in Europe?
We have played a huge part in Europe as the biggest bilateral donor. No other European country has given as much as Britain. We are also going to take 20,000 refugees, with 1,000 arriving by Christmas. However, I am happy to look once again at the issue of orphans. I think that it is better to take orphans from the region, rather than those who come over, sometimes with their extended family. I am very happy to look at that issue again, both in Europe and out of Europe, to see whether Britain can do more to fulfil our moral responsibilities.
Let me conclude. This is not 2003. We must not use past mistakes as an excuse for indifference or inaction. Let us be clear: inaction does not amount to a strategy for our security or that of the Syrian people, but inaction is a choice. I believe that it is the wrong choice. We face a clear threat. We have listened to our allies. We have taken legal advice. We have a unanimous United Nations resolution. We have discussed our proposed actions extensively at meetings of the National Security Council and the Cabinet. I have responded personally to the detailed report of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We have a proper motion before the House and we are having a 10-and-a-half-hour debate today.
In that spirit, I look forward to the rest of the debate and to listening to the contributions of Members from all parts of the House. I hope that at the end of it all, the House will come together in large numbers to vote for Britain to play its part in defeating these evil extremists and taking the action that is needed now to keep our country safe. In doing so, I pay tribute to the extraordinary bravery and service of our inspirational armed forces, who will once again put themselves in harm’s way to protect our values and our way of life. I commend this motion to the House.
The whole House recognises that decisions to send British forces to war are the most serious, solemn and morally challenging of any that we have to take as Members of Parliament. The motion brought before the House by the Government, authorising military action in Syria against ISIL, faces us with exactly that decision. It is a decision with potentially far-reaching consequences for us all here in Britain, as well as for the people of Syria and the wider middle east.
For all Members, taking a decision that will put British servicemen and women in harm’s way, and almost inevitably lead to the deaths of innocents, is a heavy responsibility. It must be treated with the utmost seriousness, with respect given to those who make a different judgment about the right course of action to take. That is why the Prime Minister’s attempt to brand those who plan to vote against the Government as “terrorist sympathisers”, both demeans the office of the Prime Minister and, I believe, undermines the seriousness of the deliberations we are having today. If he now wants to apologise for those remarks, I would be happy to give way to him.
Since the Prime Minister is unmoved, we will have to move on with the debate. I hope that he will be stronger later and recognise that, yes, he made an unfortunate remark last night, and that apologising for it would be very helpful and improve the atmosphere of this debate.
My right hon. Friend is appropriately pointing out that by not withdrawing his slur on me and others, the Prime Minister is not showing leadership. Does he also agree that there is no place whatsoever in the Labour party for anybody who has been abusing those Labour Members who choose to vote with the Government on this resolution?
As he often does on these occasions, the Prime Minister appears to be taking advice from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this matter. If he wants to apologise now that is fine. If he does not, well, the whole world can note that he is not apologising.
Since the Prime Minister first made his case for extending British bombing to Syria in the House last week, the doubts and unanswered questions expressed on both sides of the House have only grown and multiplied. That is why it is a matter of such concern that the Government have decided to push this vote through Parliament today. It would have been far better to allow a full two-day debate that would have given all Members the chance to make a proper contribution—you informed us, Mr Speaker, that 157 Members have applied to speak in this debate.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on the Kurdish issue, and he knows how tough the Kurds are finding it fighting ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. The shadow Foreign Secretary believes that the four conditions debated at the Labour party conference for taking action in Syria have been met. Why does the Leader of the Opposition disagree with him?
The hon. Gentleman may have to wait a few moments to hear the answer to that, but I promise that it will be in my speech. I am pleased that he made that intervention about the Kurdish people, because at some point over the whole middle east and the whole of this settlement, there must be a recognition of the rights of Kurdish people, whichever country they live in. The hon. Gentleman and I have shared that view for more than 30 years, and my view on that has not changed.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend has mentioned the Kurds. Could he be clear at the Dispatch Box that neither he, nor anyone on these Benches, will in any way want to remove the air protection that was voted on with an overwhelming majority in the House 14 months ago?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is not part of the motion today, so we move on with this debate.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister understands that public opinion is moving increasingly against what I believe to be an ill-thought-out rush to war. He wants to hold this vote before opinion against it grows even further. Whether it is a lack of strategy worth the name, the absence of credible ground troops, the missing diplomatic plan for a Syrian settlement, the failure to address the impact of the terrorist threat or the refugee crisis and civilian casualties, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Prime Minister’s proposals for military action simply do not stack up.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the case has not been made. Under the circumstances and the slur on Opposition Members, will he reconsider the importance of the Labour party, in its entirety, joining those on the Scottish National party Benches in opposing the Government, and whip the Labour MPs to make sure the Government are defeated on the motion?
Every MP has to make a decision today, every MP has a vote today, every MP has a constituency, and every MP should be aware of what constituents’ and public opinion is. They will make up their own mind. Obviously, I am proposing that we do not support the Government’s motion tonight and I encourage all colleagues on all sides to join me in the Lobby tonight to oppose the Government’s proposals.
Last week, the Prime Minister focused his case for bombing in Syria on the critical test set by the very respected cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee. Given the holes in the Government’s case, it is scarcely surprising that last night the Committee reported that the Prime Minister had not “adequately addressed concerns”. In other words, the Committee judged that the Prime Minister’s case for bombing has failed its tests.
The Committee resolved four to three that the Prime Minister
“has not adequately addressed concerns”
contained in the Committee’s second report. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who would have resisted, were absent. It is on a narrow point where, logically, it is almost impossible for the Prime Minister to adequately meet those concerns, given the fact he is not in a position to produce sufficient detail to satisfy some of my colleagues. It is a very weak point for the Leader of the Opposition to rely on. He needs to go to the substance.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I have often had very amicable discussions on many of these issues and I am sure we will again. The fact is, however, that at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee the verdict was that the Prime Minister had not adequately addressed concerns. Obviously, I understand there are differences of opinion. Goodness, there are plenty of differences of opinion all around this House, on both the Government and Opposition Benches. I therefore ask the Chair of the Select Committee to recognise that a decision has been made by his Committee.
After the despicable and horrific attacks in Paris last month, the question of whether the Government’s proposals for military action in Syria strengthen or undermine our own national security must be at the centre of our deliberations.
I have given way quite a lot of times already. There are 157 Members who wish to take part in the debate. I should try to move on and speed it up slightly, something which appears to meet with your approval, Mr Speaker.
There is no doubt that the so-call Islamic State has imposed a reign of sectarian and inhuman terror in Iraq, Syria and Libya. There is no question but that it also poses a threat to our own people. The issue now is whether extending British bombing from Iraq to Syria is likely to reduce or increase that threat to Britain, and whether it will counter or spread the terror campaign ISIL is waging across the middle east. The answers do not make the case for the Government motion. On the contrary, they are a warning to step back and vote against yet another ill-fated twist in this never-ending war on terror.
Let us start with a military dimension. The Prime Minister has been unable to explain why extending airstrikes to Syria will make a significant military impact on the existing campaign. ISIL is already being bombed in Syria or Iraq by the United States, France, Britain, Russia and other powers. Interestingly, Canada has withdrawn from this campaign and no longer takes part in it. During more than a year of bombing, ISIL has expanded as well as lost territory. ISIL gains included the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. The claim that superior British missiles will make the difference is hard to credit when the US and other states are, as mentioned in an earlier intervention, struggling to find suitable targets. In other words, extending British bombing is unlikely to make a huge difference.
Secondly, the Prime Minister has failed to convince almost anyone that, even if British participation in the air campaign were to tip the balance, there are credible ground forces able to take back territory now held by ISIL. In fact, it is quite clear that there are no such forces.
Last week, the Prime Minister suggested that a combination of Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army would be able to fill the gap. He even claimed that a 70,000-strong force of moderate FSA fighters was ready to co-ordinate action against ISIL with the western air campaign. That claim has not remotely stood up to scrutiny. Kurdish forces are a distance away, so will be of little assistance in the Sunni Arab areas that ISIL controls. Neither will the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country. The only ground forces able to take advantage of a successful anti-ISIL air campaign are stronger jihadist and Salafist groups close to the ISIL-controlled areas. I think that these are serious issues that need to be thought through very carefully, as I believe the Prime Minister’s bombing campaign could well lead to that.
I will give way again later in my contribution, but I should be allowed to make what I think is an important contribution to the debate.
That is why the logic of an extended air campaign is, in fact, towards mission creep and western boots on the ground. Whatever the Prime Minister may say now about keeping British combat troops out of the way, that is a real possibility.
Thirdly, the military aim of attacking ISIL targets in Syria is not really part of a coherent diplomatic strategy. UN Security Council resolution 2249, passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s Government motion, does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so, it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, to which the Security Council could not agree. The UN resolution is certainly a welcome framework for joint action to cut off funding, oil revenues and arms supplies from ISIL, but I wonder whether there are many signs of that happening.
The right hon. Gentleman and I do not agree on very much, but I very much agree with him on the necessity to cut off oil supplies. I am therefore at a complete loss when it comes to understanding why he would oppose airstrikes, which play such a crucial part in targeting the oil supplies that provide funding for ISIL/Daesh.
The problem is that the oil supplies sold by ISIL go into Turkey and other countries, and I think we need to know exactly who is buying that oil, who is funding it, what banks are involved in the financial transactions that ultimately benefit ISIL, and which other countries in the region either are or are not involved. That is despite the clear risk of potentially disastrous incidents. The shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish forces is a sign of the danger of a serious escalation of this whole issue.
The number of ground troops is, as my right hon. Friend says, unknown, and their composition is also unknown, but what we do know is that they are, by definition, opposition fighters: they are anti-Assad. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister still has a question to answer about how we can work with them to retake ground from Daesh without becoming drawn into a wider conflict with Russia, given that they are on the other side?
That is an important point. The hon. Lady has been very active in trying to promote peace and humanitarian resolutions to the many conflicts that exist around the world.
Fourthly, the Prime Minister has avoided spelling out to the British people the warnings that he has surely been given about the likely impact of UK air strikes in Syria on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK. That is something that everyone who backs the Government’s motion should weigh and think about very carefully before we vote on whether or not to send RAF pilots into action over Syria.
It is critically important that we, as a House, are honest with the British people about the potential consequences of the action that the Prime Minister is proposing today. I am aware that there are those with military experience—Conservative as well as Labour Members—who have argued that extending UK bombing will
“increase the short-term risks of terrorist attacks in Britain.”
We should also remember the impact on communities here in Britain. Sadly, since the Paris attacks there has been a sharp increase in Islamophobic incidents and physical attacks. I have discussed them with people in my local mosque, in my constituency, and they are horrific. Surely this message must go out from all of us in the House today: none of us—we can say this together—will tolerate any form of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism in any form in this country.
In my view, the Prime Minister has offered no serious assessment of the impact of an intensified air campaign on civilian casualties in ISIL-held Syrian territory, or on the wider Syrian refugee crisis. At least 250,000 have already been killed in Syria’s terrible civil war, 11 million have been made homeless, and 4 million have been forced to leave the country. Many more have been killed by the Assad regime than by ISIL itself. Yet more bombing in Syria will kill innocent civilians—there is no doubt about that—and will turn many more Syrians into refugees.
I will give way in a moment.
Yesterday I was sent this message from a constituent of mine who comes from Syria. (Laughter.) I am sorry, but it is not funny. This is about a family who are suffering.
My constituent’s name is Abdulaziz Almashi.
“I’m a Syrian from Manbij city, which is now controlled by ISIL”,
“Members of my family still live there and Isil didn’t kill them. My question to David Cameron is: ‘Can you guarantee the safety of my family when your air forces bomb my city?’”
[Interruption.] It is a fair question, from a family who are very concerned.
I speak as someone who was a member of the military but has left. It seems to us that the Leader of the Opposition is making a fundamental point, namely that this is about national security. It is extremely difficult to deal with all the conflicting arguments and complex situations, but this comes down to national security, and the need to inhibit what these people are trying to do on the streets of this country.
Yes, of course security on the streets of this country, in all our communities, is very important. That is why we have supported the Government’s action in no longer pursuing the strategy of cutting the police, and also increasing security in this country. Clearly, none of us wants an atrocity on the streets of this country. My borough was deeply affected by 7/7 in 2005—
I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for giving way. Does he accept that the 70,000 moderate Sunnis who the Prime Minister claims are in Syria comprise many different jihadist groups? There is concern across the House that in degrading ISIL/Daesh, which is possible, we might create a vacuum into which other jihadists would come, over time. Surely that would not make the streets of Britain safer.
The right hon. Gentleman has maintained a consistent position in this House on airstrikes. On 26 September 2014, when he voted against airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, he said:
“I do not believe that further air strikes and the deepening of our involvement will solve the problem.”—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1332.]
Does he maintain his opposition to airstrikes in Iraq, as well as to extending them to Syria?
I thank both Members for their interventions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) makes a serious point. We have to be careful about what will happen in the future. As the Prime Minister and others have said, we must be aware of the danger that some people, mainly young people, will become deeply radicalised and end up doing very dangerous things. Is the radicalisation of a small but significant number of young people across Europe a product of the war or of something else? We need to think very deeply about that, about what has happened in this world since 2001, and about the increasing number of people who are suffering because of that. I rest my case at that point.
There is no EU-wide strategy to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims. Perhaps most importantly of all, is the Prime Minister able to explain how British bombing in Syria will contribute to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian war? Such a settlement is widely accepted to be the only way to ensure the isolation and defeat of ISIL. ISIL grew out of the invasion of Iraq, and it has flourished in Syria in the chaos and horror of a multi-fronted civil war.
The Prime Minister spoke often of the choice between action and inaction, but those of us who will be voting against the airstrikes also want to see action. The Prime Minister said almost nothing about cutting off the financial supplies to Daesh that buy the bombs and help to radicalise recruits. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need action on that matter?
We absolutely need action to ensure that there is a diplomatic and political solution to the crisis. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about speeding up the process in Vienna, but surely the message ought to be, “Let’s speed that up,” rather than sending the bombers in now, if we are to bring about a political settlement.
We need the involvement of all the main regional and international powers. I know that that has been attempted. I know that there have been discussions in Vienna, and we welcome that, but it is regrettable that Geneva II—
Mr Speaker, I will try to make some progress with my speech, if I may. Over 150 Members wish to speak, and long speeches from the Front Benches will take time away from the Back-Benchers’ speeches. The aim must be to establish a broad-based Government in Syria who have the support of the majority of their people, difficult as that is to envisage at the present time. Such a settlement—
Order. It is a long-established convention of this House that the Member who has the Floor gives way, or not, as he or she chooses. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that, for now, he is not giving way. The appropriate response is not, then, for a Member to jump and shout, “Give way!” That is just not terribly sensible.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Though it is indeed customary that he who holds the Floor decides whether to give way, is it not also customary to answer questions when they are put in interventions? We are waiting for the right hon. Gentleman’s answer on Iraq.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government’s—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] Mr Speaker, if I could move on with my speech, I would be most grateful. The Government’s proposal for military action in Syria is not backed by clear and unambiguous authorisation by the United Nations. It does not meet the seven tests set down by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it does not fulfil three of the four conditions laid down in my own party conference resolution of a couple of months ago.
In the past week, voice has been given to the growing opposition to the Government’s bombing plans—across the country, in Parliament, outside in the media, and indeed in my own party. I believe that this is in consideration of all the wars that we have been involved in over the last 14 years. These matters were debated a great deal during my campaign to be elected leader of the Labour party, and many people think very deeply about these matters. In the light of that record of western military interventions, these matters have to be analysed. British bombing in Syria risks yet more of what President Obama, in a very thoughtful moment, called the “unintended consequences” of the war in Iraq, which he himself opposed at the time. The spectre of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya looms over this debate.
No, I will not give way; I will carry on with my speech. To oppose another war and intervention is not pacifism; it is hard-headed common sense. That is what we should be thinking about today in the House. To resist ISIL’s determination to draw the western powers back into the heart of the middle east is not to turn our backs on allies; it is to refuse to play into the hands of ISIL as I suspect some of its members want us to. Is it wrong for us here in Westminster to see a problem, pass a motion, and drop bombs, pretending we are doing something to solve it? That is what we did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Has terrorism increased or decreased as a result of all that? The Prime Minister said he was looking to build a consensus around the military action he wants to take. I do not believe he has achieved anything of the kind. He has failed, in my view, to make the case for another bombing campaign.
All of our efforts should instead go into bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya: I ask Members to think very carefully about the previous decisions we have made. [Interruption.] What we are proposing to do today is send British bombers—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a number of occasions complaints have been received from the public, particularly about Prime Minister’s questions. What do you think the public make of it when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is shouted down constantly by those on the Government Benches?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sometimes in this House we get carried away with the theatricals of the place, and forget there are millions of people who have sent us to this House to represent them. We should be able to conduct our debates in a decent, respectful and civilised manner. Short as this debate is, given the number of Members who want to speak, I hope all those Members who have applied to speak get called.
I conclude with this point: in my view, only a negotiated political and diplomatic endeavour to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria will bring some hope to the millions who have lost their homes, who are refugees, and who are camped out in various points all across Europe, dreaming of a day when they can go home. I think our overriding goal should be to end that civil war in Syria, and obviously also to protect the people of this country. I do not believe that the motion put forward by the Prime Minister achieves that, because it seems to put the emphasis on bombing now, whereas I think it should be not on bombing now, but on bringing all our endeavours, all our intelligence and all our efforts—[Interruption.] It is very strange that Members do not seem to understand that there are millions who watch these debates who want to hear what is being said, and do not want to hear people shouting at each other.
For those reasons, I urge Members on all sides of the House to think very carefully about the responsibility that lies with them today. Do we send in bombers, not totally aware of what all the consequences will be, or do we pause, not send them in, and instead put all our efforts into bringing about a peaceful humanitarian and just political settlement to the terrible situation faced by the people in Syria?
As all of us are trying to show responsibility and duty, I do not think there is anybody on either side of the House who in any way relishes the decision we are being asked to take today. It is not straightforward, like the response to the invasions of Kuwait and the Falklands. It is a very difficult decision we are being asked to take, and in taking it we must have two issues at the forefront of our thinking: first, the security of our own country and, secondly, the desperate need to restore stability in the middle east.
But rather than rehearse all the arguments, I would just like to emphasise a few points which I would ask the House solemnly to consider. The question of whether to commit our armed forces has over the last few years become seriously muddied both by the painful experience of past decisions and by the complexity of the unfolding disorder across the Arab world. The experience of Afghanistan in part—to which the Leader of the Opposition referred—and of Iraq more significantly, has led to growing reticence, and indeed distrust, in this House and outside it about any proposal for military action. So the first point I would like to emphasise is that we must take the decision today based on the merits of today; we must base it on today’s facts and not on yesterday’s mistakes and regrets.
I absolutely agree that what we need are facts and greater clarity about our capability to take on the task that is ahead of us. Yesterday we were told there were between 20,000 and 30,000 Daesh across Syria and Iraq, but I could not be given a number as to how many Taliban we were fighting in Afghanistan, to get a comparator, when we had 10,000 of our troops and 30,000 Americans fighting them. I could not get that, and I could not get an answer as to how often we had used our Brimstone missiles and how many more planes we would be flying. Don’t we need those questions answered?
May I implore the hon. Lady to appreciate that the search for certainty in the middle east is a vain hope? The watchword I learned 30 years ago when I first went there was, “If you’re not confused, you don’t understand.” It is a very complex world in which we are deciding to act.
Let me move on to my second point. Again, I address this to the Leader of the Opposition: we must not underestimate the extent and nature of the danger we face, and say that because it is all over there, it is not over here. The phenomenon of ISIS/Daesh is not only a vicious force running rampant through that miserable space between Iraq and Syria; it is also fuelling those who would readily walk up the main street of a major city with a suicide bomb or carrying a Kalashnikov. So I urge those who say that air strikes would increase that danger not to give into that narrative: these people are already targeting us now.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Thirdly, we have to see this threat in the context of even greater regional dangers. We are witnessing the collapse of nation states across potentially the whole of Arabia, along with the violent release of centuries of sectarian hatred. A crucial element of our policy should be to try to stop this spreading. That means that we must support stable rule within the six countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Those who just attack the conduct of our Gulf allies simply do not understand the horror that would be unleashed by further instability in the region. Even now, we face the real prospect of an arc of brutality and terrorism stretching from Syria, through Iraq to Yemen, and right across in a terrifying link with the horn of Africa.
Fourthly, we cannot turn away from this threat and subcontract our obligations. If we are to pursue the destruction of ISIS/Daesh, rebuild stable government, underpin wider stability and make all of that—
No. And make all of that a serious and convincing objective of our foreign policy, we must be part of the convoy that is trying to do it. We cannot negligently—as I would see it—watch it roll by while not playing our part. Put frankly, our international reputation has suffered from the parliamentary vote in August 2013. Our allies now question—
No. Our allies now question whether we can be relied upon when they call for joint assistance. If we choose today to remain on the sidelines, especially when a new and unequivocal UN resolution is in place, it will signal to the world that the UK has, indeed, chosen to withdraw. We should not be in the business of national resignation from the world stage. Perhaps the paradox of our position today is not that we are doing too much, but that we are doing too little.
If I do have a concern—again, I look directly at the Leader of the Opposition—it is that the action I hope we will vote for tonight is not the whole answer, and the Prime Minister is not pretending that it is. The hope that local, so-called moderate forces can do the job on the ground and somehow put Humpty Dumpty together again is, of course, more of an act of faith than a certain plan, but it is wrong for the Leader of the Opposition to dismiss their significance and conclude that their composition is sufficient reason to do nothing.
I think we should carry this motion tonight. We have to carry it with our eyes open, knowing that we are flying into a mess that shows no easy prospect of being quickly resolved, but we cannot leave a vile force unchallenged. These air strikes do matter. I believe they are justified, but I also think that the future judgment of the Prime Minister about what then follows will eventually become more important than the decision we will take tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), a fellow member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, although I fear that we will be in different Lobbies later this evening.
May I begin by intimating support for amendment (b), which appears in my name and those of other right hon. and hon. Members? It is signed by more than 100 Members from six different political parties from right across the House and proposes that the House
“while welcoming the renewed impetus towards peace and reconstruction in Syria, and the Government’s recognition that a comprehensive strategy against Daesh is required, does not believe that the case for the UK’s participation in the ongoing air campaign in Syria by 10 countries has been made under current circumstances, and consequently declines to authorise military action in Syria.”
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement and for the briefings by his national security adviser, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, and colleagues from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and other agencies. I again put on the record our appreciation to all of those who are charged with keeping us safe at home and abroad. Notwithstanding the profound differences I have with the Prime Minister on the issue, I commend him for briefing parties and parliamentarians in recent weeks, and for the tone he adopted in last week’s statement.
It is disappointing, to say the least, that the Prime Minister chose to describe parliamentary opponents of his bombing plans as “terrorist sympathisers”. The amendment against bombing is signed by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who served with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Northern Ireland. It is also signed by the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) of the Labour party, who served in the Territorial Army in Afghanistan, and by my hon. Friends the Members for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), both of whose husbands served with distinction in the armed forces. It has also been signed by Members from Northern Ireland, who have had to experience terrorism at first hand. It is totally wrong to impugn Members of this House who differ with the Government on bombing Syria as “terrorist sympathisers”.
The Prime Minister has had numerous occasions to apologise, but I fear he is not going to do so. [Interruption.] I would be prepared to give way to the Prime Minister if he wishes to apologise, but he does not and I will not give way to other hon. Members. I hope that the Prime Minister regrets what he said.
We in the Scottish National party share the concerns of everybody else in this House and the country about the terrorist threat from Daesh. We deplore the Assad regime and have regularly raised the issue of refugees in the region and in Europe. There is agreement across this House that the threat from Daesh is real and that doing nothing is not an option. However, we recall that only two years ago, this Prime Minister and this Government wanted us to bomb the opponents of Daesh, which would no doubt have strengthened it.
We have not heard this yet, but there is no shortage of countries currently bombing in Syria. Most recently, the Russians have been attacking Daesh—and, too often, the moderate opposition to Assad as well. Coalition nations that have conducted strikes in Syria include—it is a long list—Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, which, incidentally, also uses the Brimstone weapon system, the Republic of Turkey, which, interestingly, is also bombing our allies in Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. Open sources confirm that since September 2014, those air strikes have involved F-16 Falcons, F-22s, F/A-18 Super Hornets, sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and weapons from drones launched from above Syria. The United States central command, Centcom, confirms that the United States has conducted more than 2,700 air strikes in Syria.
Daily strike updates from the Combined Joint Task Force coalition show that military forces have continued to attack Daesh terrorists in Syria, using bombers and remotely piloted aircraft. Reports from the United States military show that, in recent days, near Ayn Issa, three strikes struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL tactical vehicle; near Raqqa, two strikes struck two separate ISIL tactical units and destroyed ISIL vehicles; near Deir ez-Zor, one strike destroyed an ISIL vehicle; and, near al-Hawl, two strikes struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL checkpoint. The point is that bombing is currently under way in Syria and to pretend that it is not already taking place is highly misleading.
I am hugely supportive of efforts that can lead to stabilisation in Iraq. That is very important, but I want to stress one thing in particular: we have a particular responsibility towards the Kurds, both in Iraq and in Syria. I wish that the Prime Minister, when dealing with NATO allies, would use his good offices to say that we should not undermine their efforts in Iraq and in Syria.
I have already given way and I want to make some progress.
The Prime Minister has asked us to listen to his case for bombing in Syria, and we have done so. I have repeatedly asked two very specific questions, as have other Members on both sides of the House. How will the UK plan secure peace on the ground in Syria? As the Foreign Affairs Committee has asked,
“which ground forces will take, hold, and administer territories captured from Daesh in Syria?”
My second question is: how will the UK plan secure long-term stability and reconstruction in Syria, given that the UK spent 13 times more on bombing Libya than on its post-conflict stability and reconstruction? How much does the Prime Minister estimate that will cost, and how much has he allocated from the United Kingdom?
I want to address those two questions. On the issue of ground forces, we have been told that there are 70,000 troops who are opposed to Assad and to Daesh and who could take the territory that Daesh currently holds. The problem is that only a part of those forces is moderate and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that they would definitely deploy from other parts of the country to counter Daesh. Members will have heard me ask the Prime Minister in an intervention how many of those 70,000 are moderate and how many are fundamentalists. I have not had an answer to that question, and I would invite any Government Member to tell the rest of the House what it is—[Hon. Members: “Silence.”] Silence, on a critical issue—
I will give way in a moment to the esteemed Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, of course.
This is a vital point, which was raised by the Foreign Affairs Committee: a key part to any credibility for the argument that a bombing strategy will lead to medium and long-term peace in Syria and deal with Daesh is that there are ground forces capable of taking the ground when they manage to displace and degrade Daesh forces. We have asked repeatedly, and I will ask again. I will give way if any Member from the Government side wants to elucidate and explain to the House what the Prime Minister would not—[Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary is chuntering, and I would be happy to give way to him if he will confirm from the Dispatch Box the make-up of the 70,000 forces. [Hon. Members: “Go on.”] I have now asked a question directly to the Prime Minister that he did not answer and I have challenged the Foreign Secretary to answer the question. Is there anybody from the Government side who will answer the question?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. We asked about a similar point in the Defence Committee yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman is making a nit-picking, quibbling point—[Hon. Members: “Oh!] Will Members hear me out? The right hon. Gentleman is dancing on the head of a pin to try to achieve the result he started with. There are these people, we have to trust them, they are not on Assad’s side and they are not on ISIL’s side. We need to work with them.
The right hon. Gentleman is a clever man and rarely asks a question to which he does not know the answer. I put the question back to him: how many moderates does he think there are? He also seems to be tied up on the 70,000 and seems to have forgotten the Kurds in Syria, the several battalions of Syriac Christians and the Arabs in north and north-east Syria who will work with the Free Syrian Army to take on Daesh.
I will not, as I have now given way a significant number of times and nobody has answered the question—[Interruption.] I am sorry. If my esteemed colleague the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee can answer the question, I would be delighted to give way.
What interests me about the right hon. Gentleman’s argument is that he raises perfectly legitimate questions which should, I hope, be answered in the course of the debate. However, he glosses over his and his party’s position on the current operations which, I think he would agree, are controlling Daesh’s ability to perpetrate violence and cruelty in the area and terrorism in Europe. If those actions involving our allies in Syria and Iraq are achieving that goal, I find it difficult to understand how he can argue that we ourselves should not co-operate in northern Syria.
I have the greatest of respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and he makes good points. Later in my comments I will come on to some of the questions he raises. I note respectfully, again, that we have not heard an answer to the question that I have posed. Those on the Government Front Bench have the opportunity, again, if they wish, to tell the House—I note that they do not.
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I was in the middle east last week. We went to Cairo, Amman and Beirut—cities that have also suffered destruction. We spoke to military people, counter-terrorism people and politicians, and I can give the right hon. Gentleman the answer that he seeks. There are about 10,000 to 15,000, and that was the answer given by everyone there.
My goodness, Mr Speaker. That is a very important intervention from the hon. Lady. From her experience, having travelled to the region, she is suggesting that the Government’s figures, with which we have been provided, are massively wrong. This is a very important point. We are now hearing, on a crucial issue raised by the Foreign Affairs Committee, that far from the 70,000 we have heard about repeatedly, the number is significantly less. That should worry us all.
I will make some progress.
The problem with this critical issue is that only part of the forces that the Prime Minister and his colleagues have spoken about are moderate and there is no evidence whatsoever that they would definitely deploy from other parts of the country to counter Daesh. It appears to be totally wishful thinking that without a comprehensive ceasefire first in Syria we can expect any redirection of any forces from other fronts in Syria.
On stabilising and rebuilding Syria, the second question I posed to the Prime Minister, we are advised by the World Bank that that will cost $170 billion. The Prime Minister has made a commitment to contribute £1 billion towards that mammoth task, which is welcome new money to deal with the rebuilding after the stabilisation of Syria, which we welcome. We are entitled to ask, however, whether a contribution of less than 1% of what is required will realistically be enough.
Yesterday, like some other Members of the House, I took the time to meet Syrian exiles to discuss their experiences and to hear their views. It was heart-breaking to hear about people who are literally surviving just on hope; of 16-year-olds who wish only to attend their makeshift schools in the basement while enduring barrel bombing from the Assad regime from above. They asked whether we are seriously asking people to stop fighting Assad and to move to another part of the country to fight Daesh. They asked how we expect people to fight Daesh if they have no feeling of any support.
Yesterday, we were written to as parliamentarians by Syrians in the UK from many different organisations: from Syria Solidarity UK, the British Syrian Community of Manchester, Kurds House, Syrian Community South West, Peace and Justice for Syria, Scotland for Syria, the Syrian Welsh Society, the Syrian Platform for Peace and the Syrian Association of Yorkshire. In their letter, they said that MPs are being asked the wrong question in Syria: whether or not to bomb Daesh. They said—
If I can just make this point, I will give way to the hon. Gentlemen.
These many organisations from across the United Kingdom said that Daesh must be defeated for the sake of people in Syria as well as for the safety of people in Europe and of people in Britain, but they stressed that the greatest threat to Syrians comes from Assad, rather than Daesh; the number of civilians killed by Assad’s forces is more than two and a half times the number of UK civilians killed in the second world war.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Irrespective of how the House of Commons votes tonight, is it not important that we see a successful political resolution to the difficulties in Syria? The Prime Minister has set out timescales for when he expects there to be a transitional Government. Was the right hon. Gentleman as surprised as I was by those timescales given the impasse between the likes of Russia and Iran on the one hand and the USA, France and others on the other about the future of Assad?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I am about to come to the political process in a second, but first I would like to give way to the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), whom I commend on behalf of everyone in the House who has supported the campaign to call Daesh by its real name and nothing else.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his entire party for being among the first to support the campaign to change the terminology as part of our efforts to defeat this evil organisation. Will he join me in urging the Leader of the Opposition to join his shadow Foreign Secretary, the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, his shadow equalities Minister and his shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury in using the right terminology as part of our effort to defeat this terrorist organisation, especially now that the Government have agreed to use it?
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. As somebody who is incredibly proud to have reported for the BBC World Service for nearly a decade, it is beyond me why my former employers cannot find it in themselves to use the appropriate terminology. I call on them to do so from today onwards.
The Syrians I met made an appeal that civilian protection should be a primary concern in any military action by the UK, and to protect civilians, MPs need explicitly to back concrete action to end Assad’s air attacks on civilians. This was the point raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Like all parties and Members, the SNP supports the international initiative on Syria agreed in Vienna to secure a ceasefire in Syria, to transition to stable representative government and to counter terrorist groups, including Daesh. We believe that these aims will be secured only through agreement and a serious long-term commitment to Syria. The key diplomatic priority for the Government must surely be to make sure that the timescale is as quick as can be delivered. The UK must step up its support for the international Syria support initiative and other diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire in Syria, to ensure a political transition, to combat terrorists such as Daesh and to plan for long-term reconstruction and stability support.
The Government have not answered the questions posed by the FAC. In fact, neither did a majority of those who voted on the issue in the FAC. In these circumstances, we cannot support the Government. It is important, however, that a message goes out to our armed forces that, regardless of the differences in this place, we wish for their safety and we appreciate their professionalism. This is particularly relevant for me, as it would appear that most aircraft deployed to the region will be from RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency.
The UK Government will have a huge problem with legitimacy and a mandate for the operation in Scotland. They might well win the vote tonight, but they will do so with the support of only two out of 59 Scotland MPs. An opinion poll today shows that 72% of Scots are opposed to the Government’s bombing plans, and in normal circumstances, in a normal country, the armed forces would not be deployed. I was a co-sponsor of the 2003 amendment to oppose invading Iraq, and I am proud to co-sponsor today’s amendment opposing bombing in Syria. I appeal to colleagues on all sides to make sure we do not ignore the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Let us not repeat past mistakes. Let us not give the green light to military action, without a comprehensive and credible plan to win the peace.
It is very important that the whole House is clear about what this debate is not about. It is not about provoking a new confrontation with Daesh, given that it has already confronted peace, decency and humanity. We have seen what it is capable of—beheadings, crucifixions, mass rape; we have seen the refugee crisis it has provoked in the middle east, with its terrible human cost; and we have seen its willingness to export jihad whenever it can. It is also not about bombing Syria per se, as is being portrayed outside; it is the extension of a military campaign we are already pursuing in Iraq, across what is, in effect, a non-existent border in the sand. I am afraid that the Leader of the Opposition’s unwillingness to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) will give the clear impression that he is not just against the extension of the bombing campaign into Syrian territory, but against bombing Daesh at all, which is a very serious position to hold.
To understand the nature of the threat we face and why it requires a military response, we need to understand the mindset of the jihadists themselves. First, they take an extreme and distorted religious position; then they dehumanise their opponents by calling them infidels, heretics and apostates—let us remember that the majority of those they have killed were Muslims, not those of other religions; then they tell themselves it is God’s work and therefore they accept no man-made restraint—no laws, no borders; and then they deploy extreme violence in the prosecution of their self-appointed mission. We have seen that violence on the sands of Tunisia, and we heard it in the screams of the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive in a cage.
We must be under no illusions about the nature of the threat we face. Daesh is not like the armed political terrorists we have seen in the past; it poses a fundamentally different threat. It is a group that seeks not accommodation but domination. We need to understand that before determining our response.