Paul Blomfield MP

A strong voice for Sheffield Central

Air strikes in Syria

Thursday 3rd December - Thanks to everyone who shared their views with me over yesterday’s vote on extending the RAF mandate for air strikes against Daesh (ISIL) from Iraq into Syria. I was pleased to have received over 900 emails and I considered all the points raised, alongside the information from briefings and meetings that I’ve attended in Westminster. Although overwhelmingly opposed to extending the mandate, many of the emails from constituents raised different points and some supported action - reflecting the complexity of the issue.

Unfortunately the way that David Cameron has framed the debate over recent months has not helped understanding of the real issues. The decision we faced last night was about extending existing military action in the region. The RAF was already not only conducting air strikes against Daesh in Iraq, but supporting our coalition partners in Syria by re-fuelling their planes in the air and providing the intelligence to assist in the targeting of strikes against Daesh.

So we faced an extremely complex decision. In my initial response to constituents I asked some questions and am particularly grateful to those who took the time to reply.  I’m sorry that I can’t get back to everyone individually, but wanted to share my views on the issues I raised:

·         The principle of military interventionI fully respect the principled view of those who are pacifists, but I share the position of most who responded that we do sometimes need to take military action in self-defence or to protect others. That’s why, while opposing action in Iraq in 2003 and against Assad in Syria in 2013, I supported action to prevent a Serbian-led genocide aimed at Bosnian Muslims in 1995 and to end the appalling civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000 as I mentioned in my previous email.

·         Air strikes in Iraq over the last 14 months: In summer 2014 I was lobbied by many constituents who urged action to protect the Yazidi people who were being raped and murdered as Daesh overran towns in northern Iraq and advanced towards Baghdad – and in September last year I voted for action against Daesh in Iraq. This action has shown that air strikes can be successful, as they first stopped the advance of Daesh and then helped Kurdish ground troops to liberate parts of their country, including most recently the town of Sinjar.

·         Extending action into Syria: If the situation in Syria were the same as Iraq, it would be a relatively straightforward decision for me. Daesh are a deeply malevolent force, against which we are already taking action. Their bombing of tourists in Tunisia, peace protestors in Ankara, air passengers in Egypt, and most recently those enjoying a night out in Paris, only underline the horrific regime that they have inflicted on tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria. As such, I would support action that is legal and effective - which is the key question I have been considering since David Cameron’s statement last Thursday.

The main reason why we excluded action against Daesh in Syria last year was the question of its legality, although in many ways it is illogical to halt action at a border which is barely recognisable on the ground. That has been changed by UN Resolution 2249 (2015) which calls on “member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures …..  to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh …. and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”. So the question for me became not the principle, but the effectiveness of any action and how it fitted into a wider strategy to help the cause of peace in the region.

There were strong arguments on both sides of this debate and I reject the abuse aimed at those who had different views. It was utterly unacceptable for David Cameron to describe those who opposed his proposals as “terrorist sympathisers”. But equally it is completely wrong to accuse those who supported air strikes as being “warmongers” or worse. The truth is that people die through inaction, as well as action. There were casualties as a result of recent air strikes in Iraq, but there would have been many more if we had stood back and allowed Daesh to continue their advance.

There was a powerful progressive internationalist case for taking action against Daesh, made most strikingly by my friend and colleague Hilary Benn (which you can watch here). But, in my view, the proposal put before the Commons by David Cameron yesterday did not make the case for this particular course of action - although it did address most of the conditions of the resolution prepared by Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn, which was agreed by the Labour Party at our conference in September. Building on the UN Resolution, it stated that air strikes would be targeted exclusively against Daesh military targets, that it was part of the wider diplomatic initiative bringing together conflicting factions in the Syrian civil war, and that it should be part of a programme of comprehensive humanitarian support.

But, in considering the proposals over the last week, I was concerned about the weakness of the military strategy, particularly the lack of credible local ground troops, and the potential for ‘mission creep’.  In yesterday’s debate, David Cameron could offer no further detail or assurances on these issues. I accept that, even without ground troops, air strikes could weaken Daesh and, as my colleague Liam Byrne pointed out in yesterday’s debate, a more limited mandate for action along these lines might have gained wider support. The lack of detail also created too much uncertainty on where the action might lead.

I don’t accept the argument, made by some, that we shouldn’t act because it would make us a target or that western intervention is the cause of terrorism. Air strikes might add to the risk and be used as propaganda by Daesh, but we are already a target, and we should recognise that the worst terrorist act (the murder of 3,000 people in New York in 2001) preceded the Iraq War.  Whatever the causes, the targets are indiscriminate, as suicide bombers in Beirut and the attacks on Shia mosques in Pakistan illustrate. All whose views and beliefs are different from Daesh are targets. They are a threat to us all and need to be opposed in every way. So the question for me was about the nature of this action.

Without the answers on ground troops, on how our engagement might unfold, and on the road to reconstruction of Syria, I was not convinced of the case for our involvement.  I therefore voted for the amendment (amendment B) proposed by Conservative MP John Baron declining to authorise action and, when that was defeated, I voted against the Government’s proposals for air strikes. This was not an easy or straightforward decision. I fully respect the view of those who voted differently, and only time will tell which of us was right.

Although Labour MPs were divided in their views last night, as John McDonnell said on Radio 4 this morning, we will go forward united in pressing the Government to support the peace process represented in the Vienna talks, tackle the sources of funding for Daesh, and provide more support for refugees.

We are still facing a huge refugee crisis as a result of the situation in Syria. We still need to argue for stronger action to support refugees. It’s something that I’ve pressed in Parliament, but we can all play our part. I’ve set up a Christmas Appeal for Syrian Refugees and hope that you might be willing to make a donation here.

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