Tulip Siddiq, Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn has set out her views on Syria in a detailed letter to a constituent. I reproduce it below. I have offered, via Twitter, Barry Gardiner MP Labour, Brent North, an opportunity to put his views but have heard nothing back so far:-->
I am writing in response to your email about the ongoing conflict in Syria, and in particular whether the UK should extend its air strikes against ISIL into the region. I appreciate the gravity of this issue, not least given Britain’s history of military conflict in the Middle East, so I hope you will forgive a substantive response reflecting the broad concerns you have raised.
To give some important background, the humanitarian impact of the ongoing conflict in Syria has been catastrophic. Various estimates suggest that since the civil war began in 2011, some 210,000-320,000 people have been killed, some 7.6 million have been internally displaced within Syria, and a further 3.9 million have fled the country as refugees. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, and it is clear that many factions in this conflict, not least the Assad regime, are guilty of war crimes.
This is now a complex and fast-developing conflict involving a range of internal factions, each of which have support from various external actors. At present, reports suggest that Assad’s grip on the country is weakening. He has lost control of half his territory, having ceded lands in the west to Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups; in the north to more moderate opposition groups; and in the east to ISIL, who declared a Caliphate stretching from Syria to Iraq in June 2014. No longer able to draw revenues from Syrian oil fields, his regime has become dependent on financial support from Iran and Russia; and Shi’ite Hezbollah militant groups and Iranian Revolutionary Guards appear to be becoming increasingly influential in his army. Regrettably, the recent involvement of Russia, who are now launching air strikes against all of Assad’s enemies, even moderate rebels, looks set to bolster his regime, increase the death toll and, ultimately, prolong this bloody conflict even further.
As you will know, in August 2013, following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, there was a push on the part of the British Prime Minister and the US to launch air strikes to support rebel groups in the country. There were two important Commons votes on military intervention in Syria. Although I was not an MP at the time, I would have voted against these two motions. Whilst the US did ultimately initiate a programme of air strikes in Syria, I was glad when Labour MPs joined with backbench Conservatives and Lib Dems to ensure, against the wishes of the then-Coalition Government, that the UK did not participate in these operations. Incidentally, I also personally marched against the Iraq War back in 2003. I remain mindful to this day of the tragic effects that this war has had on the people in the region.
Since the vote in 2013, the situation has developed even further. ISIL has emerged as a formidable and dangerous force in both Syria and Iraq, and indeed in September 2014, Parliament voted in support of a targeted international bombing campaign in Iraq to fight ISIL forces, in support of Kurdish forces and the incumbent Iraqi government. Reports from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also suggest that the Assad regime has continued its use of chemical weapons, launching chlorine attacks in Syrian villages; and has also withheld a portion of its chemical weapons stockpile, failing to report it to the OPCW. Efforts to broker a peaceful settlement at the Geneva II peace conference in February last year have also failed, in no small part because of al-Assad’s intransigence.
In the House of Commons in July 2015, in light of the continued conflict, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP suggested that Britain might consider extending its air strikes against ISIS to Syria, joining the existing US operation there. Thankfully, the Defence Secretary has confirmed that should the Government decide to push for military action again, there would have to be another Parliamentary vote. Although the Prime Minister went back on this plan some months afterwards, with the recent tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, it looks like there may soon be another vote on this matter.
Were a Parliamentary vote indeed to take place, I appreciate that I would have a very significant decision to make as your MP, and I thank you for taking the effort to raise your concerns with me ahead of this. Personally, I am concerned about some of the rhetoric people have been using in support of intervention, and I will be pressing the Government to explain more clearly their rationale for further military action. I have four main concerns, which I have outlined below.
Firstly, I feel that neither the Government nor some in the press quite appreciate the complexity of this conflict, and how the situation has changed since the Parliamentary vote of August 2013. Indeed, in my view, subsequent events have entirely vindicated the cautious, multi-lateral approach of Parliamentarians during the vote in 2013. MPs at the time highlighted the difficulty in distinguishing between moderate and extremist rebel groups, and warned that bombing strikes could intensify the conflict, the later emergence of ISIL as a key force in the region only confirms this. Indeed, it is curious that the renewed calls for air strikes are being justified on the basis of a need to combat ISIL even though, in 2013, the target was the Assad regime, the Government have refused to acknowledge this, and many Ministers are conducting themselves as if we are to simply repeat the vote of two years ago.
Secondly, and linked with this, I disagree with the attempts of some Ministers and others to conflate this issue with the ongoing refugee crisis. Military intervention against ISIL would not solve the refugee crisis, if it could, it would have do already, as the US and others have been bombing Syria since August 2014. Furthermore, the bulk of the displaced people in Syria are the result of Assad’s attacks and not those of ISIL bombing ISIL forces will do little to address this problem. Regrettably, scant regard is also being given to the fact that as significant as Syrian refugees are in the ongoing refugee crisis, they are not the only source of refugees: last year, Britain accepted more asylum applications from Eritrea and Pakistan than it did from Syria.
Thirdly, any action that is taken in Syria must be multi-lateral, and pursued at a UN Level. I agree with Labour Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn MP’s calls for a UN Security Council resolution on Syria. He is also right, inclusive in this resolution, to push for the referral of suspected war crimes to the International Criminal Court, this should include Assad. As a way of resolving this bloody conflict, I support the formation of a unity Government in Syria comprising more moderate factions in the country. It is clear from their gruesome conduct that neither ISIL nor Assad himself can play a part in this negotiated solution. But the only way to secure this is if we work with our UN partners to achieve it, and Hilary Benn was right to call on the Prime Minister to push for this at the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York.
Finally, there is an important humanitarian element to the conflict in Syria, and I do not feel that enough is being done to help those who should be the key focus of our concern: the innocent Syrian civilians themselves. Whether they are still in Syria, have been forced to neighbouring states by war or have made the treacherous journey into Europe, they are deserving our help. I disagree with the Prime Minister’s decision to opt-out of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees programme to help the refugees in Syria, and also his decision to deny help to those refugees already in Europe. I have written him a letter calling on him to reverse his position on these twin issues. Hillary Benn MP was also right to call, as part of the UN resolution, for the establishment of Safe Zones within Syria to shelter those displaced by war and relieve the pressures on refugees.
Please be assured, therefore, that I will continue to monitor this situation closely and update you on future developments. I will press the Government on the need for humanitarian aid and a negotiated, multi-lateral solution to the conflict in Syria, and challenge Ministers and others on some of the points they have made in justifying military action. I also remain ever mindful both of the consequences of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, and also the points raised by Parliamentarians at the important vote in August 2013.
Thank you again for contacting me regarding this issue, and do not hesitate to get in touch should you have any further queries or issues.
Tulip Siddiq MP