Iraqi Yazidi fighter stands guard outside a shrine on August 10, 2014 in Sheikhan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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MPs want a chance to debate Iraq whether or not military action is planned

Downing Street is wrong to reject demands for a recall on the grounds that "our focus is humanitarian support". 

Three days after the new western mission in Iraq began, support for a recall of parliament is growing among MPs. Conservative Conor Burns has emailed the Speaker requesting a recall and has also written to Michael Gove (now Chief Whip) criticising Britain's limited response to the humanitarian crisis.

"I feel very strongly that the government's response is not hard enough or strong enough," he said. "These people are being beheaded by people from IS, and our only response is to drop some food or water on them. I think the US and UK should be involved in air strikes. I am not by any means advocating a ground war but I think we should put our special forces in there."

Other Tories demanding a recall include Glyn Davies ("I suggested recall weeks ago. [There is a] much stronger case for it than the motion we MPs returned for last summer"), Andrew Rosindell ("Britain cannot stand by and watch brutal terror being carried out against Christians in Iraq"), Nick de Bois and David Burrowes. The latter pair write in a letter to David Cameron: 

"What we are witnessing in Iraq is truly shocking and requires a co-ordinated international response. The horrific persecution of minority groups in the region impose both a moral obligation and a duty to our constituents to reconvene so that the escalating crisis can be properly debated with a view to the government being able to seek guidance from and support of the House for policies aimed at ending the killing. It is vital that the House of Commons debate an appropriate response to this emergency.

"Whilst the government is rightly engaged in a massive humanitarian effort we believe that the lack of a co-ordinated international response and the unilateral military intervention of the US demand the urgent attention of parliamentarians at this time."

On the Labour side, Tom Watson, Andrew Gwynne, Graham Allen and Mike Gapes (writing on The Staggers), the former chair of the foreign affairs select committee, have also made the case for a recall. Gapes wrote: "The Prime Minister may feel unable to act now following his defeat and mishandling of the Syria debate last August. He should get over it and urgently recall Parliament. I hope we can then, with opposition support, achieve a massive vote for UK military intervention alongside our US and NATO partners to defend and protect our democratic and secular Kurdish friends and to stop the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other minorities by ISIL in Iraq and Syria."

Downing Street has responded by arguing that there is no need for a recall on the grounds that "our focus is humanitarian support" and that military action is currently not planned. But while this may be true, what MPs are demanding is a chance to debate whether that is the right stance for the government to take, not merely to approve it. Some of those calling for a recall, such as Conor Burns and Mike Gapes, support UK military action, but others, such as Tom Watson and Nick de Bois, currently do not. 

With the government not ruling out UK air strikes if the situation deteriorates, and three weeks to go before the end of the recess, there is merit in parliament returning to debate the circumstances (if any) in which military intervention would be appropriate. One of the reasons why MPs rebelled over Syria was the government's failure to consult them earlier in the process. If Cameron does eventually decide to take military action, he will have more chance of winning approval if parliament is recalled now. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.