Cameron warns of “a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean”
After a seven-hour debate, the UK Parliament has backed British participation in air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq. A total of 524 MPs voted for military action, with only 43 voting against.
Among the 69 MPs who abstained was Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who stepped down as Shadow education minister in order to abstain, fearing that further air strikes would only create “further bloodshed and pain in Iraq.”
Although the British contribution to the war effort may yet include military advisors, it is currently intended to consist of six Tornado fighters which will operate from Cyprus. This may appear a small number of planes, comparable to the Belgian and Danish contributions, but it nonetheless adds to the breadth of the coalition being assembled against IS.
Prime Minister David Cameron began the debate by saying that turning a blind eye to IS was not an option, and that the campaign’s hallmarks would be “patience and persistence, not shock and awe.”
Explaining what this meant, he said that defeating IS would take “not just months, but years,” and that Britain needed to be ready for that commitment. This was a real threat, he said, “not the stuff of fantasy.” Were it left unchecked, Britain would face “a terrorist caliphate on the shores of the Mediterranean and bordering a NATO member.”
That the Commons would vote so decisively was predictable once the three main party leaders agreed that this was necessary. Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and last September led Parliament to vote down the Prime Minister’s planned air strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, said that faced with the atrocities committed by IS, the UK “cannot simply stand by.”
At his insistence the proposal before Parliament indicated that further action in Syria would, emergencies aside, require a second vote, and should ideally have the support of the UN Security Council. Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander made clear, however, that Labour might support such action even without a UN resolution. Noting that Russia and China can veto Security Council resolutions, Alexander said, “our moral compass is not set in Moscow or Beijing.”
Certainly, there was wide recognition in the debate that IS could not be defeated without action being taken in Syria. Defense secretary Michael Fallon stated that there was a “strong case” for action in Syria, that being, he said, “where its headquarters are, that’s where its resources, its people are.” To defeat IS, he said, it would be necessary to “defeat them in both Iraq and in Syria.”
Stoke-on-Trent MP Robert Flello said that he was one of many with strong concerns who would “vote for the motion, but with a very heavy heart,” and Alexander recognized that for many the decision to use British military force in Iraq had been “a wrenching one.” Nonetheless, he said, it was the right decision, as he believed “that it is a just cause; that the proposed action is a last resort; that it is proportionate; that it has a reasonable prospect of success; that it has a clear legal base; and that it has broad regional support.”
Catholic peer Lord Alton has warned that “In combating the Islamic State the US and the West will argue that we are part of a coalition which includes Sunni Muslim states but, as we all know, it is much easier to take military action than it is to end conflict.”
Alton asked what the government was doing to help Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi communities, who had fled into the Kurdish area. Pointing out how social tensions would be likely to fester and erupt as winter approached, Alton said the government needed to outline how it was working to ensure sustained funding for tackling the humanitarian crisis.
Quoting the inquiry of the Foreign Affairs Committee into the UK’s response to extremism and instability in North and West Africa, Alton said that the government deserved credit for achieving its military goals in the UK’s 2011 intervention in Libya, but that “there was a failure to anticipate, and therefore mitigate, the regional fallout from the intervention, which has been enormous and, in some cases, disastrous.”
“Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results,” he said. “In other words, following military action will the same thing happen again?”
Air strikes are expected to begin by Sunday.
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.