Today, Parliament will debate military action against the so-called Islamic State in Syria. Personally, I’m in favour of military action. But I’m extremely uneasy about today’s Parliamentary proceedings.
This is the motion MPs will debate:
“That this House condemns the barbaric acts of ISIL against the peoples of Iraq including the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidi and the humanitarian crisis this is causing; recognises the clear threat ISIL poses to the territorial integrity of Iraq and the request from the Government of Iraq for military support from the international community and the specific request to the UK Government for such support; further recognises the threat ISIL poses to wider international security and the UK directly through its sponsorship of terrorist attacks and its murder of a British hostage; acknowledges the broad coalition contributing to military support of the Government of Iraq including countries throughout the Middle East; further acknowledges the request of the Government of Iraq for international support to defend itself against the threat ISIL poses to Iraq and its citizens and the clear legal basis that this provides for action in Iraq; notes that this motion does not endorse UK air strikes in Syria as part of this campaign and any proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote in Parliament; accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government, working with allies, in supporting the Government of Iraq in protecting civilians and restoring its territorial integrity, including the use of UK air strikes to support Iraqi, including Kurdish, security forces’ efforts against ISIL in Iraq; notes that Her Majesty’s Government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; and offers its wholehearted support to the men and women of Her Majesty’s armed forces.”
My unease is two-fold: Firstly, many MPs and politicians are saying it is right to get involved now because “we are directly threatened in the UK” as Dr Sarah Wollaston MP (Conservative, Totnes) told Sky News a short while ago. Dr Wollaston is not alone is saying that threats to the UK mean that the events today in Iraq are different to the situation in Syria in August 2013 when Parliament rejected a motion authorising military action following the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population.
The so-called Islamic State (which is neither Islamic, nor a state) are a brutal genocidal power cult. They have driven many hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. They have mercilessly slaughtered thousands of Christians – including children – as well as members of other minority groups in Syria and Iraq. Their terror isn’t restricted to minorities – Muslims too who fail to submit to the IS warped ideology are also cut down.
The Vicar of Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, has spoken of seeing photographs of children who have been cut in half – including children that he had himself baptised. I myself have watched a video of a man on his knees, his wrists bound together behind his back, surrounded by armed IS fighters, forced to renounce his Christian faith and recite an Islamic prayer. One of the fighters says that the man wasn’t genuine and cuts his head off.
These beheadings aren’t the swift painless executions you imagine when you think of guillotines during the French Revolution; or the swift application of an axe in Tudor England. These are slow, painful, traumatic deaths. But the IS fighters don’t care about that. They care about nothing but their self-interest; and their self-interest is to take over a vast swathe of land to create a pseudo-state in which they can impose their warped ideology and rule over the masses.
That is why we should have got involved. And then is when we should have got involved. I do understand the argument that it is one of a Government’s primary duties to protect its population. But equally, governments have a duty to prevent genocide. By sitting back and waiting until our own national self interest is threatened we ignore our responsibility to protect the weak and the vulnerable.
This was the argument used by US President Barack Obama in August to defend American military action at a time when IS fighters were advancing to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil where the US have diplomatic staff; and it is the argument being used by the British government today in their Parliamentary motion.
The murder of British aid worker David Haines was horrific; and the manner of his death was gruesome. I can’t begin to imagine what his family are going through. But (and I want to be very careful here that I don’t add to the family’s anguish; nor to I want to be misheard as saying that the killing of David Haines wasn’t a serious and senseless crime); David Haines is one of thousands of people who have been killed by IS fighters. By singling out his death as a justification for military action (as the motion before Parliament today does); we run the risk of saying that a British life is worth more than an Iraqi life or a Syrian life.
All life is sacred. And we have an obligation, I would say a duty, to act when a murderous regime – whether that be Assad with his use of chemical weapons or IS with their brutal insurgency – are not only threatening but actually pursuing the ruthless and brutal killing of innocent hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children.
David Cameron began the debate in the House of Commons debate by saying that the question before MPs was “how we keep the British people safe from the threat posed by ISIL.” This self-interest is deeply worrying. The government should be seeking to defend Britain; but it should also be acting to prevent genocide.
I have a second reason for being uneasy about today’s Parliamentary motion: It is not the job of Parliament to act as military strategists. Even relatively recently, Parliament were never told about military action – yet alone asked for permission in advance – until the action had commenced. Continued anger over the second Iraq war in 2003 and the mistrust that arose over the “dodgy dossier” changed all that. Today, the British government feels it cannot engage militarily without the consent of Parliament. This is a political rather than legal or constitutional decision – there is no legal reason why Parliament should be consulted or asked for its consent – but the way the British unwritten constitution develops, this could soon be seen as established custom and practice.
But even if it is right – and I don’t believe it is (can you imagine what would have happened if Churchill had asked for Parliament’s consent before the invasion of France in June 1944) – then Parliament’s job should be to set the objectives rather than the tactics.
What is the objective? It should be the eradication of IS as a fighting force and the protection of the civilian populations in the region. It should then be up to the military to decide how that objective is met. Instead, the motion (although not legally binding – it is a motion, it isn’t law) proscribes certain actions: no UK troops in ground combat operations and no air strikes in Syria.
Air strikes may provide dramatic television pictures; and they can degrade military capability. But they can’t win a war. To tackle IS, it will be necessary to engage them, militarily, with boots on the ground. Using armed forces from Arab and Islamic countries in the region may be politically expedient; it may send a message that this isn’t “the West against Islam”; but it isn’t the best military solution.
We have two options: We can allow the people of Iraq and Syria to continue to be terrorised by IS fighters for years to come, with occasional respite when bombs from the air hit IS targets; or we can go in, go in hard, and complete the task of eradicating IS. How and when that is done is not for me to say; but nor is it for Parliament: it is a question for our highly trained, highly competent, and expert military chiefs.
Parliament should not seek to decide military tactics. Nor should it publicly discuss military tactics. IS now know that if they keep their command and control within Syria they will be safe from British air strikes (but not from air strikes from US, French or Arab members of the coalition). They also know that if, when being pursued, they can cross the border into Syria they have some form of immunity.
The unwillingness to get involved fully in the fight against IS is probably driven by the memory of the vote last year in which Parliament rejected military action against Syria (and I can’t help but wonder whether IS would be as strong as they are now if the US and UK had intervened militarily in Syria in August last year).
And this is another reason why seeking Parliamentary approval for military action is wrong: it weakens Prime Ministers and it weakens the military. For centuries, it was the case that the Government decided whether or not to engage in military action; and it would then (after the action had begun) tell Parliament what it was doing and be accountable for its decision.
We can’t fight wars in Parliament. And MPs should not seek to be our armed forces’ commander in chief. The debate in the House of Commons began at 10.30am today. It is due to continue until 5.00pm. I can’t help but wonder how many more innocent people will be butchered by IS fighters while our armed forces remain on stand by during Westminster’s six-and-a-half-hour exercise in jaw-jaw.