Tomorrow, parliament has been recalled to debate and vote on the issue of the involvement of British forces in air-strikes in Iraq. This is a highly contentious issue, which will not be taken lightly by any government, or any parliamentarian.
A decision to give UK support to air-strikes could have wide and long-lasting repercussions, not least in the loss of lives in the region or elsewhere – including here at home in the UK through acts of terrorism. A decision not to give support could have equally wide and enduring repercussions, of a similar type and magnitude.
This is not a clear-cut or easy decision. I envy the easy certainty of those who say otherwise, to justify their support or opposition to UK involvement. I have thought long and hard over the decision.
There are several key questions which should underpin any consideration of committing a country and its armed forces to conflict.
- Can we avoid conflict? Has everything – diplomatically and politically – been done to avoid conflict? Can any more be done?
- Is it our fight, in the main or in part? Are our national interests served by being involved? Are they better served by staying out? Is there a moral case for involvement which goes beyond our immediate and obvious national interests?
- Is our intervention legitimate, and/or legal? Does international law support intervention, or is there some other legitimate reason for involvement such as to protect against genocide or ethnic-cleansing.
- What are we trying to achieve? Is there an agreed strategy, and clear objectives for the military intervention? Is there a parallel diplomatic and political strategy that has equal or greater investment than the military strategy?
- What is the risk of action, and of inaction? If we fight, what are the foreseeable implications? If we don’t fight, what are the implications?
These are the questions which now face us as a country, as parliament, and as a government before we vote tomorrow in Westminster. A debate and a vote on whether to commit the UK to support air-strikes in Northern Iraq in defence of the Iraqi people and government. A debate and a vote which will have consequences which reverberate for many years.
Some of the answers to these questions (especially the strategic questions) have not been fully laid out by the government, and I and others will be seeking those answers in the debate tomorrow. Many of the questions do not have a simple, straight answer, or at least can be argued with passion and intelligence both ways.
Our response to these questions are skewed by our own personal and our national back-stories. The shameful by-standing impotence of the UN and international community in the face of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994; the ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia; the NATO bombings in Kosovo in 1999/2000 (not sanctioned by the UN) after diplomatic efforts in the UN had failed to protect Kosovan Albanians from slaughter; and of course, the military intervention in Iraq in 2003 which unravelled so badly, so painfully, and which still festers.
So, let me try to answer some of these questions in advance of the debate, and explain why – on balance – support for air-strikes in Iraq is indeed warranted.
Diplomatic/Political channels to avoid conflict
ISIL is not an entity which is open to diplomatic or political overtures. It has no desire to communicate or negotiate, or to peacefully resolve the conflict. It seeks instead to establish itself as a caliphate, and to expand that caliphate across the region through brutal and truly medieval terror. It also seeks to demand the allegiance of “devout” Muslims worldwide.
In the face of this, the opposition to ISIL from so many peaceful Muslims in the region, but also in the UK and around the world, including from many leading clerics has been heartening and courageous.
Yet ISIL is seeking to redraw the map of the region in its own image, ignoring existing states. It seeks to have global allegiance from “true” Muslims. There are no diplomatic/political channels to negate or negotiate this objective. This is not a state, as we know it, subject to diplomatic and political pressure and influence.
The normal rules of engagement – utilise diplomatic and political channels first and only resort to military intervention as a last resort – have been swept aside by ISIL. They communicate through acts of terror, not diplomacy.
Leave it to others
We could choose to walk away from this conflict. It is happening over three thousand miles away. We could just leave it alone, leave it to others to resolve, and hope for the best.
But the conflict will follow us, whether we are directly involved or not.
Not least because hundreds of UK citizens – including some from South Wales – have ventured to the region and have been caught up willingly or inadvertently in the evils perpetrated by ISIL. Some may well intend to return home and bring the conflict to our shores: to our public transport, our shopping centres, our sports stadia, our workplaces and schools.
Whether our intervention would heighten or reduce the likelihood of such an attack in the UK is moot. But the range of countries who are now supporting military intervention against ISIL is large and growing, as they too recognise the threat of ISIL, and honour their international obligations to stand by other sovereign nations (such as Iraq) when they and their populations are threatened.
So key regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan are now involved in the air-strikes against ISIL, along with France, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands and the United States.
I would argue that we in the UK have an even greater obligation to Iraq, because of our part in the Iraq War of 2003 (and the ensuing and prolonged chaos). We are the last country which should be turning away now, but we should also be doing the hardest thinking about how best to assist.
Moreover, after the experiences of Kosovo and Bosnia and Rwanda, how can we turn our faces away from the atrocities now being perpetrated by ISIL? Human rights organisations describe in detail the wholesale evil of torture and murder being visited daily upon innocent people; the ethnic cleansing of religious groups in Northern Iraq; and the violent persecution of Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Shabaks, Mandeans and others. The UN has accused ISIL of mass atrocities and war crimes, including executions of civilians, and systematic rape and torture.
To summarise why we cannot simply stand by as silent witnesses to this barbarity; firstly, the UK has citizens and interests to protect at home and around the world, and this evil will not respect a decision to walk-on-by; secondly, we have obligations to other sovereign countries and their people under threat, and in particular an obligation to Iraq; last – and definitely not least – we cannot turn away in the full knowledge of the evil being perpetrated by ISIL without compromising ourselves morally.
The UK has been explicitly asked to intervene in the interests of the protection of the people and state of Iraq by the Iraqi president. The government has sought and published legal advice, and has published a summary of that legal advice which confirms that the UK would be acting within international law in coming to the aid of Iraq on the request of that nation.
The motion before parliament tomorrow is expressly to assist in Iraq, and it will be made clear that any desire by the government to go further – such as by intervening in Syria – will require further consent of parliament.
Objectives and Long-Term Strategy
The government needs to set out its longer-term diplomatic and political strategy in the region, and how it will work with other nations in the region and elsewhere to bring long-term peace and stability to the region.
We have not heard enough about this from the UK government, yet this ultimately will be the way in which conflict is consigned to the past in this troubled region. The UK should play a key role in taking this forward.
Whilst the debate on September 26th will focus on the decision on support for air-strikes in Iraq, the government must be pushed on its commitment to a long-term diplomatic and political strategy.
The Balance of Risk
I have set out why I believe that parliament should support the government in providing assistance to the Iraqi people with air-strikes in Iraq.
This decision and subsequent action clearly carries risks, including the potential for casualties and fatalities from air strikes, the escalation of conflict in a region characterised by instability and shifting alliances, and the visiting of ISIL’s terror on UK citizens at home or overseas.
The risks are there if we choose not to assist too, as ISIL expands its terror unchecked in the region, and exports it abroad.
Last year, I strongly supported the decision to hold-back from intervention in Syria. I stand by that decision. But things have changed.
ISIL has grown and mutated into a barbaric machine of murder and torture, and is threatening to expand its brutality across the region. Neighbouring Arab and non-Arab nations are now standing together against ISIL, showing a cohesion and willingness that has previously been lacking. Many Western nations have already heeded the calls for support on humanitarian grounds, and in through air-strikes to protect the sovereignty of threatened states and “degrade and destroy” ISIL. Dialogue with Iran and others points the way to a longer-term diplomatic and political solutions across the region.
This is not a straight-forward decision. There are arguments on all sides, and I respect those who hold different views to me. My own constituents are indeed divided in their views.
But just as I respect the views of others, I also invite respect for how I have come to my decision too, based on my internationalism, a respect for international law and human rights, and – fundamentally – a belief that sometimes we are compelled morally to take a stand against evil men and women and evil deeds.
I say, with regret, this is one such time. And even if we take the decision reluctantly, once that decision is taken, we should act boldly and without further hesitation against such monumental evil.
If parliament takes the decision to support air-strikes in Iraq tomorrow, my thoughts will be with the people of Iraq, and with those serving in our forces with bravery at the request of their government.