On 29th November 2015 Barry hosted a public meeting for constituents at St Cuthbert's Church to discuss military intervention in Syria in advance of the likely vote before the House of Commons.
Many people have written to Barry about the situation in Syria and the government's proposals for Britain to become involved in airstrikes there. After the Prime Minister's Statement to the House of Commons on Thursday 26th November, Barry arranged the public meeting where he set out in detail his analysis of the current situation and why, at present, he does not support the government's proposals. The full transcript of what Barry said can be read below.
Position Statement on proposed military intervention in Syria.
Public Meeting in Brent North 29 November 2015
Thank you for coming this evening.
I apologise for the short notice, but the Prime Minister only made his Statement on Thursday which is also when he published his response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report into the Extension of offensive British Military operations to Syria.
The purpose of this evening is to give you the opportunity to hear what my thoughts are about the current proposal to extend air strikes into Syria and to ask me any questions. But it is also an opportunity for me to listen to you and to consider any arguments that you wish to put forward. To date I am not convinced about the case the government has made for military action and I will try to set out clearly what my concerns are.
But let me say at the outset that I am not a pacifist. I start from a position that accepts that military action is sometimes both necessary and justified. In the past I voted in favour of military intervention in Iraq – although within a month of the start of that conflict I gave a speech in parliament highly critical of the coalition’s failure to plan an effective transition to a stable regime. In 2011 on the other hand, I was one of only 13 MPs who voted against the bombing in Libya.
And 2 years ago, In 2013, when David Cameron recalled parliament I was one of the handful of Labour front bench spokespeople who argued successfully to change the shadow cabinet’s position: so that we eventually voted against the motion in parliament and denied the government a mandate to bomb Syria then. You will recall that at that time Cameron was proposing to go in on the side of ISIL/Da’esh against Assad whereas we are now being asked to do things the other way round!
Having said that let me set out some background around Syria. It was in 2011 that peaceful protests began in the northeast of Syria. They followed a prolonged four year drought during which many people had experienced hardship and which had driven hundreds of thousands of people from rural areas into the cities. The Assad government had failed to respond to the crisis and when the protests started they clamped down with appalling repression. This exacerbated the situation which then led to the civil war.
The regime had a history of terrorising its own people under Assad’s father’s rule, and this had enforced an uneasy peace between the ruling Alawite sect, the majority Sunni population and other smaller religious groupings. In 2013 Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people and in September 2014 parliament agreed to allow air strikes against Da’esh in Iraq as it had been invited to provide such support by the Iraqi government who claimed the right to self protection.
Originally ISIL were an offshoot from Al Qaeda but were later disowned by Al Qaeda themselves. At that point they called themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but many people, including me now choose to refer to them as Da’esh because we consider it important to be clear that they are a perversion of Islam and also because we want to deny the seeming legitimacy that such a name might imply.
Based in Raqqa in Northern Syria they used the chaos of the civil war to grow and to control more territory. In the first half of 2014 they embarked on a startlingly successful military campaign that took control of large swathes of both Syria and Iraq and declared that this area was now a caliphate. The people who had been living in these areas have had severe restrictions and punishment regimes imposed on them and religious groups like the Yazidis and other ethnic or religious groups and minorities have been subjected to mass executions, systematic rape and human rights abuses. I'm sure nobody here is unaware of their notorious brutality, throwing people off cliffs, public beheadings, burning people in cages. I am in no doubt that Da’esh is an evil and criminal organisation that does pose a serious threat to peace and has four distinct forms in which it operates: a guerrilla army, a state like entity that provides services within its territory, a Sunni political movement and a fatalistic cult.
Estimates of the fighting strength of Da’esh vary from 20,000 to 200,000. What is clear is that they have been strong enough to make major territorial gains and to impose their control over the territory that they have taken including the cities of Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa and Palmyra in Syria. One expert witness Elizabeth Quintana, who gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said “With Da’esh, the fight will come to us whether or not we want it to. You have to decide what you want to do and how you want to defeat it, but just coming back and having Fortress Britain is not going to be pretty”
As your MP I take seriously the duty I owe you to assess the severity of the threat that Da’esh pose. I also have a duty to assess whether further military action is likely to increase or decrease that threat. And I have a duty to assess the probability that the proposed extension of military action will be successful.
I have talked deliberately about the extension of military action, because it is important to remember that the UK is already participating in air strikes against Da’esh in Iraq. And in Syria the UK is already providing surveillance and intelligence air support. So there is no sense in which I believe we can keep our heads down and Da’esh will ignore us. That is to wilfully delude ourselves. In 2014 a Global Coalition of 65 states was formed to counter Da’esh and the main thrust of the coalition’s efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy them has been to respond to the request of the Iraqi government to support their forces and those of the Kurdish Peshmurga.
I want to move now beyond this background context to consider what I see as the fundamental questions that the House of Commons has to consider when the government brings its motion, which I assume it will do this week.
First: what is the legal basis for military action?
International law allows the use of force in three basic ways. By the invitation of a state who request another power to intervene. We entered the second world war on the invitation of Poland and the legal basis for the UK’s air strikes against Da’esh in Iraq is that the Iraqi government has invited our intervention.
The situation in Syria is different. The Assad regime has certainly not requested our assistance and even if it were to, we would find it difficult to justify intervention on that basis because since 2012 the UK decided to recognise The National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the – and I quote – “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”.
The second legal basis for action would be self-defence as set out in Article 51 of the UN Charter. This confirms the inherent right to individual and collective self defence. Iraq has invoked the right to individual self defence against Da’esh and it is on this basis that Iraq has been able to invite the coalition to engage in collective self defence against Da’esh on her own territory. But action in self defence has to be necessary and proportionate. That was also the basis of the UK drone strike inside Syria.
Professor Marc Weller from the International Law centre in Cambridge University sets it out very clearly:
“When you want to involve self defence in the sense that you, as one state, are defending yourself against the actions of another state, or perhaps the actions of a non-state actor based in another state, you have to demonstrate quite specifically that there exists an instant, overwhelming necessity,meaning no choice of means and no moment of deliberation – in other words, an imminent armed attack is going to happen against you unless you act now”
Britain argued this successfully about the drone strike in August, but it would be much more difficult to sustain this argument as a justification for the proposed long term sustained bombing campaign which the government now envisages.
The third basis for military intervention in international law is to have UN Security Council Authorisation. This has in fact now been given in the form of Security Council Resolution 2249 which was passed a week ago last Friday on the 20th November. I will not read the whole of the Resolution, but parts of it are I think extremely important.
It reaffirms – and I quote – “that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security and that any acts of terrorism are criminal and u justifiable regardless of the motivations, whenever and by whomsoever committed.”
It determined – and I quote – “that, by its violent extremist ideology, it's terrorist acts, it's continued gross systematic and widespread attacks directed against civilians, abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, including those driven on religious or ethnic ground, it's eradication of cultural heritage and trafficking of cultural property, but also its control over significant parts and natural resources across Iraq and Syria and its recruitment and training of foreign terrorist fighter whose threat affects all region and Member States, even those far from conflict zones, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security.”
And ultimately the resolution – again I quote – Calls upon Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, in particular with the United Nations Charter, as well as international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, on the territory under the control of ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as Al Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United NationsSecurity Council and as may be further agreed by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and endorsed by the UN Security Council, pursuant to the Statement of the ISSG of 14 November, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria;
Urges Member States to intensify their efforts to stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to Iraq and Syria and to prevent and suppress the financing of terrorism and urges all Member States to continue to fully implement the above resolutions.”
In so far as Resolution 2249 has authorised the use of force – indeed has called upon member states who have the capacity, to use force – I don't think it is credible to argue that there is no legal basis for intervention.
This does not mean however that it would necessarily be right to agree to the specific course of action that the government has proposed. Military action faces certain threshold tests of its own. I will now move to consider these.
In his statement to the House of Commons on Thursday the Prime Minister was keen to persuade us that the UK joining in air strikes in Syria would add capacity to the military campaign. I do not believe this is the case. The experts from the Royal United Services Institute who gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select committee said that they did not believe that UK intervention would have anything but a marginal effect. They suggested that there would be no increase in the number of aircraft deployed but simply that assets currently deployed only in Iraq would be spread over Iraq and Syria instead.
Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall in particular told the committee: “ This is not an air campaign anything remotely like the scale of 1991 or 2003. We need to be very clear about this. This is not a war-winning air campaign, by any stretch of the imagination”
The Senior Policy Fellow on the Middle East for the European Council on Foreign Relations followed this up saying that the UK should not change its policy because to do so “might feed a sense of radicalisation”. He explained – and I quote – “Sunnis say “Look, the west is not helping us against Assad, but they are fighting ISIS”…we become direct parties, all the while contributing nothing meaningful, in terms of military numbers or capability. I really fail to see that air strikes against ISIS will not do more harm than good” – end quote.
This is not a conclusive argument for me I must say, as I consider we are already a direct party in Iraq against Da’esh, but it does again undermine the Prime Ministers assertion that UK involvement would make a significant military difference.
What is perhaps the critical argument for me in terms of military involvement is:
Does our involvement have a real chance of successfully eradicating Da’esh or do we risk bombing that would inevitably kill many innocent people without any prospect of getting rid of Da’esh.
Last Thursday it was upon this point that I challenged the Prime Minister. I said that the reason for the coalition’s current lack of success against Da’esh was not through a lack of American bombs or air power that the UK might be able to provide, but because of the lack of an effective and efficient ground force that was able to take advantage of the temporary territorial gains that air strikes could create. Without a ground force that could occupy areas vacated by Da’esh during air strikes, and then subsequently hold them the government was effectively deciding on action that was more based on hope than on any reasonable confidence that it could work.
The Free Syrian Army that the Prime Miniser spoke of are simply not such a credible and effective force in my view.
In the north of Syria the Kurdish Peshmurga have been able to do this with some success, but the U.S. campaign to train and equip Syrian Rebels of the FSA to fight against Da’esh proved so ineffective that it was actually abandoned in September when the US announced they were simply going to focus on giving out lots of weapons and ammunition instead. In a situation where you recognise that your enemy is strong and effectively organised and your potential allies weak and disorganised I have to say that giving out weapons strikes me as an incredibly foolish thing to do. The likelihood is that those to whom you give the weapons will be defeated by the very people you don't want to get their hands on them and you end up supplying you enemy.
It is a mistake the U.S. has made in many of the conflicts it has been involved in around the globe from Vietnam to Afghanistan and I would have hoped they might have learned the lessons of history by now.
Time after time the government’s published response talks of “the moderate opposition” in Syria. This is a total falsification in my view of the facts on the ground. There is no single opposition to Assad. The Select Committee reported that : ”After four years of civil war there are thousands of fighting forces in various coalition's and umbrella organisations with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances.” They were told that frequently fighters from one group would jump ship and that fighters from the FSA and from Al Nusra were actually joining Da’esh.
Every single witness who gave evidence to the Select Committee agreed that the Middle ground or so called moderate opposition had been squeezed out of the picture and that all of the fighting groups had become much more radical Islamist extremist in nature. The Select Committee Report is clear – there are few moderates left and the FSA are very weak.
This means there is little chance of air strikes in Syria being partnered by an effective ground force capable of eradicating Da’esh. In other words by committing the UK to such a strategy the government would be committing us to military failure.
The complicated nature of the disparate rebel fighting groups within Syria is further complicated by the disparate international actors who are now engaged in the area many of whom have not just different but diametrically opposed objectives. Russia and Iran wish to see Assad remain in power and would appear to be as keen to attack the FSA, which after all was set up to oppose Assad, just as much as Da’esh. Turkey seems more keen to suppress the Kurds and has of course just shot down a Russian plane which doesn't help to keep a focus on eradicating Da’esh. Saudi Arabia has long been a sponsor of Wahhabi terror and is in my view an extremely dangerous ally in the enforcement of a UN Resolution that is supposed to target Al Nusra and other Al Qaeda splinter groups. There are just too many conflicting strategic interests for us to see any clear settled route to a structured post conflict peaceful outcome. There is an Iran/Saudi conflict; an intra Sunni conflict between the Saudis and the Qataris and there is the Turkish/PKK conflict all going on in this one arena. And that is without even considering the potential for misunderstanding between the U.S. and Russia in a part of the world that has always been seen by the Russians as NATO going a step too far. You will remember that during the Cuban Missile Crisis the quid pro quo that Kennedy offered Kruschev for backing down in Cuba was the withdrawal of missiles in Turkey.
This is just an incredibly complex situation to which the government in my view has posed a desperately simplistic solution. Prof Hinnebusch the Director of the Syrian Studies Centre has pointed out that rather than all the international actors coming together to eradicate Da’esh, it would appear that many of them seem to believe that they can use Da’esh as a bogeyman to get support for their own objectives. In such a situation I think we have no possibility of a clear end game and the attempt to separate out the eradication of Da’esh from the resolution of the Civil War is doomed to failure.
I want to turn now to an area in which I think there is the potential for something more positive to come forward. The Vienna conference which brought together the ISSG two weeks ago saw the P5 – the permanent members of the Security Council - pledge support a UN ceasefire monitoring mission in areas where they could do so without the prospect of terrorist attack. I think the UK does have a strong role to play in promoting a diplomatic solution and this has been strengthened by the fact that the UK has put so much money into the relief of refugees in the region. – and here I do pay tribute to the government for its relief work – it seems to me that this gives the UK the moral authority to broker a complex resolution to the civil war which has been one of the main reasons for the rise of Da’esh
I began by saying that I am not a pacifist, but I do not believe there should be any extension of UK military action into Syria unless there is a convincing coherent international strategy with both military and diplomatic elements that stands a realistic chance of defeating Da’esh on the ground in the context of an end to the Syrian Civil war.
At present the government has not in my view even begun to outline such a strategy.