Published on December 3rd, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © Syria conflict. Prime Minister David Cameron speaking during the debate in the House of Commons on extending the bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria. Picture date: Wednesday December 2, 2015. See PA story POLITICS Syria. Photo credit should read: PA Wire URN:24923185
The news appeared this morning that the first air strikes over Syria had taken place, and we learned later that the four British Tornadoes had hit their targets: seven points in the oilfields of eastern Syria. The strikes took place only hours after David Cameron and the government won the vote last night to take this military action; the vote was won 397 to 223 after a debate lasting almost eleven hours. Since the Ministry of Defence has confirmed the strikes, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has stated the aircraft “dealt a real blow” to the oilfields under control of Isis. He also said that Britain would not immediately be bombing Raqqa, the city thought to be the Isis stronghold: instead, they will target resources first, and he will personally approve each target. Of course, this will hardly soothe the concerns of those opposed to military action. Yet, both Fallon and Cameron have been eager to assure everyone and anyone today that they do not expect this to be a quick campaign, and that they are in for the long haul. Cameron told The Guardian today he saw bombing “as part of a process that will actually help to deliver a diplomatic change that we need in Syria as well. But we’re going to need to be patient and persistent; this is going to take time.” It is indeed going to take some time, Prime Minister.
It is fitting, considering the length of the military campaign ahead of Britain in Syria, that our parliament spent almost eleven hours debating whether to go ahead. It was recorded by Westminster that 157 MPs had applied to speak in the debate, and most of these were backbenchers, people whom we seldom here from. Indeed, the front bench were a disappointment; both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn delivering insipid speeches – Corbyn probably in part due to nerves surrounding his party’s division of opinion. This is a division of opinion which will play unfortunately for them in the media – which is, incidentally, a product of journalistic spin, because the 66 MPs who rebelled against Corbyn would not have been nearly enough to sway the verdict. It is worth noting also that seven Conservative MPs broke the three-line whip on the motion for Syria air strikes to vote against military intervention; the Labour MPs of course, were given a free vote by Corbyn, which I think shows recognition of the debate’s seriousness. And it was, in contrast to most parliamentary frissons, a very serious debate; not only this, but once the front bench had done their sound bite duty, it became constructive. By the end there were reportedly tears in the House of Commons, and shivers at Hilary Benn’s closing speech.
It is rare in our comparatively comfortable and certainly peaceful Britain, that we see this kind of discussion: I really thought the kind of passion seen in Westminster yesterday was somehow emotionally beyond most MPs. It was the first debate I have seen in UK politics where politicians actually expressed respect for those of opposing views, and answered their concerns. Of course, Cameron rather brought the tone down by repeatedly ignoring calls to apologise for calling those planning to vote against military action “terrorist sympathisers”, but apparently he was leaving the elevated eloquence to other members of his party. He has also faced criticisms for declaring there are 70, 000 ground troops amongst the various facets of the Free Syrian Army which can be used to further the coalition cause against Isis. It has been pointed out that these soldiers are actually from a variety of interested groups and parties, whose support for the coalition, specifically for Britain, cannot at all be guaranteed.
The new action has reportedly received a mixed reception in Syria: Issam al-Reis, the spokesman for the Southern Front, a coalition of forces opposed to Assad, explained this. He said “while it is positive the UK is taking more measures to attack them [Isis] what is important to understand is that a strategy to tackle Isis without tackling the causes of Isis will fail.” He also said, “Isis is our enemy just as the Syrian regime is our enemy. Both brutally repress and kill the Syrian people.” The UK government is then, in a very difficult position: during the Vienna talks, and in future peace talks rumoured to take place in New York, they will be faced with the tough decision of working with Assad. It is a decision which they refused to acknowledge as an option for a long time; with Russia supporting Assad, and the need to oppose Isis growing ever stronger, the UK may well shed its squeamishness about the President. Yet, Al-Reis also said “the Assad regime is the cancer that Isis grew out of”, and stressed the need to deal with the regime. He also mentioned something particularly interesting: he said moderate rebels numbered even more than the heavily questioned figure of 70, 000 David Cameron is clinging onto. This is not only surprising, but it also highlights a very real concern at the heart of this issue, which is simply the lack of knowledge our government seems to have to build policy on.
During the debate, research was presented, numbers were quoted, military personnel were quoted, Syrian residents were quoted – yet for each number, for each testimony there appears to be an opposing one. The head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency retired last year after a three-year stint in the job; asked in an interview if the US had a coherent plan to defeat Isis, he simply said “no. No. We don’t at all. It’s totally incoherent and it’s piecemeal.” Now, if the leader of US defensive intelligence isn’t sure how to tackle Isis, I can’t imagine who is. What is very clear though is that the debate is no longer “should we”, but “how should we?” The growth of Isis has changed the UK parliament and public’s perception of intervention, and of the Middle East, irrevocably – very possibly for the worse. There are more strategic recommendations to counter Isis being made by the think tank, Chatham House; these include destroying roads linking Raqqa and Mosul to supply routes and sealing the border with Turkey. One MP remarked that many other politicians had become “armchair generals” during the debate. It is easy to talk about Syria from the comfort of our homes, for MPs to debate it in a country where they are allowed – nay, but also paid – to debate. It is quite another to actually live with the consequences. We will have to wait for further news about the first air strikes to know what those consequences are, but many also argue, without the air strikes, we would also be awaiting consequences.