We are all horrified by the loss of over 200,000 lives in the Syrian civil war which has resulted in the greatest humanitarian crisis of our age.

Today nearly half the Syrian population no longer live where they were when the civil war broke out. Seven and a half million people are internally displaced and four million have fled the country.  Families have been forced out of their homes because of the barrel bombs and bloody terror inflicted upon them by President Assad and because of ISIL/Daesh’s mind-numbing brutality. In Syria and Iraq they have killed Muslims and Christians alike, stoned people to death, thrown gay men off buildings, raped girls and women and sold them in markets, cut the heads off brave humanitarians who only came to help and murdered British holidaymakers.

As the Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said in the House of Commons on 19th October:

The humanitarian crisis has seen half the population of Syria flee their homes—including, let us not forget, millions to neighbouring countries, which have borne the greatest burden—as well as hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians killed, the vast majority of them at the hands of Assad’s forces. The people of Syria need a political solution, and the world needs an answer to ISIL’s abhorrent brutality, which indeed threatens us here too.”

In these circumstances, the world has a responsibility to try to protect people, but in Syria no-one has taken responsibility and no-one has been protected. In the case of ISIL/Daesh it cannot be right to leave them to carry on doing all these things. What about the human rights of those who are suffering at their hands?
I hope you will agree that Britain was right therefore to respond to the request last year from the democratically-elected Government of Iraq for air support to resist ISIL/Daesh’s invasion; the UK is part of a large international coalition that is opposing them. But to help bring peace, stability and security to that country we need a much broader, more comprehensive plan. This will require political, diplomatic and humanitarian will too.

At the Labour Party Conference Jeremy Corbyn and I called on the Prime Minister to strain every sinew to secure a comprehensive United Nations Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter covering:

• effective action to end the threat from ISIL/Daesh;
• the creation of safe zones in Syria to shelter those who have had to flee their homes;
• the referral of suspected war crimes to the International Criminal Court;
• increased humanitarian aid to those who have fled to neighbouring states;
• an agreement for countries to welcome their share of Syrian refugees; and
• a major international effort bringing together Russia, Iran, the neighbouring countries, the Gulf states, the United States of America and Europe to agree a post-civil war plan for Syria.

I hope these are objectives that we would all feel able to support. 

Since then Russia has launched military strikes in Syria. There are very serious concerns that these have been targeted at groups opposing Assad, rather than at ISIL/Daesh. This changes the situation on the ground, but it makes the need for action to end the Syrian civil war more pressing, not less. And that will require a political solution. Britain therefore needs to redouble its efforts and use its influence to urge the UN to act on the wider Syrian crisis to protect civilians through safe zones, hold to account those responsible for suspected war crimes, increase humanitarian aid, help refugees and agree a plan to bring the civil war to an end. Of course, we know that any resolution may be vetoed and in those circumstances we would need to look at the position again.

Jeremy Corbyn went on in his statement of 19th October to say:

We need concerted action to cut off the supply of money, arms and fighters to ISIL, and a co-ordinated plan to drive it back from Iraq and Syria. I once again urge the Prime Minister to consider working with our allies to establish safe zones in Syria so that some of the millions of displaced people can return to their homes, humanitarian aid can get in and we can stop the killing. Does he agree we should urgently be seeking a new UN Security Council resolution on a comprehensive approach to the Syrian crisis, including action against ISIL? What action is he taking in that regard?" 

On the question of air strikes against ISIL/Daesh in Syria, it should now be possible to get agreement on a UN Security Council Chapter VII resolution given that four of the five permanent members - the USA, France, Britain and Russia - are already taking military action against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq or Syria or in both countries. The Prime Minister should now be working tirelessly with other countries to try to secure such a resolution.

On the question of any possible decision in the House of Commons about British participation, we would need to know what the aim of British air strikes in Syria would be, their nature and what difference they would make, the legal base and the views of other nations in the region, including Iraq. At present the position is unclear.

I do understand that there are real concerns about the current situation and I share them. The British Government has a responsibility both to help the Syrian people and to protect British citizens. Deciding whether to intervene militarily in another country is one of the most serious decisions Parliament can make, but nobody should be in any doubt that inaction is also a decision that will have consequences in Syria. These are all the considerations that we will need to weigh up, assuming the Government does in fact come forward with a proposal, before Parliament makes a decision.
Hilary Benn

MP for Leeds Central

P.S.  Some letters I have had have raised what happened in Libya in 2011. In fact the civil war there had already started prior to any Western intervention, and it was the UN Security Council which authorised a no-fly zone over Libya and the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. I would also point to the cases of Kosovo and Sierra Leone where intervention did help to protect lives.

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