In the run-up to the vote I approached the decision I needed to make by looking at the different arguments for how we tackle Daesh in Syria and what is likely to achieve the fundamental shift from the mind bogglingly complex and militarised situation we have now to a comprehensive political solution.
Many of the people who oppose use of air strikes point to arms sales to the area, funding for Daesh particularly from Saudi Arabia, and bringing Russia and Turkey to the negotiating table rather than acting independently. All of these are so important to the long term stability of the country and region. I came to the conclusion though that even if we could have these things it would not achieve the transformation we need swiftly enough to not only halt Daesh but liberate the Syrian people who suffer their rule.
Media reporting has overwhelmingly focussed on the central issues of why our air force is needed, what it will do, and issues surrounding use of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many people who contacted me were rightly concerned that there was a total lack of strategic planning and the proposed use of military intervention was too isolated and if not part of a comprehensive plan would only worsen things. I have total sympathy for this and used my position as your MP to speak to the Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, very senior representatives of the military, and twice met with the Secretary of State for International Development.
I believe there is more strategy in place than people realise, probably because many of the pieces have come together very recently. For example, Saudi Arabia have agreed to crack down on the families - sometimes senior Saudi families - who have been passing funds to Daesh. Turkey has been offered fresh rounds of negotiations to join the EU in return for cooperating more fully with efforts to secure peace in Syria, particularly in its relationship with the Kurds. And as part of the ‘Vienna Negotiations’ Russia has finally agreed to a ‘transition’ of power away from the Assad regime, a hugely significant step.
This is an extract of the motion we voted on last night and these aspects are there largely because of the huge amount of lobbying done by backbench MP’s and my lobbying was based on in a large part on the messages your sent me or left here on Facebook:
This House “notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement; welcomes the Government's continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees; underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria; welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters and weapons”
All of these elements are hugely significant when taken together, but it is not alone capable of dealing with territory held by Daesh and until that part of the country is regained none of the other constituent parts will hold together and without this piece of the jigsaw you have no comprehensive strategy.
The single biggest factor that moved me towards supporting action was the UN Security Council resolution which called on all member states that can do so to take military action against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Normally such resolutions authorise action, this one proactively called for it and was signed by both Russia and China.
The resolution came after several UN reports into conditions in Daesh held territory revealed crimes that are scarcely imaginable. Around 500 young women are being traded in markets for sex, one burned alive a fortnight ago for refusing sex with someone who’d just purchased her. People are publicly murdered for standing accused of being gay. Not being gay, being accused of it. Non-Muslim people are executed. The list goes on and on and is coming from the United Nations not our government and not from campaigning organisations.
I attended a briefing by the Home Secretary on the threat to us, then afterwards met with someone involved in anti-radicalism work, and then spoke to a senior officer in Sussex Police. This was all to understand as clearly as I could the seriousness of the threat Daesh pose to us here. I was left in no doubt about it, but had to answer the question ‘how much of the threat is directly from Syria and how much is home grown within our own communities?’. The answer is, as you’d imagine, both. In the last 12 months police and other agencies have foiled 7 attempted attacks in Britain and almost all were planned and coordinated from Syria or linked to Daesh in Syria. Radicalism that is homegrown is another huge issue that we should discuss as a community and even though it is too big an issue to explore here I do accept that there are links to Britain’s role in the world and past interventions and the radicalisation of our our citizens, but it is a complex one.
So what has been proposed? Basically it is an extension of our current operations in Iraq into Syria because there is no longer a boarder between them it is one Daesh held territory. Britain has been asked by the other allies to provide use of specialist equipment that only we have in order to limit the cost in civilian lives. I asked, ‘why is it so important Britain are involved, surely America have enough planes and missiles’. The answer is that they have requested specific equipment and one of our missiles which has proven very effective at striking a target with very limited shrapnel. The claim has been made by our Royal Air Force that in the last 200 sorties in Iraq there has not been a single civilian death. Last night our first raid was carried out on an oil refinery and this was a target that had not been touched for the past year because of the likely loss of civilian lives. As far as I’m aware it was successful with no reported loss of civilian life.
The vast majority of the 2 million refugees fleeing Syria have come from Daesh territory. It is a humanitarian tragedy of unimaginable scale because each will have their own story. We must reclaim their land for them and then support them in rebuilding their country.
In my previous post I outlined the conditions I wanted government to meet regarding reconstruction. On the money, they have now pledged £1 billion and promised more. The UN estimates it will take £100 billion to rebuild the country’s infrastructure which gives you a sense of how big the task will be. Cabinet ministers have promised me that more money will be forthcoming and they are hosting a ‘pledging conference’ in February in order to get other countries to match our generosity. On the preparation, I was talked through the operation and told what stage preparations are at. I was briefed directly by the Development Secretary and one of her most senior officials. I was told where aid would be stored, how it would be delivered (by air initially and then by road), what networks they already have in FSA held territory, and what partner organisations (both governmental and non-governmental) they will use. I was updated on negotiations between these agencies and told what stage they were at and the levels of readiness.
The priority after land is recaptured will be to upgrade the extremely poor infrastructure: roads, utilities, and key buildings. This will have to happen on a scale and with a rapidity that is unprecedented. The challenge I still see, and was acknowledged, was the incredibly difficult geography the will need to overcome to get aid and reconstruction to where it is needed.
Huge uncertainties remain. I cannot say that the outcome we all so desperately want will definitely be achieved this way. That is why this vote was so difficult.
I have been an MP for seven months and in this vote I was asked to make a decision not on something isolated, a clean sheet of paper. I was voting on an issue that is hugely complex and partly the result of past mistakes by generations of leaders in the region, by the international community, and by us too.
I truly wish I did not have to vote yesterday, but when I did I worked harder than ever to at least understand as much as I possibly could. I read dozens of reports, I met with numerous cabinet ministers, and sought opinion from experts. I also read every post and message that was sent to me, and read every single article, pamphlet, and in several cases, cartoons, that I was sent. I also spent last Saturday on doorsteps talking to residents about it. Because the majority sentiment here on Facebook was opposed I know that many of you feel that I didn’t listen or should have acted on that. All I can say is that I’m sorry if this damages the trust many of you have placed in me.
By 1am on the morning of the vote, when read the last comments left here, there were 500 comments on my Syria post here on Facebook. I’ve got about 5,000 Twitter followers, 1,500 members of the local Labour Party and received about 1,000 emails on Syria in the last week. But I’m always mindful that I’m not a delegate for any one group, I’m the MP for a whole constituency of over 75,000 people. I can’t poll them on each vote but what I can do is my best to be available, to listen, and discuss with as many people as possible.
I put a lot of time into Facebook and I really love the exchanges we have here, I learn loads from it, but I’m always aware that social media is only one way of many I need to listen to people. The thing I put most time into is actually door-knocking and community events where I can meet people who aren’t politically engaged or driven by issues. I won’t always vote how you as an individual want and sometimes on very divisive issues there will be large number of engaged people who form a collectively very loud voice. If it appears that I deliberately went against your wishes then I’m sorry. I acknowledge the principled way in which you came to your conclusions and I hope so much you will recognise principals in mine too.
Last night I saw a number of MP’s in tears as they walked through both lobbies. I stood with one who had been an MP for almost as long as I’ve been alive who was sobbing with the difficulty this vote posed to us and the consequences of getting it wrong. Of the 66 Labour MP’s I voted with, two were former leaders of the Labour Party who had never voted in a different lobby to a leader of the Labour Party before. I thought that David Cameron behaved appallingly in the run-up to the vote and in his opening speech. But this vote was not about tribes and it wasn’t about social media or unpleasant images posted through my letterbox at home - it was about searching my soul to find the best way to vote based upon the learning I had done and the experiences I’ve had in order to bring an end to the suffering in Syria and the dangers we face here. The only way I could have truly let you down is if my heart told me one thing and I voted differently because I was too scared to take a different view to many of the people here I’ve grown to like so much. The issue being voted on is bigger than that and you deserve better than to have an MP that would put politics before when he believes to be right. As always, I am very much looking forward to reading your comments and engaging with you on it.