Middle East

Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab): I, too, will not take up my allotted time. Nevertheless, thank you for your generosity, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who began the debate, set an excellent tone, which has continued, and I hope will continue further when we come to deal with the substantive issue of Syria in the coming days. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) gave an excellent analysis, which went to the heart of the issue and was pertinent and incisive.

There are 12 million displaced people, and 250,000 people have died in the nation of Syria—possibly more. That is the context of our debate. We must take the issue deeply seriously, and we must respect everyone’s views. I have had a great deal of contact with people in my constituency and beyond who have expressed their views about the situation in Syria in general and the question of military intervention in particular. I therefore want to set out my position, having written to people in my constituency on the matter. It is the responsibility of every Member of Parliament to have their say and express their view in this important debate.

First, I acknowledge—and no doubt many will—that this matter is remarkably complex. In that regard, any decision made, whether to intervene militarily or not, must be made on the basis of as much relevant and pertinent information and evidence as possible. Moreover, it must stand up to scrutiny in the forum that will ultimately make the decision to authorise the bombing of ISIS—or ISIL, or Daesh; whatever it is called—which is here in the House. No one person or group reaching any decision on this sensitive issue has the right to claim the moral high ground or unassailable certainty. I definitely do not, especially in the context of the suffering inflicted on the innocent in Syria.

Secondly, in his recent statement to Parliament, the Prime Minister very reasonably and articulately set out his “four pillars” strategy in relation to the Syrian crisis: the counter-extremism strategy; the diplomatic and political process; military action to degrade and destroy ISIS; and immediate humanitarian aid and longer-term stabilisation.

Thirdly, I acknowledge that that is a reasonable framework for the debate and for making a decision. However, that must be done on the basis of four pillars with a comprehensive strategy, not by putting into effect just one or two pillars in isolation with the intention of the other pillars being constructed at some unspecified date. In effect, the current position and proposed action do not, in my view, constitute the required comprehensive approach. It is a partial approach, which is a real concern.

Fourthly, in my estimation the key pillar set out by the Prime Minister is the political and diplomatic process. However, it is not so much the aim itself that concerns me—who could disagree with that aim—as its practical implementation and outcomes. What would that entail? What is the timetable for implementation of any agreements arising from the process? What is the likely success of the process, given the multitude of interested and competing—and in certain cases, diametrically opposed—parties in what is widely recognised as a volatile mix? For example, at present there is no clear plan at all as to who will end up governing Syria, nor how we are going to involve neighbouring Arab states and countries.

Seema Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman said that there is no plan on who will govern Syria after any intervention. Surely, with a political settlement, that is in the hands of the Syrian people.

Peter Dowd: That is a fair point. At the end of the day, that is where we are. We have absolutely no idea: there is no road map whatsoever. Yes, it seems like jam tomorrow—eventually, we will get there—but now we have to set out the path in earnest. I accept the point that the hon. Lady is making, but we have to try to focus on the issue a bit more.

My concern is not about practical implementation. As I said, it is about what that would entail, the timetable, and the success issues.

Fifthly, I fear that other pillars of the strategy, while genuinely laudable—for example, the humanitarian aid and stabilisation plan—are unclear in their aims, extent and, crucially, the mechanisms for their delivery. In addition, it goes without saying that a systematic counter-extremism approach is crucial in any strategy, but that prompts the question of whether or not such a strategy depends on military intervention per se. The two things are not, so to speak, symbiotically linked or mutually dependent.

Sixthly, taking all those factors into account, to activate just one pillar—military action, evidently in the form of bombing—is inappropriate at this point, notwithstanding the interventions being undertaken by other nations.

Mr Ellwood: Perhaps I can clarify for the House the fact that bombing is already under way in Syria. Britain is participating by providing intelligence and reconnaissance for that bombing. We are already in that arena.

As for what is happening on the political front, the Vienna talks have made progress. For the first time, they have brought these groups together, including Iran and Russia, and people have spoken of a transitional period, and of a ceasefire and eventual elections. Those words are part of a lexicon that I have not heard in the past four years. These are incremental, small steps, but they are very, very important steps.

Finally, the opposition groups that I spoke about—the factions—will be brought together. Those are groups that have defended their communities. They do not want to work under Assad, but they do not want to be part of the terrorist organisation of ISIL either.

Peter Dowd: I welcome the Minister’s clarification, but it does not go far enough. The process is incremental and we need to move further. One, two or three increments are not sufficient; we need more. I do not want to misinterpret the Prime Minister’s arguments for intervention, but they seem to be significantly, if not primarily, based on a flawed notion—that other nations are fighting our battles for us and protecting our national security by bombing ISIS, and that we should fight our own battles, albeit in alliance with others, otherwise it reflects on our national integrity. This argument appeals predominantly to pride rather than to reason, and we know that pride comes before a fall.

Seventhly, let me make it clear that I am in no position to criticise the decisions of others in this matter, nor would I. I can only speak for myself. Making challenges and assertions and asking questions is not criticism. Rather, it is the bread and butter of the parliamentary and democratic process, and that is why I was sent here.

I hope that I have set out my position as clearly and succinctly as possible, given the complexity of the issues facing us all and in the context of the long-term suffering of the people of Syria.

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