My decision on the Syria vote was strongly influenced by my personal experiences and work in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Balkans showed me how important an international intervention can be in protecting civilians. Iraq and Afghanistan showed how much uncertainty and ignorance and risk we face in intervention. There are risks of being misunderstood by the local population; risks of simply not understanding the dynamics of power at a local level; and great risks of irrationality from the intervening powers.
So, I completely understand why many people were reluctant to act in Syria. There are very good reasons to be worried by the current positions of neighbouring states – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran in particular; and to be doubtful whether it will ever be possible to create genuinely inclusive governments in Baghdad or Damascus, able to appeal to both Sunni and Shia communities. And there are reasons to doubt the capacity and skills of the international community in the Middle East. And above all reasons to be very concerned about the potential casualties of any war.
But I believe that in this case air-strikes are the correct decision. I was convinced of this on two visits to Iraq twice last year. Six days before I reached the frontline on my first visit, Islamic State/ISIL fighters had exploded into the minority areas, and swarmed across the river, driving armoured Humvees into Kurdish territory. The peshmerga had shot at the armoured vehicles, and then, finding their bullets useless, retreated. Within a day, the Islamic State, was only twenty miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and the city-residents were beginning to flee. Beyond were almost four hundred thousand refugees.
But then the US air force responded. The US air-strikes immediately destroyed their artillery and armoured vehicles, and ISIL – who were mounting a full-frontal assault, across miles of open desert – were forced to abandon their attack and retreat. The US action showed, therefore, that air-strikes can prevent the Islamic State from expanding further. And I believe this to be as true in Syria as it was in Iraq. They can help protect the refugees, whom I saw living in half-completed buildings, under bridges, in schools, and on patches of dirt. The Royal Air Force can join these strikes legally, in a broad coalition, without endangering the lives of our troops, and in a way that protects some of the most vulnerable refugees in the world. This is worthwhile.
But as everyone has emphasised, air-strikes on their own, cannot achieve much more than containment – and preventing further expansion. Ultimately, the only people able to create and sustain a viable alternative to the Islamic State are the local population. That will only be possible if they can create a durable government, and if other states in the region stop providing financial support, and safe-haven to Islamic state fighters. That in turn will only be possible when Sunni states cease to believe that the Islamist fighters are their allies against Iran.
The key questions, therefore, for the future are not military but political. How do you bring Turkey actively to support the fight against the Islamic State? How do you convince people in the Gulf to cease financing them? How do you stop Iraq and Syria being simply pawns in a much bigger fight between Iran and its Sunni opponents? What support can you provide for the people living under the Islamic state to allow them to escape this circle of horror?
Britain and its allies can play a role in resolving some of these issues. It could do so through large teams of diplomats and political officers, equipped with relevant languages, working in all those countries to try to find the seeds of a resolution. We need to use our diplomatic, political, and intelligence capacity in the Middle East. And we need patience, humility, understanding, self-knowledge, and seriousness. Because the leading role must be taken not by us but by regional players.
Meanwhile, our current policy must be to prevent ISIL from expanding any further. For more than a decade they have maintained a reputation for brutality, exploited Sunni anger and alienation from the Baghdad government, have created local governance structures, and attracted a varied group of 30,000 foreign fighters from half the countries in the world. This abhorrent group has survived the onslaught of the wealthiest countries on earth, erased the borders of established nations, improvised a new territory, held it, taken the second largest city in Iraq, and enforced horrors – such as slavery and rape – which not even the Taliban have done. And their focus is now increasingly on mounting attacks outside – in Libya, in Egypt, and in Northern Europe. It represents the most significant challenge to global security for decades. In the absence of air-strikes it is very likely that they will be able to expand their territory very significantly – recapture Sinjar, and Baiji, take Erbil, or even Aleppo. It is both practical and morally correct to contain them. That is why I believe – despite all the very valid concerns expressed by opponents – parliament’s decision was the correct response.