Jeremy Corbyn is completely wrong to argue that there is no UN mandate for military action against Isis in Syria. Security Council Resolution 2249 declares Isis a “threat to international peace and security” and calls on its members to “eradicate” its safe haven in Syria using “all necessary means”. The absence of an explicit reference to Chapter VII, the section of the UN Charter dealing with armed conflict, is irrelevant. The Security Council can authorise force without citing Chapter VII, as it did in Korea (1950) and Southern Rhodesia (1966). It is the phrase “all necessary means” – UN-speak for military action – that counts for the purposes of today’s debate. How else do we think the Security Council expects to “eradicate” Isis? Certainly not through a resolution of Islington North Constituency Labour Party.
While it is undoubtedly true that a purely military approach cannot defeat Isis, it is absurd to pretend that there is a purely political option that can work in its place. Broadening the governments of Syria and Iraq and making concerted efforts to address wider Sunni Arab grievances will help to staunch the flow of recruits in the longer term. In the meantime we face tens of thousands of armed Jihadis waging a war of destruction that respects no limits. They are not interested in a negotiated peace. They will not come quietly because someone from Interpol turns up in Raqqa with an arrest warrant. They can only be killed, captured or demobilised by force. Any strategy that doesn’t take that as its starting point is worthless.
None of this necessarily means that the course of action being proposed by David Cameron is the right one. There is a reasoned case for opposing airstrikes until the conditions are in place for local forces to wage an effective ground campaign. It was made eloquently by Stewart Wood last week. The idea is that a peace settlement between elements of the Assad regime and the moderate opposition will create a broadly based Syrian government with the legitimacy and unity of purpose to defeat Isis.
The main argument against this is that we don’t have the luxury of time. The threat from Isis is serious and pressing. Measures to deal with it can’t await the outcome of a Syrian peace process that may or may not succeed. It is true that airpower alone can’t recapture lost ground, but there is evidence that it has helped to contain Isis and prevent it from conquering more territory in both Syria and Iraq. The US estimates that between ten and fifteen thousand Isis fighters were killed in the first year of the air campaign. While some argue that bombing also fuels recruitment, it seems more likely that aspiring Jihadis are drawn by the apparent success of an expanding ‘Caliphate’ and the impression of invincibility it conveys. Even if the best airpower can achieve for the time being is the minimalist goal of containing Isis and keeping it on the back foot, it is achieving a useful purpose.
The choice before the House of Commons today isn’t ultimately a military one. A decision to join the air campaign in Syria will not make it significantly more effective and a decision to stand back will not stop it. The choice is political. Does Britain want to be a full part of the international coalition confronting Isis or not? This in itself could be an important factor in creating the conditions for the negotiated peace that everyone agrees must happen before Isis can be fully defeated. Nothing unites quite like a common enemy, and the emerging international consensus that the fight against Isis must take priority over other considerations is the best hope for achieving the compromises needed for a settlement. A Britain that stands aloof from that consensus also weakens it, reducing the pressure on others to unite behind a shared goal.
The reluctance of the Labour Party to accept the need for military action in the Middle East is understandable in the context of the recent past. But this is not, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to believe, a re-run of the 2003 Iraq debate. On this this occasion there is broad international support for action, clear legal authority and a genuine threat to our security. Indeed, the terms of UNSCR 2249 make it clear that it is those opposed to military action in Syria that are effectively calling for Britain to act unilaterally. Labour did enormous long-term damage to its reputation by supporting an unnecessary war twelve years ago. It cannot restore that reputation by opposing a war that is necessary today.