Syria Military Action Speech, 2 December 2015


Sitting down last night to think about what I was going to say, it struck me that I could make pretty much the same speech, mentioning the same concerns, and then have two optional endings. One urging colleagues to vote for this motion and the other urging them to vote against.

That is why I say beware of absolutes. Beware affirmations of certainty when we all know in our heart of hearts, this is not about certainties, it’s about finely balanced judgements. Ones on which lives depend here in Syria and beyond.

So let’s have no more slurs about terrorist sympathisers from the Prime Minister. And let’s be equally clear that bullying of MPs with threats of deselection has no place in straight talking or honest politics.

Defeating the evil that is Daesh requires strategic action across many fronts.

It means taking them on ideologically, it means tackling the causes of their rise. It means thwarting the grubby financial and trade paths that keep them in business.

But I for one accept that military action has to be part of the strategy too. It’s not about whether a war should start. It is already happening – and yes it is one in which we already play a part.

The question today is what that should be going forward, what the objectives are and whether what is proposed is likely to hasten the defeat of Daesh or make it longer to achieve.

Last year, when Yezidis, Christians Muslims and others encircled on mount Sinjar and surrounding areas, I believe it was the right decision for the UK to join coalition air strikes to push Daesh back and stop some further massacres that were imminent and to provide the air cover, that Kurdish and Iraqi Government forces needed to take back territory from Daesh and to hold it.

I also do not accept that if it is morally defensible to use air strikes against an enemy like Daesh 200 miles in one direction it becomes morally indefensible to do so 200 miles in the other direction, simply because there is a border in the middle that Daesh itself does not recognise.

And if there’s any doubt about legality, I believe they have been answered by UN resolution 2249. And solidarity with our allies when they request our help is an important principle too.

And we are helping in Syria, with refuelling, intelligence and so on.

Where I have concerns though is under circumstances we face now on whether to participate in air strikes on Raqqa.

Because I have seen no evidence that around Raqqa there is currently any force that either intends to, or is capable of, retaking the town from Daesh with air support in the way there are ground forces ale to take territory with our air support in Iraq. That may change but it is the situation today

So if the air strikes are not in reality about retaking Raqqa they become about degrading Daesh capabilities, disrupting its communications and so on.

When I asked the PM during his Statement last week if he would confirm that this is a large part of the objective of air strikes he did so.

We have been told that this does not mean a generalised bombing campaign by RAF but highly selective strikes using sophisticated weaponry available to RAF to minimise civilian casualties.

So I wrote to PM on Monday to ask about rules of engagement for such selective strikes.  I am yet to receive a reply.

But I am prepared to believe that RAF strikes would be closely focussed on military targets.

The point is however that it not only RAF planes that would hit Raqqa. It is already being bombed and as far as I can tell with a lot less selectivity than is being suggested for the RAF.

A reporter still living in Raqqa published this report this week about what is already happening in the town:

A medical source in Raqqa, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said at least 70 civilians have been killed and 300 injured in the first days of the blitz. “I believe that casualties among the militants did not exceed a few dozens,” the source said. “It is hard to know the exact number because they trans­port their dead and wounded to their own private centres.”

According to activists in Raqqa, known ISIS bases in the city have long been destroyed by regime and coalition air strikes and no obvious centres are being used by the mili­tants, who have taken measures to be not detected by surveillance planes. “They stopped travelling around the city in convoys and moved into residential neighbour­hoods in empty houses abandoned by people who fled Raqqa earlier, to minimise chances of being lo­cated,” one activist said.

Like it or not, RAF strikes, however selective and well targeted in their own right would be seen as part of this broader, much less selective air strikes.

My question is, are such strikes likely to build support or weaken the chances of building the coalition of indigenous forces that will be vital if Raqqa ever going to be taken from Daesh.

And will such more generalised air strikes play into the hands of Daesh online propaganda war in the region and here at home, using pictures of widespread civilian casualties to radicalise yet more young people into believing their brand of murderous jihadism.

I believe the likelihood of this very real.

So if UK is to extend its participation in air strikes to Syria, I want to see a lot more convincing evidence that the limits that we put on RAF operations are representative of coalition air strikes on Raqqa as a whole.

People in the ground will not distinguish between UK, US French or Russian bombs and why should they?

In the absence of that evidence, I have concluded that I should not support direct UK participation in those strikes on Raqqa with my vote today.

So I ask the PM, please answer my Questions on Rules of Engagement. And please show these reflect the broader coalition approach before, not after, you commit UK aircraft to strikes on Raqqa

And I also ask PM if he accepts that the motion says, that a strategic approach is essential to the defeat of Daesh and bringing end to the civil war in Syria, please ensure that choices about how and where military action should be taken serves that strategy, not the other way around.        

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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