David Cameron has outlined his case for war against ISIS in Syria, saying that launching UK air strikes will “make us safer”.
He told MPs the UK was already a target for IS – and the only way to deal with that was to “take action” now. The UK could not “outsource our security to allies” and it had to stand by France, he added.
David Cameron says he will hold a Commons vote on Syria air strikes if he thinks he will win it.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sought assurances the UK would not be dragged into a ground war and asked the PM whether UK air strikes would make any military difference.
He said there was “no doubt” the “so-called Islamic State group has imposed a reign of terror on millions in Iraq, Syria and Libya” and that it “poses a threat to our own people”. But he added: “The question must now be whether extending the UK bombing from Iraq to Syria is likely to reduce, or increase, that threat and whether it will counter, or spread, the terror campaign Isis is waging in the Middle East.”
The SNP, which has 54 Westminster MPs, has said it will not back military intervention without a specific authorisation from the United Nations. The party’s leader at Westminster Angus Robertson said he was not satisfied with the PM’s response to the foreign affairs committee report.
Here is an abridged version of Cameron’s statement to the House of Commons today.
“The reason for acting is the very direct threat that ISIL poses to our country and to our way of life. ISIL has attacked Ankara, Beirut and, of course, Paris, as well as likely blowing up a Russian plane with 224 people on board. It has already taken the lives of British hostages, and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7, on the beaches of Tunisia – and, crucially, it has repeatedly tried to attack us right here in Britain. In the last 12 months, our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to ISIL or inspired by its propaganda, so I am in no doubt that it is in our national interest for action to be taken to stop it – and stopping it means taking action in Syria, because Raqqa is its headquarters.
“But why us? My first responsibility as Prime Minister – and our first job in this House – is to keep the British people safe. We have the assets to do that and we can significantly extend the capabilities of the international coalition forces. That is one reason why members of the international coalition, including President Obama and President Hollande, have made it clear to me that they want Britain to stand with them in joining in air strikes in Syria, as well as Iraq. These are our closest allies, and they want our help.
“Partly, this is about our capabilities. As we are showing in Iraq, the RAF can carry out what is called ‘dynamic targeting,’ whereby our pilots can strike the most difficult targets at rapid pace and with extraordinary precision, and provide vital battle-winning close air support to local forces on the ground. We have the Brimstone precision missile system, which enables us to strike accurately, with minimal collateral damage – something that even the Americans do not have. RAPTOR—the reconnaissance airborne pod for our Tornado aircraft—has no rival; it currently gathers 60% of the coalition’s entire tactical reconnaissance in Iraq, and it is also equipped for strikes. In addition, our Reaper drones are providing up to 30% of the intelligence in Syria, but they are not currently able to use their low-collateral, high-precision missile systems. We also have the proven ability to sustain our operations – not just for weeks, but, if necessary, for months into the future.
“Of course we have those capabilities, but the most important answer to the question, ‘Why us?’, is, I believe, even more fundamental: we should not be content with outsourcing our security to our allies. If we believe that action can help protect us, then, with our allies, we should be part of that action, not standing aside from it. From that moral point comes a fundamental question: if we will not act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our allies in the world can be forgiven for asking, ‘If not now, when?’
“That leads to the next question: why now? The first answer to that is, of course, because of the grave danger that ISIL poses to our security – a danger that has clearly intensified in recent weeks – but there are additional reasons why action now is so important. Just look at what has changed – not just the attack in Paris, but the fact that the world has come together and agreed a UN Security Council resolution. There is a real political process under way. This could lead to a new Government in Syria, with whom we can work to defeat ISIL for good. But as I explained to the House yesterday, we cannot wait for that to be complete before we begin acting to degrade ISIL and reducing its capability to attack us.
“Let us be clear about the military objectives that we are pursuing. Yes, we want to defeat the terrorists by dismantling their networks, stopping their funding, targeting their training camps and taking out those plotting terrorist attacks against the UK, but there is a broader objective. For as long as ISIL can pedal the myth of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it will be a rallying call for Islamist extremists all around the world, and that makes us less safe. Just as we have reduced the scale and size of the so-called caliphate in Iraq – increasingly pushing it out of Iraq – so we need to do the same thing in Syria.
“Indeed, another reason for action now is that the success in Iraq in squeezing the so-called caliphate is put at risk by our failure to act in Syria. This border is not recognised by ISIL, and we seriously hamper our efforts if we stop acting when we reach the Syrian border, so when we come to the question, ‘Why now?’, we have to ask ourselves whether the risks of inaction are greater than the risks of taking action. Every day we fail to act is a day when ISIL can grow stronger and more plots can be undertaken. That is why all the advice I have received – the military advice, the diplomatic advice and the security advice – all says, yes, that the risks of inaction are greater.
“Some have asked specifically whether taking action could make the UK more of a target for ISIL attacks, so let me tell the House that the judgment of the director general of the Security Service and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee is that the UK is already in the top tier of countries that ISIL is targeting, so I am clear that the only way to deal with that reality is to address the threat we face, and to do so now.
“Let me turn to the question of legality. It is a long-standing constitutional convention that we do not publish our formal legal advice, but the document I have published today shows in some detail the clear legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria. It is founded on the right of self-defence as recognised in article 51 of the United Nations charter. The right of self-defence may be exercised individually where it is necessary to the UK’s own defence, and of course collectively in the defence of our friends and allies.
“The main basis of the global coalition’s actions against ISIL in Syria is the collective self-defence of Iraq. Iraq has a legitimate Government – one that we support and help. There is a solid basis of evidence on which to conclude, first, that there is a direct link between the presence and activities of ISIL in Syria and its ongoing attack on Iraq, and secondly, that the Assad regime is unwilling and/or unable to take action necessary to prevent ISIL’s continuing attack on Iraq, or indeed attacks on us. It is also clear that ISIL’s campaign against the UK and our allies has reached the level of an ‘armed attack’, such that force may lawfully be used in self-defence to prevent further atrocities being committed by ISIL.
“This is further underscored by the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2249. We should be clear about what this resolution means and what it says. The whole world came together, including all five members of the Security Council, to agree this resolution unanimously. The resolution states that ISIL ‘constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security.’ It calls for member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and, crucially, it says that we should ‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.’
“Turning to the question of which ground forces will assist us, in Iraq the answer is clear. We have the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. In Syria, the situation is more complex. However, as the report I am publishing today shows, we believe that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups, and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL.
“In addition, Kurdish armed groups have shown themselves capable of taking territory, holding it and administering it, and, crucially, of relieving the suffering that the civilian population had endured under ISIL control. The Syrian Kurds have successfully defended Kurdish areas in northern Syria and retaken territory around the city of Kobane.
“Moderate armed Sunni Arabs have proved capable of defending territory north of Aleppo. They stopped ISIL’s attempts to capture the main humanitarian border crossing with Turkey and sweep into Idlib province. In the south, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army has consolidated its control over significant areas, and has worked to prevent terrorists from operating.
“The people I have talked about are ground troops. They need our help; when they get it, they succeed, so in my view, we should do more to help from the air. Those who ask questions about ground troops are absolutely right to do so. The full answer cannot be achieved until there is a new Syrian Government who represent all the Syrian people – not just Sunni, Shi’a and Alawite, but Christian, Druze and others. It is this new Government who will be the natural partner for our forces in defeating ISIL for good. We cannot defeat ISIL simply from the air, or purely with military action alone. It requires a full political settlement. The question is: can we wait for that settlement before we take action? Again, my answer is no.
“On the question of whether this action is part of an overall strategy, the answer is yes. Our approach has four pillars. First, our counter-extremism strategy means that we have a comprehensive plan to prevent and foil plots at home, and to address the poisonous extremist ideology that is the root cause of the threat we face. The second pillar is our support for the diplomatic and political process. We should be clear about that process. Many people across this House have rightly said how vital it is to have all the key regional players around the table, including Iran and Russia. We are now seeing Iran and Saudi Arabia sitting around the same table as America and Russia, as well as France, Turkey and Britain. All of us are working towards the transition to a new Government in Syria.
“The third pillar is the military action that I am describing to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses; it is working in Iraq, and I believe that it can work in Syria. The fourth pillar is immediate humanitarian support and, even more crucially, longer-term stabilisation. The House has heard many times that Britain has so far given over £1.1 billion – by far the largest commitment of any European country, and second only to the United States of America. That is helping to reduce the need for Syrians to attempt the perilous journey to Europe. The donor conference that I am hosting in February together with Germany, Kuwait, Norway and the UN will help further.
“The House is rightly asking more questions about whether there will be a proper post-conflict reconstruction effort to support a new Syrian Government when they emerge. Britain’s answer to that question is absolutely yes. I can tell the House that Britain would be prepared to contribute at least another £1 billion for that task.
“All these elements – counter-terrorism, political and diplomatic, military and humanitarian – need to happen together to achieve a long-term solution in Syria. We know that peace is a process, not an event. I am clear that it cannot be achieved through a military assault on ISIL alone; it also requires the removal of Assad through a political transition. But I am also clear about the sequencing that needs to take place. This is an ISIL-first strategy.
“What of the end goal? The initial objective is to damage ISIL and reduce its capacity to do us harm. I believe that that can, in time, lead to its eradication. No one predicted ISIL’s rise, and we should not accept that it is somehow impossible to bring it to an end. It is not what the people of Iraq and Syria want; it does not represent the true religion of Islam; and it is losing ground in Iraq, following losses in Sinjar and Baiji.
“We are not naive about the complexity of the task. It will require patience and persistence, and our work will not be complete until we have reached our true end goal, which is having Governments in both Iraq and Syria who can command the confidence of all their peoples. In Syria, that ultimately means a Government without Assad. As Ban Ki-moon has said: ‘Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism.’ That applies so clearly to both Iraq and Syria.
“As we discuss all these things, people also want to know that we have learned the lessons of previous conflicts. Whatever anyone thought of the Iraq war, terrible mistakes were made in its aftermath in dismantling the state and the institutions of that country. We must never make those mistakes again. The political process in Syria will, in time, deliver new leadership, and we must support that transition. We are not in the business of dismantling the Syrian state or its institutions.
“In Libya, the state and its institutions had been hollowed out after 40 years of dictatorship. When the dictatorship went, the institutions rapidly collapsed. The big difference between Libya and Syria is that in Syria this time we have firm international commitment from all the backers of a future Syrian Government around the table at the Vienna talks. The commitment is clear: to preserve and develop the state in Syria, and allow a new representative Government to govern for all its people.
“I have attempted to answer the main questions: why? Why now? Why us? Is it legal? What are the ground forces? Is there a strategy? What is the end point and plan for reconstruction? I know that this is a highly complex situation, and Members on all sides of the House will have other questions that I look forward to trying to answer this morning.
“One question will be about the confused and confusing situation in Syria with regard to Russia’s intervention. Let me reassure the House that the American-led combined air operations centre has a memorandum of understanding with the Russians. That enables daily contact and pragmatic military planning to ensure the safety of all coalition forces, and that would include our brave RAF pilots. Another question will be about whether we are taking sides in a Sunni versus Shi’a conflict, but that is simply not the case. Yes, ISIL is a predominantly Sunni organisation, but it is killing Sunni and Shi’a alike. Our vision for the future of Syria, as with Iraq, is not a sectarian entity, but one that is governed in the interests of all its people. We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the presence of states with both Sunni and Shi’a majorities at the Vienna talks, and their support for international action both against ISIL and towards a diplomatic solution in Syria.
“The House will also want to know what we are doing about the financing of ISIL. The document sets that out; it includes intercepting smugglers, sealing borders, and enforcing sanctions to stop people trading with ISIL. Ultimately, ISIL is able to generate income through its control of territory, so although we are working with international partners to squeeze the finances wherever we can, it is the rolling back of ISIL’s territory that will ultimately cut off its finances.
“Two of the most complex questions in an undoubtedly complex situation are these. First, will acting against ISIL in Syria help to bring about transition? I believe the answer is yes, not least because there cannot be genuine transition without maintaining the territorial integrity of Syria. With its current actions, ISIL completely denies that integrity. Crucially, destroying ISIL helps the moderate forces, and those moderate forces will be crucial to Syria’s future. Secondly, does our view that Assad must go help in the fight against ISIL, or – as some claim – does that confuse the picture? The expert advice that I have could not be clearer: we will not beat ISIL if we waiver in our view that ultimately Assad must go. We cannot win over majority Sunni opinion, which is vital for the long-term stability of Syria, if we suddenly to change our position.
“In the end it comes back to one main question: should we take action? All those who say that ultimately we need a diplomatic solution and a transition to a new Government in Syria are right. Working with a new representative Government is the way to eradicate ISIL in Syria in the long term, but can we wait for that to happen before we take military action? I say we cannot.
“Let me be clear: there will not be a vote in this House unless there is a clear majority for action, because we will not hand a publicity coup to ISIL. I am also clear that any motion we bring before this House will explicitly recognise that military action is not the whole answer. Proud as I am of our incredible servicemen and women, I will not pretend or overstate the significance of our potential contribution. I will not understate the complexity of this issue, nor the risks that are inevitably involved in any military action, but we do face a fundamental threat to our security. We cannot wait for a political transition. We have to hit these terrorists in their heartlands right now: and we must not shirk our responsibility for security, or hand it to others.
“Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and we must, do so again. I commend this statement to the House.”