Extending UK military intervention in Iraq to Syria

  • On issues such as this, which concern our national security, war and peace, Members of Parliament have to solemnly decide -- as best we can -- what to do.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

In 2013 I voted opposing military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria. Having opposed the 2003 Iraq War before I was elected, I voted for military action against Daesh (also known as “Isil” or so called “Islamic State”) in Iraq in 2014.

The question before the House of Commons today is not whether to start bombing Daesh positions — which we are already doing in Iraq — but whether such military action should be extended to include Syria. Currently Daesh operates in an ungoverned space straddling both countries.

Having studied the text of the motion we are voting on and attended a Government security briefing yesterday, as well as listening to the debate in the House today, I have reached a decision on how to vote on this matter.

An issue of conscience:

I am very grateful for the emails and letters that constituents have sent me on this issue, and I’ve welcomed the chance to talk to those who have worked in and have family in Syria. I also appreciated the respectful and comradely discussion we had at last week’s monthly meeting of my local party on this issue. At that meeting I gave my preliminary views on the different arguments on the extension of military operations to Syria, pending the publication of the wording of the motion.

On issues such as this, which concern our national security, war and peace, Members of Parliament have to solemnly decide — as best we can — what to do. No one takes such decisions lightly. I certainly do not — my family abroad has experience of civil war (my uncles fought in the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960s) and my family at home here have experience of being targeted by terrorists. I vote tonight purely on the issue before us — any political or internal party political considerations have absolutely no bearing on my decision. So one votes according to one’s conscience on such matters regardless of the party whip — notwithstanding this I am grateful to Jeremy Corbyn, our Leader, who has granted a free vote tonight to Labour MPs on this matter given differences of view in the party.

We all share the same desire for greater peace and security in our world. But, how to achieve these things is often finely balanced and there are differences of opinion as to how best we achieve them in all parties. I do not think any side can know for certain that the course they argue for will produce the best outcome — I do not claim to do so and respect both sides in the debate because we all want the best for our country and a more peaceful world.

Daesh poses a clear threat to our national security:

Based on the information that has been provided to us by the Government, the contents of the recent report of the cross party Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and the evidence I have heard from our police and security services at Home Affairs Select Committee hearings (of which I am a member), it is clear to me that Daesh poses a clear and present threat to our national security.

Seven Daesh related terror plots to attack the UK have been foiled in the last year. Thirty UK tourists were murdered by an individual linked to Daesh in Tunisia in June of this year. Over 800 UK citizens have been lured to Syria by Daesh to commit barbaric acts at home and abroad, with over 300 of those citizens returning to our shores. And, some of the main threats against the UK are being planned and coordinated at Daesh’s headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Very few dispute this threat which will continue notwithstanding any decision of the House of Commons tonight — it is not what we do but who we are and what our society stands for that Daesh rejects.

Currently an international coalition of over 60 countries has been formed to counter Daesh, with the US, France, Turkey, Jordan and others involved in military action in Syria. Given the clear threat Daesh poses to us at home, it would be wrong to leave it to others to deal with and degrade Daesh — we have a responsibility to act and play our part.

Daesh must be stopped from carrying out unspeakable barbaric acts in the region:

Notwithstanding the immediate threat to the UK, Daesh are perpetrating the most unspeakable acts against people in the Middle East. I would not feel comfortable with us taking no action when we could help thwart and degrade this death cult from organising the systematic rape of women, beheading aid workers, throwing gay people off the top of buildings, carrying out crucifixions, mass executions and more. With reference to this, I have been particularly struck by the arguments put to me by some prominent members of our local Muslim communities arguing for the UK to join the military action in Syria.

Given the acts perpetrated by Daesh in the Middle East, I am not surprised other powers in the region are keen for the UK to join the effort and extend its military operations in Iraq to Syria. King Abdullah of Jordan is the latest to call for us to do so today here:

Daesh have, of course, also committed terror atrocities against allies closer to home like France. Last week, the Socialist President Hollande called on Members of the House of Commons to vote for the UK to join the military action against Daesh in Syria not least out of solidarity with his country following the appalling events in Paris a few weeks ago.

Extending aerial bombardments of Daesh from Iraq into Syria will not resolve the Syrian conflict:

I am under no illusions that bombing Daesh positions in Syria alone will resolve the conflict there. I agree with those who say you cannot bomb an ideology out of existence.

However, military intervention will help us to degrade Daesh in the interim, pending taking the other necessary actions to resolve the Syrian conflict. Daesh’s killing spree is causing the deaths of many innocent people every day in the region so it is not a question as to whether there will be innocent deaths — the question is what course of action can reduce the numbers of innocent people killed by Daesh.

Ground forces in addition to air strikes:

Clearly, ground forces will be needed to hold and administer territories taken from Daesh, as they have successfully done in Iraq (where 30% of territories held by Daesh have been recaptured following military action). Just as there was uncertainty as to whether Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga could provide sufficient ground forces before military action began in Iraq in 2014, there is uncertainty as to whether ground forces could do the same here. The most contentious part of this has been the claim that there are 70,000 non-extremist Syrian opposition fighters who could fulfil this function.

I am not sure the 70,000 figure given is accurate, though it is an assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee. King Abdullah of Jordan argues that The Syrian opposition, especially in the South, is both capable and willing to fight. There are also the Syrian Kurds in Northern Syria and Sunni Arabs. No one can be certain but based on the information given to MPs I believe that on balance it could be possible to assemble sufficient ground forces to hold, administer and secure areas taken from Daesh just as we have seen in Iraq, and hopefully add to their number once a transition plan is in place. At the same time air strikes are carried out, it is important to cut off the finances and supply of weapons to Daesh.

Diplomacy and political settlement:

Action in the air must be matched with equal determination to build a political and diplomatic settlement to end the war. That is what the International Syria Support Group is already working to bring about which the UK is a part of and which first met last month in Vienna. Learning the lessons from the Iraq intervention of 2003 — a very different situation to that which confronts us today — it is very important that there is a post action plan for a transition to a Syrian government that can represent all of its people, and a plan for reconstruction and development.

The Prime Minister told us today that next week the Syrian regime is expected to nominate a team of people to negotiate under the auspices of the United Nations and in the coming days Saudi Arabia will host a meeting for opposition representatives in Riyadh. The United Nations will work with the partners towards a ceasefire, including at the next meeting of the International Syria Support Group due before Christmas. On reconstruction and development, we are already — after the US — the second biggest contributor of aid.

Finally, I was concerned there should be a UN resolution calling for action and a clear legal basis for extending military action into Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2249 passed two weeks ago calls on member states to use all necessary action to thwart Daesh. And the British government has pointed to article 51 of the UN Charter providing legal basis for taking action in the self-defence of our nation or the collective self-defence of another nation.


For these reasons, I will be voting to extend the military action into Syria. I reluctantly do so with no enthusiasm, but on balance the risks of inaction outweigh the risks of action in my view. A strong case has been made for us to extend the military intervention we are already carrying out in Iraq to Syria. I do not necessarily believe it will stop all the bloodshed nor can anyone know how long it will take to defeat Daesh, but I think there will be less bloodshed at home and in the region if we take military action now to help degrade and dismantle Daesh. I believe we have a responsibility and duty to act.