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My thoughts on government proposals on airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria

This is a very complex and important decision over which I have, and will continue, to give a great deal of consideration while equipping myself with as much information as possible and talking to colleagues, constituents and others.  Authorising military action is the most serious decision an MP can make and it deserves to be treated as such.  It is often easier to simply oppose any proposition being put forward by the government when one is not the party of government.  However, I am strongly of the view that such decisions go way beyond party politics, and indeed, internal party politics.  My first duty as a parliamentarian is to consider such a matter on its merits or not, and to consider the wider security of my constituents, the country and that of our allies.

My starting point for any military action is always one of scepticism and caution. I voted against David Cameron’s proposal to take open-ended military involvement in the Syrian civil war in July 2013. I did not believe that at that time the Government had made the case for action and provided a clear plan to deal with the consequences of any such action. I also believe that the Iraq War was a mistake which has led to many problems since.


However, while it is a position I respect, I am not a pacifist and I do believe there are times when military action is necessary alongside political and humanitarian action to deal with very real threats posed to our own citizens and those of our allies or when we face tyranny and genocide.


Of course, military action, let alone air strikes alone, will not defeat Isis and will absolutely not bring about peace and a lasting settlement in Syria.  The incredibly complex civil war in Syria which has helped to give rise to ISIL requires a political process which is now, at long last, albeit nascent, beginning to happen through the Vienna Process.  That’s how ultimately this situation will be resolved, through tough, careful, broad international consensus about the way forward.


However, I believe the threat that ISIS poses to those it despises both in Iraq, Syria, the Middle East and Western societies is enormous and cannot be ignored.


We have all been shocked to see the barbarous and horrifying acts which ISIS have committed – beheadings, mass executions, raping and burning women, throwing gay men from the top of buildings and systematic persecution of those with different beliefs. Our police and security services have prevented at least seven different attacks from taking place here in Britain so far this year, and there have been over 150 ISIL-related attacks around the world in 2015 – including in Tunisia where 50 British citizens were killed and of course the recent attack on Paris where 150 people died, and the killing Russian civilians returning from their holiday.  Not to mention terror attacks in Lebanon, Turkey and the Middle East. It is therefore in our clear national and security interests to defeat ISIS.


That is why I supported air strikes against ISIS in Iraq a year or so ago. The RAF have now conducted over 1,300 sorties to date in Iraq, including 300 strikes against ISIL targets with no civilian casualties. I believe there is clear evidence that this action is working, degrading ISIS’ capabilities and helping ISIS territory to be recaptured by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces.  Fourteen months ago ISIL was on the verge of capturing Baghdad, today its base in Iraq has been considerably reduced.


The action to tackle ISIS in Iraq had a clear legal basis and very wide support in Parliament. I also believe there was a just cause for action - both on humanitarian grounds and in terms of our own national interest - and there is broad international support, with more than 60 states supporting action against ISIL, including all 28 EU Member States, the Arab League and a regional coalition that includes Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.


So we are already engaged militarily, or if you like, at war, against ISIL in Iraq.


Now turning to the question of air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria being proposed.


The first thing to say is that a month ago I would have had little doubt but to vote against any extension of air strikes.


What has led me to now give further consideration to this issue is the unprecedented UN Security Council resolution 2249 which was passed unanimously. This resolution calls of member states – of which we are a leading member – to “take all necessary measures … on the territory under the control of ISIL … and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”.  Not only is it unprecedented in recent times for there to be a clear and specific UN Resolution calling for such action, but this, along with other aspects of the UN Charter, provides a very clear legal basis for any such military action.


I would not even consider supporting such action without this UN mandate.


The other context which has changed in recent weeks is that we have been asked by our closest allies to support them in the fight against ISIS, particularly by the French socialist President, Francois Hollande.  That is not something I take lightly.


One of the reasons our allies are asking for British help is that the capability of the RAF is – both in high precision missile technology and in intelligence gathering –  superior to those of our allies and would significantly help the current action being taken by our allies in Syria. This is important because any action that the UK takes must be based on the understanding that our action would make a substantive, additional contribution to the degrading of ISIS.


Having said all this, I do however, have concerns with the government’s proposals which are currently, but not exclusively, the following.


It is essential that the British government and our allies redoubles its efforts to secure an international agreement on a peace plan to end the civil war in Syria that is providing the vacuum of governance in which ISIL thrives.  It is important to note that over 90% of all civilian deaths in Syria are attributable to forces controlled by or loyal to President Assad. And I agree with the report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee which concluded that there should be a coherent international strategy for ending the civil war and defeating ISIL in Syria. Military action alone will not defeat ISIS. That is why it is important that the early stages of a peace process between the different parties in the Syrian civil war must be supported and the humanitarian efforts must continue.  I do not want to see any targeted and specific military action distracting or disabling this much more important task.


The Vienna Process – which brings together the five permanent members of the Security Council and major regional powers, to try and broker a peace deal in the Syrian civil war - is very nascent and unclear. We need to see much more progress here first.  I believe we could and should see further progress before further military action.


Moreover, much more could and should be done to cut off the financial and other support that Isis has and is acquiring.  This needs to be a key component of the international efforts.


The ground strategy is also unclear. The success we have had in fighting ISIS in Iraq has been because our air support has been co-ordinated with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga.


In his statement to the House of Commons last week the Prime Minister said that action in Syria would be supported by around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups, and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIS.


However, since then many experts have raised considerable concerns about this 70,000 figure and I would need more from the government on exactly who these groups are and what their ability is to seize and hold territory from ISIS, and whether some of them are themselves desirable.  


Finally, though, I would be concerned that a defeat in the House of Commons would not only hand a PR victory to ISIS but will also rule out for a number of years any military intervention. I hope therefore that the PM does what he said he wanted to do and genuinely seek consensus about a way forward for Syria before bringing this issue before Parliament.


I will, of course, carefully consider any proposals that the Government come forward with on this. However, it will be important that the Government are clear about the objectives and nature of any intervention and how it forms part of a wider and more comprehensive plan for ending the civil war in Syria.  I intend to listen to the full debate, scrutinise the motion and take further briefings from experts and security chiefs as well as considering the full implications for my constituency before coming to any decision.

Whatever decision I come to, based on what is being put forward, not on a more perfect plan we would all like to see, I hope you will respect that it is a decision I have reached after a great deal of thought.  This is probably one of the most difficult decisions I have had to take.  It is a finely balanced judgement which unfortunately has a binary, yes or no, vote at the end.


Yours sincerely,


Lucy Powell MP

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