I have spent a lot of time over the last week listening to a wide range of views from many, many people in the local community. I have received hundreds of letters, emails, Facebook messages and comments and tweets, and read them all. The response from constituents who contacted me was about 60/40 against extending action to Syria. This feedback was extremely valuable to me and raised a number of important issues. However, as always messages I receive on all issues are predominantly those with the strongest views. They are often at odds with wider opinion. Also, the public messages have also tended to be more likely to be against action than the private messages I have received. I asked for people's views because they shaped my thinking and raised important questions for me, as did all the conversations and discussions I have had with constituents over the last few days. However a decision of this importance needs much greater consideration than simply judging the view of the loudest voices.
I have read every report and briefing I could get my hands on, and listened carefully to the debate in Parliament. On Monday I sought a private briefing from the Defence Secretary, security services and senior military personnel. In that meeting I directly raised many of the questions and points that people have sent me. This correspondence has given me enormous food for thought, has made me think differently and challenged my views in a way that I wholeheartedly welcome.
It has been a very difficult few days. These are the decisions you dread the most, and whichever decision is taken, no one can guarantee with complete certainty that it will prevent the loss of life, which is ultimately the aim of all of us.
The result tonight was 397 in favour and 223 against.
In the end after extremely careful deliberation I voted in favour of UK involvement in airstrikes against ISIL Daesh in Syria. You can read the Government motion here.
This has been a very difficult decision and I understand it will disappoint those who oppose intervention. Whichever choice I make, many people would be unhappy, and crucially there are consequences either way. I have made the decision which I think is right for the safety of my constituents and the country, as well as those abroad.
First, the threat from ISIL/Daesh is a very real one. Hundreds of innocent people have been killed in the attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali, Tunisia, and in the downed Russian passenger jet. Seven IS-related attacks have been thwarted here in the past year alone. Meanwhile, many millions in Iraq and Syria have been raped, tortured, murdered or forced to flee from their homes. ISIL/Daesh is a fascist, imperialist, murderous movement and we know of their beheadings, crucifixions, throwing gay men off buildings, the sexual enslavement of women, and the mass graves of women deemed too old to be trafficked. Parliament is united in the belief that this hideous organisation must be defeated.
For the past year, the RAF have been conducting airstrikes in Iraq against ISIL/Daesh at the request of the Iraqi government. The House of Commons voted in support of this because of the threat to our safety and global security. These operations have halted ISIL’s advance and reduced their territory by 30% with zero civilian casualties. However, in Syria (across a border ISIL do not recognize) ISIL have strengthened their foothold. Planning and communications for attacks on UK soil are being coordinated from there and to eradicate the threat, they must be defeated here too.
The emergency motion on Syria passed by Labour Party Conference in September 2015 set out conditions for airstrikes and I believe they have now been met. We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution (2249) passed on 20th November 2015, which very specifically calls on member states:
“to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter… to redouble and coordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed by ISIL… and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria”
Many of the concerns people have raised with me about what this action would involve have been my own concerns. These include protection of citizens, accuracy of weaponry, what value Britain adds to the international effort, what are the targets, what value airstrikes add, and, as Jeremy Corbyn has so powerfully identified, what is being doing to prevent the funding and support of ISIS/Daesh.
The potential for civilian casualties has weighed heavily on my mind but I am reassured the airstrikes we would be undertaking are precision-targeted on military sites only. I challenged the Defence Secretary on this who talked me through the process whereby he signs off every target himself after rigorous intelligence discussion, ensuring, for example, there are no schools, homes or mosques nearby, and our Rules of Engagement are far stricter than those of any other nation, in particular the US. As I have already said, there have been over 300 airstrikes in Iraq and as yet there have been no civilian casualties. Indeed, over half of proposed airstrikes there have been called off due to concern over civilians. It is the RAF’s international superiority in this area that is driving France’s request for British support. The French Socialist Defence Minister has said, "The use of these capabilities over Syria would put additional and extreme pressure on the ISIS terror network."
I completely agree with Jeremy Corbyn that access to arms and funding must be cut off and that there must be a political and diplomatic peace settlement to stabilize Syria. Defence officials confirmed with me that seized oil assets are a large source of revenue for ISIL and there are questions over who is buying it. The government proposal includes promises to enforce trade sanctions and to crack down on people smugglers that fund ISIL’s bloodshed. There also needs to be more pressure put on Gulf States funnelling money and arms to jihadist groups and Labour MPs will be holding the government to account on this. However, with much of ISIL’s wealth coming from the territory they control, that is what most needs to be undermined.
Syrians I have met with tell me the most pressing need for their country is the removal of President Assad, whose brutal regime has led to a 100,000 deaths since 2011 and is also responsible for many of the fleeing refugees. They see the expansion of ISIL as a result of the failed civil war and want to know that any airstrikes will facilitate his departure and not prolong his murderous dictatorship. There is now important progress on a peace process through the Vienna talks held by the International Syria Support Group, which has brought together all the major international players behind a common vision of what is needed to bring the Syrian civil war to an end – talks and a ceasefire leading to a transitional government and elections. As Jeremy says, we need a political solution. Crucially, all nations involved, including Iran Russia and Arab states are now in agreement that intervention in Syria must lead to the defeat of ISIL/Daesh and the removal of Assad, which is a great deal of progress. This is vital because ending the war will help in the defeat of ISIL/Daesh. However, ISIL’s indiscriminate violence and murder against local groups who must be part of that civic and democratic society post-Assad is a serious barrier to this process. The nature of the direct threat we face to our citizens does not afford us the luxury to wait for the civil war to be settled and I am satisfied military action will effectively run in parallel to our diplomatic efforts.
Another concern people have rightly raised is the prospect that intervention may antagonize and lead to further radicalization and retaliation. There is strong support from within the region, including Iraq, for action against Daesh. We are part of a coalition of over 60 nations and we must continue to work with other countries to cut off the flow of finance, fighters and weapons to Daesh in Syria and Iraq. We are already a target, however, while ISIL/Daesh continues to plan, co-ordinate and communicate plots against us from their headquarters in Raqqa, we must be realistic and prevent these attacks on our citizens at source.
Crucially, at home, there is a responsibility on all of us to tackle vile Islamophobia, and to defend the values of tolerance, decency and multiculturalism, which is exactly what ISIL/Daesh hate. I personally pledge to work to tackle this both within our local community on Teesside and more broadly within the UK. I am clear that ISIL/Daesh are a complete perversion of Islam, and stand in solidarity with the vast majority of Muslims around the world who despise and condemn them. We must support them at this difficult time both in preventing reprisals, and helping them to tackle the perversion and radicalisation of their faith by murderous criminals.
Our neighbour and ally France, with a Socialist President, has asked for our help and solidarity, and I think we have an obligation to stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, with them and others in opposition to ISIL’s ideology and brutality. We are already involved in Iraq and are providing intelligence and other support to our allies in Syria.
As has been mentioned in the correspondence I received, airstrikes alone are insufficient. There has been a great deal of debate around the figure of 70,000 troops suggested by the Joint Intelligence Committee who are ready to secure any territory gained through airstrikes. I challenged the Defence Secretary on this in our meeting and understand that although they are not all of the same group, they are competent forces and must be given credit for staying and fighting – to some extent they are the Partisans or Resistance of this conflict. There are also 20,000 Kurdish fighters who have been successful in defeating ISIL/Daesh and defending areas of territory and population from this barbaric regime. I spoke with Labour MP Dan Jarvis about this, who fought in Iraq, and he said that no Iraqi troops they worked with were perfect, but you have to work with what you have in the region, which is better that bringing our own troops in.
Many people have pointed out that ISIL/Daesh will only be defeated, and Syria stabilized, when Ministers demonstrate the same focus on their wider diplomatic and humanitarian strategy that they have shown in advocating military action. I will be working with my colleagues to hold them to that. The pledge for a further £1 billion in humanitarian relief is a significant guarantee and the upcoming Syrian donors conference in London will be crucial in holding the international community to their responsibilities to Syria. However, the suggested choice between airstrikes and other solutions is a false one. In accordance with the UN Resolution we should take all necessary measures.
The decision to take military action is never easy and should not be taken lightly. I have total respect for all my colleagues whichever side they voted on, and I think some of the language around this debate, not least the PM calling people who oppose action ’terrorist sympathisers’ has been appalling. The mistakes made in Iraq from 2003 have cast a long shadow but we must learn the correct lessons and not be paralyzed by it. We have UN backing and the conditions of Labour policy agreed at our conference have been met, and we face, in my view, a far more immediate threat to our citizens than we did in 2003, and are not simply seeking regime-change.
I have put a lot of thought into this and have considered everything people have said. Inaction has consequences too and I could not forgive myself if I felt I had not taken all necessary steps to protect our constituents the British people, and citizens around the world.
Thank you to everyone who has contacted me to share their views. I know some will be deeply disappointed with my decision but I hope people will understand how much care I have taken over this decision and understand that this has not been an easy choice to make.