Syria and ISIL

Your opinion at the start - stage 1/6

This is the question considered by the House of Commons on December 2nd 2015. After over ten hours of debate, the House voted in favour of military action by 397 votes to 223. Here we pick out six key issues that separated those who voted Yes from those who voted No. We use the words spoken by MPs to show the range of arguments made in the debate. To do so, we read the 173 pages on the debate in Hansard - the report of the proceedings of parliament- so that you don't have to.

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Written by Perry Walker, based on Hansard.

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The Syrian crisis and how it began

There is a civil war raging between President Bashar al-Assad's government forces and opposition supporters. It flared up in 2011 from what began as pro-democracy Arab Spring protests. More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed, and 11 million made homeless. In the chaos, so-called ‘Islamic State’ moved into Syria from over the border in Iraq and seized territory. It now controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

What is Islamic State?

It has at least four names: Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), or Daesh – which is an acronym based on another name that the group used to use. The ‘state’ part of its names reflects the fact that it has declared its territory a caliphate - a state governed according to Islamic law - under its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

David CameronMP, the Prime Minister, said that he preferred “The terminology ‘Daesh’ rather than ISIL. This evil death cult is neither a true representation of Islam nor a state." (This quote and those from MPs below are from the debate.)

Khalid Mahmood MP endorsed this: “I want to welcome the Prime Minister’s use of the name Daesh for this barbaric group of people who have absolutely no connection at all to Islam, my faith—as has been affirmed by the Grand Imam Sheikh el-Tayeb of al-Azhar University in only the last few days. That ensures that those people are not referred to in any way as Muslims; nor should they be seen as such.”

David Cameron explained why he saw ISIL/Daesh as a threat to the UK: “ISIL has brutally murdered British hostages. They have inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia, and they have plotted atrocities on the streets here at home. Since November last year our security services have foiled no fewer than seven different plots against our people, so this threat is very real.”

Foreign involvement in Syria

There is an international coalition, led by the United States, also involving France, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain. In 2014, in the face of the threat from Islamic State in Iraq, the House of Commons voted 524 to 43 to authorise airstrikes in Iraq. The UK’s contribution to the coalition takes the form of eight RAF Tornado aircraft, based in Cyprus. In Iraq, the jets have carried out 30% of coalition surveillance missions, but fewer than 5% of coalition air strikes. These involve launching guided bombs or Brimstone missiles at ISIL/Daesh targets. “Since then [2014], our brilliant RAF pilots have helped local forces to halt ISIL’s advance and recover 30% of the territory ISIL had captured.” (David Cameron)

The US and the UK are among countries that want to see the removal of President Assad. Russia is not part of the US-led coalition, being allied with President Assad. It too is launching airstrikes, in support of the Syrian government.

The attitudes of MPs to the vote

Deciding how to vote on this motion marks one of the most serious and solemn occasions in my life, and I have agonised over how I will vote this evening for longer than I have about virtually any other decision that I have had to make so far. (Steve Double MP)

I will be voting against the Government tonight, but I will not be doing so with any certainty that what I am doing is correct. (Toby Perkins MP)

Our vote today cannot be based on certainty. It is truly a conscience vote—a vote based on our instincts, on the balance of probabilities, on our feeling for things, on what our constituents said to us and, above all, our hopes for peace in the future. (James Gray MP)

The criteria of two MPs in deciding how to vote

I have also asked myself a number of time-honoured questions about whether a conflict is just. Will this military action promote a just cause? Are our intentions right? Is there legislative authority? Is this a last resort? Is there a probability of success? Is the action proportionate? (Fiona Bruce MP)

What specific objectives do we have for our involvement, along with our allies? Is there a clear legal basis for the action? What will a post-civil war Syria look like? Who or what will be the Government there, and how will our intervention assist in bringing that about? (Kevin Foster MP)

The legality of airstrikes

Most MPs thought that a recent resolution by the Security Council of the UN made the strikes legal, although a few, including Jeremy Corbyn, were not persuaded. Margaret Beckett expressed the view of the majority when she said:

“Our [Labour] conference called for a United Nations resolution before further action, and we now have a unanimous Security Council resolution. Moreover, that resolution calls on member states in explicit and unmistakeable terms to combat the Daesh threat ‘by all means’ and ‘to eradicate the safe haven they have established’ in Iraq and Syria. Although it speaks of the need to pursue the peace process, the UN resolution calls on member states to act now.”