2016 02 – Bombing Syria: Letters From MPs

Bombing Syria: MPs reply to constituents

Dick Barry and Mark Cowling wrote to their MPs, Tania Mathias (Twickenham) and Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough), expressing concern over the bombing of Syria. The MP’s replies are published below.

Dear Mr Barry

Thank you for contacting me about military action in Syria. I am grateful to you and the many other constituents who have taken the time to share views with me on this incredibly important and difficult issue.

In 2003, I was opposed to the Iraq War and I marched against it on the streets of London. That war was a mistake – it lacked clear legal backing, it lacked the support of other countries in the region, and crucially it was based on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction and a threat to the UK that did not exist.

The question that faces us now is not about the Iraq War, and, whilst we must always learn the lessons of the past, we must also not allow past mistakes to prevent us from taking necessary action in the present. The threat from Daesh in Iraq and Syria is a real one – the killing of British tourists in Tunisia, the seven foiled plots on UK soil, the attacks in Paris, and the thousands of deaths perpetrated by Daesh in the Middle East are clear evidence of that threat. If Daesh is not stopped, more people will die. The question is about how best we stop them.

After a great deal of thought and discussion, I believe that the UK should have the authority to extend its air strikes into Syria. I do so not because I think that it is a quick or a perfect solution, nor because I believe it will instantly make us safe, but because I am now convinced that it is right for the UK to make our contribution to defeating the Daesh threat in every way possible, a threat that affects us now, whether or not we are involved in Syria.

I do not believe we can simply assume that Daesh is not a threat to us until we intervene – indeed, this is manifestly not true given the number of attacks that our security services have already thwarted here. The truth is that these militants do not hate us for what we have done; they hate us for who we are. The central reason that the Paris attacks shocked us so much was because we all fundamentally knew that it could have been London that was attacked – and if Daesh had its way, it would have been London. The threat to the UK exists now, irrespective of where we are attacking, and I do not believe we can fail to play our part in tackling it.

I will not pretend that, simply by extending our airstrikes into Syria, Daesh will be defeated – indeed, the airstrikes in themselves may not make a huge difference. As I am sure you are aware, we are already striking Daesh in Iraq and have done so with some success – Daesh has lost 30% of its territory in Iraq, its brutal attacks on minorities like the Kurdish people have been reduced, and there have been no reports of any civilian deaths as a result of British bombing. To refuse to fly over the Iraq/Syria border – a border for which Daesh has no respect – makes no military sense, and that is why no other nation is bombing only in Iraq and not Syria, where Daesh has its stronghold. We must surely attack them where they are plotting to attack us, and as such this is an extension of a conflict in which we are already involved.

Unlike the Iraq War of 2003, action in Syria has a clear and unambiguous legal basis. UN Security Council Resolution 2249, unanimously agreed, calls on nations to take “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks by Daesh and to “eradicate the safe haven they have established in Iraq and Syria”. Additionally, following Daesh’s attacks in Paris, the French have asked us, as one of their closest allies, to join them in an act of self-defence – I do not pretend that this is in itself a justification, but we have to question what we would think if we had been attacked in this way and France refused to support us. If – as I believe – the threat to the UK is a real one, then we cannot outsource our self-defence to our allies.

Airstrikes must, of course, form one part of a wider international strategy to defeat Daesh and establish a lasting peace in Iraq and Syria. The guarantee of a further £1bn from the UK for post-conflict reconstruction, in addition to the £1bn we have already contributed, is extremely welcome, as is the forthcoming Vienna Conference which will attempt to broker a ceasefire in the existing Syrian civil war. Many have said that we need to do more to stop Daesh’s financial and military backing – I agree that we need to do much more on this front, but part of doing means targeting of Daesh’s oil convoys by airstrikes. I wholeheartedly support the calls for wider diplomatic and political efforts, but I believe they must be in addition to, rather than instead of, an extension of airstrikes. Daesh will not surrender, it will not negotiate, and it will not stop until it is defeated – I wish that a peaceful solution were possible, but I am afraid that it is simply wishful thinking to believe that Daesh can be stopped without military action.

I can understand the reservations and outright opposition to further action that many constituents have expressed, and I have nothing but respect for those who disagree with me on this. Yes, innocent people will die; and yes, Daesh will have another reason to want to attack us; but the tragic truth is that thousands of innocent people have already died at Daesh’s hands and more will do so until Daesh is defeated. The threat to the UK is real and present now – I cannot excuse the actions of terrorists on the basis that we somehow provoked them by our mistakes in the recent past.

What is being proposed is far from perfect, but we may be waiting forever if we insist on waiting for a perfect solution. This has been considered fully and carefully by Parliament and the Government over a period of months, extending to well before I was elected in May. The Prime Minister has, I believe, given as comprehensive and as reassuring case as he reasonably could be expected to and has presented a clear and specific proposal that sanctions airstrikes against Daesh in Syria as part of a much wider strategy. Our actions will undoubtedly have some negative and unintended consequences, but I am in no doubt that our inaction has had many worse consequences. It is with sadness that I support what the Government has proposed, but I do so with the profound belief that there is no other way to defeat this generational threat both to the UK and to the lives of thousands of innocent men, women and children in the Middle East.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Best wishes,

Tania Mathias


Dear Mark,

Thank you for writing to me regarding proposed air strikes in Syria.

Deciding whether to involve our armed forces in military conflict is the most difficult choice Members of Parliament can be asked to make and I arrived at my decision after careful consideration of the arguments for, and against, military action.

To support military action I would need to be convinced that there was a coherent and credible military and political strategy, as well as being assured of the legality of any potential action. Most importantly, I would need to be confident that any action would strengthen, not undermine, our national security. In these respects, I believe that the Prime Minister failed to make a convincing case for UK military action.

While I agree that Daesh (ISIS) must be defeated militarily, I do not believe the plans put forward by the Prime Minister will prove effective and at the same time will inevitably increase the risk of terrorist attacks here at home.

The US-led coalition has been bombing in Syria for over a year, yet has so far been unable to contain or weaken Daesh. This is because other than the Syrian Kurds in limited areas, there are no credible, non-Islamist ground forces other than President Assad’s. As the experience so far in Syria and Iraq has shown, guerrilla-type organisations such as Daesh cannot be defeated by air strikes alone. In addition, it is impossible to target Daesh without incurring a significant loss of civilian life, especially without the assistance of allies on the ground who can provide up to date information.

Considering the unwillingness of any outside actors in the Syrian civil war to commit ground troops, the bombing campaign is unlikely to be successful until a coalition of forces already inside of Syria is formed which can then be supported by air strikes to take and administer territory currently held by Daesh. This lack of local allies is a strategic problem which the addition of a small number of UK aircraft will not solve.

For this reason, the plan proposed by David Cameron does not have a clear, achievable military objective, and risks involving UK forces in a protracted bombing campaign and dragging us further into the conflict. I believe it would be irresponsible for me to support such action.

It is my belief that military action should only be supported if it goes hand-in-hand with a coherent political strategy and I am so far unconvinced that the Prime Minister has such a strategy. The Syrian civil war is a complex war with many different players with differing objectives. Turkey has prioritised fighting the Kurds and overthrowing Assad over defeating Daesh; Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have provided important support to Sunni jihadist groups in Syria; while Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah are fighting to ensure the survival of the regime in Damascus.

I am opposed to engaging UK military personnel in such a politically and militarily congested battlefield without a clear and credible strategy. It is also concerning that some of our allies have been arming, trading with and providing financial support to jihadist militias. The UK should redouble its efforts to tackle nations and individuals who are encouraging these groups.

Only in 2013 the Prime Minister made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Parliament to approve military action in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a move which would have proven disastrous and would have tipped the balance of the war in favour of Daesh and other jihadist militias. It seems the Government are unsure of who our allies and enemies are and who we should support or oppose in the conflict. The downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces further illustrates these dangers.

There needs to be a peace agreement between the Assad regime and its opponents leading to a transitional administration which could then take on IS, while at the same time avoiding the collapse of the Syrian state. The recent Geneva II Conference on Syria has shown that some progress is being made in this regard. I am not opposed on principle to UK military action in Syria, but any action should be subordinate to international diplomatic efforts to end the war. This must include a comprehensive plan for humanitarian assistance for any refugees who may be displaced by the action and a post-war plan for Syria if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. I cannot support UK military action which precedes or is independent of a credible political and diplomatic strategy.

Finally, I was not convinced of the legality of the proposed military action. The Prime Minister, if he wishes to intervene in the Syrian civil war, should seek a Chapter VII United Nations Resolution which would provide a clear legal base for strikes. The current resolution is not in my view sufficient. With 3 out of the 5 permanent UN Security Council members already involved in the Syrian conflict, so long as a credible political and military plan is proposed, a Chapter VII UN Resolution should be achievable. It would be a mistake to become involved in another war in the Middle East without a clear legal basis or UN approval.

While I voted against UK military action, I will continue to push for the Government to come forward with a coherent, achievable strategy for Syria and the broader region. I want to see the UK make every effort to defeat Daesh and bring to an end the tragic Syrian civil war, but having examined the plans put forward by the Prime Minister, I fear the proposed military action will make things worse, not better.

Thank you for writing to me and sharing your views. Listening to the opinions of constituents has been important in reaching my decision and I will continue to bear in mind the points you have raised.

 Yours sincerely,

Andy McDonald

MP for Middlesbrough