Many people have written to me about the vote in the House of Commons on 2nd December to extend British airstrikes against ISIL/Daesh to Syria.
As you may appreciate, I have had a lot of emails both against and in favour of this decision, and there were consequences whichever way Parliament voted. As you may know Jeremy Corbyn took the decision to give Labour MPs a free vote and many of my parliamentary colleagues came to a different conclusion to my own. I would add that it was completely unacceptable of the Prime Minister to suggest that those opposed to airstrikes were ‘terrorist sympathisers’. David Cameron should have apologised to Jeremy Corbyn and everyone else he insulted with those remarks and I urged him to do so in the debate in Parliament.
Perhaps I could set out how and why I came to my own decision.
First, we all know that Daesh represent a real threat. They have engaged in beheadings and crucifixions, executed gay men by throwing them off buildings, and sexually enslaved women. After the recent retaking of Sinjar by Kurdish forces, they discovered a mass grave thought to contain the remains of older Yezidi women. We know that they killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut, Ankara and Suruc and, most recently, 130 people in Paris. And they are plotting more attacks on the UK and other countries.
The horrific events in Paris really brought home to me the clear and present danger we all face from Daesh. It could just as easily have been London or Manchester or Glasgow, and I think we have to take all necessary measures to combat this threat.
Secondly, we now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution (2249) passed on 20th November 2015, which very specifically calls on member states:
“to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter…. to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL …. and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”
For me, this resolution was really important in making up my mind. The UK helped to establish the United Nations at the end of the Second World War precisely to deal with threats to international peace and security, and it has now unanimously asked us to act and to do so now. I felt strongly that we should listen to the UN and respond to their call.
In addition, the emergency motion on Syria passed by the Labour Party Conference in September 2015 set out conditions for airstrikes, including the passing of a UN Security Council resolution, which have now all been met.
Thirdly, it is absolutely clear that action is lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – the right of self-defence, both of Britain and of our allies, including France and Iraq which have both officially asked for our help.
Fourthly, the Syrian civil war has claimed over 200,000 lives and seen half the population flee their homes. There is now the outline of a peace plan as a result of the Vienna talks held by the International Syria Support Group. It has brought together a number of countries to do what is needed to bring the Syrian civil war to an end; ie to hold talks and agree a ceasefire which hopefully can lead to a transitional government and elections. Ending the war will help in the defeat of Daesh by ending the chaos, fear and violence in which they thrive, and enable the millions of Syrian refugees to go home.
Finally, there was strong support from within the region, including Iraq, for action against Daesh. We are part of a coalition of over 60 nations and our ally France had asked for our help and solidarity. I think we have an obligation to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with them and others in opposition to Daesh’s ideology and brutality.
I also believe there were really important questions for our national security:
Given that we know what Daesh are doing, could we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our own self defence against those who are planning these attacks?
Could we really pass responsibility for defending our national security to other countries?
If we had not acted, what message would that have sent about our attitude to the UN and about solidarity with all those who have suffered, including Iraq, France and the people living under Daesh’s cruel yoke in Syria?
And as we are already undertaking airstrikes in Iraq – where Daesh’s hold has been reduced – and are already doing everything but engage in airstrikes in Syria (including intelligence, surveillance and refuelling using RAF drones and planes) should we not play our full part?
It has been said by some that airstrikes don’t achieve anything, but this is not so. Airstrikes in Syria have helped the Kurds to resist Daesh’s attempt to take Kobane and in Iraq it helped the Kurds to retake Sinjar. In Iraq, the RAF is already showing how it can effectively carry out targeted airstrikes to undermine Daesh’s military activities using their particular technological capability and skills. This coalition effort is helping to degrade Daesh’s capacity and seeking to prevent them from expanding the territory they control.
It is also argued that because there is a civil war in Syria and there are currently no ground troops in the country to defeat Daesh, therefore we should not act. In fact the opposition forces that currently exist are actually engaged in fighting President Assad and, on occasions, Daesh, but a political settlement and the formation of a new government that represents all the Syrian people will be a significant step forward in ending the threat from Daesh in the longer term. However, to suggest that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war comes to an end is to underestimate the urgency of the terrorist threat Daesh poses to us and others now, and to misunderstand the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes.
I share the deep concern that many of you have expressed about potential civilian casualties and that is why the motion was specifically about targeted airstrikes against Daesh in Syria; the RAF have been undertaking such strikes in Iraq for the past 14 months. Unlike Daesh, none of us act with the intent to harm civilians; rather, we are acting to protect civilians against Daesh which, as we know, targets innocent people.
I agree that we should also be taking action to cut off Daesh’s sources of finance from oil, and as you may have seen the first two British airstrikes in Syria were targeted precisely at oil fields controlled by Daesh. We also need to stop the supply of weapons, give humanitarian aid, offer shelter to more refugees, including in the UK, and commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over. As the Labour opposition, we intend to hold the Government to account on all these things.
I accept that there are legitimate arguments not to take this form of action, but it was clear to me that the threat is now and that there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstance in which to deploy military forces. The first responsibility of government and of the opposition is to defend the national interest and to defend its people. Therefore, on balance, I took the view that the right thing to do was to support the extension of airstrikes against Daesh to Syria.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. I have pasted below a copy of the link to the Hansard record of the debate, which includes the resolution for specific targeted airstrikes against Daesh in Syria agreed by the House of Commons.
Rt Hon Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central and
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Hansard Record of the ‘Isil in Syria’ debate 2 Dec 2015