John’s letter on Syria to Cllr Alan Gosling, chair of Wentworth & Dearne Constituency Labour Party

Dear Alan

I wanted to write to you as chair of our Wentworth and Dearne Constituency Labour Party to set out my decision on whether to vote to support UK airstrikes in Syria, and my reasoning for it.

This decision is not about whether there should be British troops in Syria. That has been ruled out by Labour and by the Prime Minister. Nor is it about any dramatic escalation of our military presence short of ‘boots on the ground’; it is a decision whether or not to extend British military bombing to targets in Syria. Nevertheless, decisions about deployment of military personnel remain amongst the most serious a Member of Parliament can take. My view is that Party members and constituents deserve an explanation of the judgement I have reached on this matter.

I’ve been sceptical about the case that direct UK military intervention in Syria could make either us in Britain or the desperate citizens of Syria safer.

Nevertheless, I have been persuadable. For that reason I did not prejudge matters before the Prime Minister set out his statement last Thursday, nor come to a snap judgement after he spoke. I went back over the Prime Minister’s statement over the weekend, weighed the complexities, discussed it widely, and requested and received a face-to-face briefing as a Privy Councillor from the government’s national security advisers to be sure of the facts.

The burden of proof and responsibility lies with the Prime Minister and the government to convince MPs of all parties that further military action is justified.

What is clear is that the dreadful attacks in Paris on 13 November, and subsequent post-Paris developments have changed the weight of some of the important arguments. I accept that there is now a legal basis for military action sanctioned by the UN. And I feel keenly the need to show our sympathy and our solidarity with the French people.

What is also clear is that ISIL, or Daesh as some prefer to call them, are a group of murderous, medieval fanatics who wish harm to this country and its citizens. Through their choices, not ours, they are now our enemy. They must be defeated.

The first question is what difference UK bombing in Syria would make. The best case for military action rests on this point. However, it is apparent that we would add only marginally to the capacity of other nations already carrying out bombing in Syria, and we are already giving intelligence and logistics support to missions over Syria.

It is also far from clear what good any British airstrikes will do against ISIL without ground forces to capture any territory cleared. As the Prime Minister has said “We cannot defeat ISIL simply from the air”. Even if there are 70,000 so-called moderate Sunni Syrians who could be our allies, the best assessment suggests they may be (a) too disparate and small in number to be of serious weight against ISIL (b) not well-positioned in the areas where we would have need of them most and (c) focused on their struggle with Assad, who is rightly the enemy to most Syrians.

Against this potential military benefit, marginal and qualified though it is, are important risks.

First that we may unwittingly strengthen ISIL, whose dreadful power has never been merely its military might, but its ability to raise funds and recruit impressionable young Muslims from around the world, and its ideology which feeds off a corrupted story of a holy war waged by Western countries like ours. UK airstrikes in Syria risk strengthening ISIL’s hand on both of these fronts.

Linked to this is the vexed question of civilian casualties. There is every reason, based on current operations in Iraq and Syria to believe that the number of such casualties would be low. But there remains the serious risk that we will kill – and in any case we will certainly be told by ISIL that we kill – civilians, and hit schools, markets and apartment blocks in our quest to destroy ISIL militants.

Second, there is a risk that we may strengthen Assad either by directly weakening ISIL where there are no moderate forces to take its place, or if, as the Prime Minister plans, we divert moderate Syrian militia from fighting Assad to fighting ISIL.

Despite ISIL’s atrocities, it is the Assad regime’s mass murder of its own people that has been the main cause for the human catastrophe in Syria. It is primarily because of Assad that over a quarter of a million people have been killed and half the population of Syria have been forced to flee their homes. So any action of ours that might unintentionally give military benefit to Assad and the current Syrian government is hard to support.

With these points in mind, my judgement is to vote against airstrikes in Syria if a decision is called for this week.

In doing so, I do not rule out supporting airstrikes at some further stage if the balance of facts outlined above changes. Most importantly, I reject the argument that inaction is the only alternative action to bombing. There is still a great deal that the government can and must do: to help end the Syrian civil war; to put an end to ISIL, and to keep UK citizens safe.

In my view this must include the UK now redoubling its efforts in Syria to: play a leading role in the ongoing peace talks to secure a ceasefire and a stable political settlement, stop the supply of weapons or other support from states in the region to ISIL, help Turkey seal the border to stop new recruits joining ISIL in Syria, and starve ISIL of their oil revenues which are reported to be around $1.5m a day.

Closer to home, the government must closely monitor and increase where necessary support for police and counter-terrorism services across the UK, and consider additional counter-extremism measures to stop young British Muslims becoming radicalised.

Whichever way the Commons votes on airstrikes in Syria, I will lend my full support to action in these areas.

With good wishes