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26 September 2014updated 21 Jul 2021 11:08am

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. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.

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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.

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