The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has hinted at a complex future for the war against Isis. Photo: Getty
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Foreign Secretary: the US legal basis for action in Syria “looks robust”

Today, parliament will vote on the UK using airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq. 

The House of Commons is to vote today on whether or not to use airstrikes against Islamic State (also known as Isis) in Iraq.

David Cameron has recalled parliament today to ask MPs’ approval to join the US in targeting the militant group.

The BBC’s Nick Robinson reports that it is very likely the vote will pass, because the three party leaders alongside their whips have ensured against a defeat in “minute detail”. This diligence comes a year after the Prime Minister’s damaging defeat in a vote on military action in Syria.

However, in spite of the likelihood of a win for the government, one difficulty remains. The government has only made the motion about intervention in Iraq, to help the Iraqi government, and will not be voting today to go into Syria. This is because there is a clear legal basis for the former, whereas the latter – under Bashar al-Assad’s regime – is more complicated.

It seems a precedent is emerging for the opposition to hold an effective veto when a British Prime Minister attempts to join in foreign wars, and it is thought that Labour will only vote in favour of  action unequivocally sanctioned by international law.

As the Labour MP Diane Abbott, who is one of a handful of MPs planning to vote against the motion, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning, “call me pernickety, but [military intervention] has to be legal”.

However, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, speaking on the same programme this morning, suggested that he does see a legal basis for attacking IS in Syria.

The US, which began its airstrikes against the extremists this week, has struck targets in Syria. It argues a legal justification of “collective self-defence”, which is a case that currently has uncertain status in international law.

Hammond, when asked whether he sees this action in Syria as legally sound, replied, “it looks robust to me.”

He said:

The US is already carrying out military operations in Syria. The first challenge is to push Isil out of Iraq. . .

Well, in the future is another question. . . We’d look at the circumstances at the time, if we felt we had some capability to contribute, and it [airstrikes in Syria] was needed. . . then we would certainly make the case for doing that if circumstances were right. . . It is clear that the US intervening in Syria is also able to do so on a legal basis on collective self-defence . . . it looks robust to me.

He added, “we’re absolutely not ruling anything out”, but insisted, “everyone understands very well that if there was any suggestion of going further than that [striking IS in Iraq], we [would go back to the Commons for another vote].”

For the few MPs – mainly Labour, but also some Tories ­– opposing military action or unsure about how to vote, the Foreign Secretary’s words will not be much comfort. A key argument deployed against intervening in foreign conflicts is that it quickly becomes difficult to extract oneself once it’s begun. And Hammond’s words hint at a war that will only get bigger and take longer. Indeed, he said that, if necessary, Britain could send more Tornadoes to the area than the six it will send initially if the vote passes in the Commons today.

This, coupled with the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s suggestion in the House magazine that the campaign could be a “long haul” of “two to three years”, may make many politicians think twice before voting for military action this afternoon.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.