If the furore around the vote on Syria reveals anything, it is the weakness of the Conservative majority.

All the focus as regards the debate on Syria, by the BBC, by Sky News, in the broadsheets (The Telegraph, The Sun, The Daily Mail) has been on the divisions in the Labour party over whether to support or oppose extending RAF air-strikes over Syria. Yet, should it not be more on why David Cameron cannot make the case to enough of his own MPs to back him on the necessity of air-strikes in Syria? The government case for extending bombing needs to be carefully critiqued & considered. Interestingly internal dissent within the Tory party and the prospect of rebels, erodes any clout the majority of 12 has in the commons. Cameron is unlikely to risk a vote if he cannot get support.  Currently the RAF is only conducting sorties over Iraq, aiding the Iraqi Military in the fight against Daesh (ISIL). The Prime-Minister wants to join the US-led coalition and order the RAF to launch strikes in Syria to target Daesh/ISIL there. To do so he will need the support of some Labour MPs. Many members of the shadow cabinet & back benchers are likely to be pursued by the case for air-strikes. Former business secretary Chuka Umunna  told Sky News he would defy the whip if instructed to oppose military action.

“This isn’t about the internal  politics of the Labour party. I think on this issue you have to do what is right. On this issue I am clear our national security is threatened by ISIL.”

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In the wake of the atrocities in Paris on November 13th, the argument asserted by David Cameron is that launching UK air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will make us safer . Cameron claimed to MPs that there was strong legal justification for extending the current military action in Iraq, on grounds of self-defence and the recent UN Security Council resolution. Cameron wants the UK to join the U.S, Russia , France (who have increased bombing missions in Syria), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Denmark, the UAE & other gulf states. Yet the case for Britain entering this immense, multifaceted & complex conflict is not as simple as Cameron makes out. A broad range of individuals  & groups are opposed to the escalation of military action. Stop The War Coalition has outlined its opposition. Approximately 25,000 people marched in protest on the 28th November 2015 in London, with smaller protests  held in more than a dozen towns and cities in the UK.

Rise of Daesh/ISIL: 

The jihadist group Daesh (also referred to as ISIL or ISIS) appeared en-masse in 2014.  It has become notorious for its brutality (mass killings, abductions and beheadings). Its origins can be traced  to  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi . In 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden and formed al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a major force in the insurgency against US/British troops.  After Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI created an umbrella organisation, Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). ISI was steadily weakened by the US troop surge and the creation of Sahwa councils by Sunni Arab tribesmen who rejected its brutality.  However 2013,  following U.S troops withdrawing from Iraq, it re-surged and was once again carrying out dozens of attacks a month in Iraq.

Daesh now occupies huge swathes of land in both Syria & Iraq. Given the power vacuum in Syria caused by the civil war & the collapse of the Iraqi Army it has grabbed big chunks of both countries in forming its so called ”Caliphate”.  Matthew Olson, director of the US National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), estimated that at its peak Daesh controlled  much of the Tigris-Euphrates river basin – an area similar in size to the United Kingdom, or about 210,000 sq km (81,000 sq miles). To Daesh/ISIL, the border between Iraq & Syria does not exist (if you are familiar with history this has some basis stemming from colonial control by Britain & France of the ”Levant”).

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The case for extending air-strikes: 

On Thursday 26th November, David Cameron published a document urging MPs to back UK air-strikes against so called Islamic State  (Daesh/ISIL) in Syria. Cameron asserted that the terrorist organisation was likely to use the sanctuary of northern Syria to launch plots against Britain. Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, has warned he threat to Britain from the militants, also known as ISIL, was as potent in the UK as it was in the French capital where 130 people were killed in the recent massacre. According to Fallon the threat to the UK is extremely high and a terrorist  attack is highly likely.  Fallon has stated the RAF is already ‘making a difference in Iraq … we need to hit ISIL harder and deal with this death cult once and for all.’

”These aren’t people you can negotiate with. You can only deal with them by force.” – Michael Fallon 

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”Throughout Britain’s history we have been called on time and again to make the hardest of decisions in defence of our citizens and our country. Today one of the greatest threats we face to our security is the threat from Isil”. 

The  rationale put forward by David Cameron centres on ‘the very direct threat that Isil poses to our country and our way of life …. They have already taken the lives of British hostages and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia.’ Cameron pointed to seven attacks apparently foiled over the past year linked to Isis or inspired by its propaganda.

The case against extending air-strikes: 

Across the political spectrum there is opposition to extension of air-strikes. The SNP have is unlikely to back Cameron. Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, has been critical of the PMs case for war:

“Two years ago the prime minister urged us to bomb the opponents of Daesh in Syria. That would probably  have strengthened this terrorist organisation. Today, the prime minister wants us to launch a bombing campaign without effective ground support in place or a fully-costed reconstruction and stability plan”. 

The Labour party is split, with the much of the shadow cabinet likely to vote in favour. Jeremy Corbyn has outlined he personally cannot support air-strikes. In the wake of the attacks in Paris, he declared that Britain ‘must not be drawn into responses that feed the cycle of violence and hate’. He has urged his country not to ‘keep making the same mistakes’ in the Middle East, something he has been saying for decades. Officially Labour does not have a position on Syria, many MPs have confirmed they will not vote  in favour & vice versa.  Corbyn has warned of “unintended consequences” of Britain being involved any escalation in military action in Syria.

”I do not believe the prime minister’s current proposal for airstrikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.”

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For Corbyn the argument against air-strikes centres on:

“…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 lack of certainty in objectives & what will be achieved, questions over whether there are sufficient numbers of moderate fighters/ground troops to consolidate gains made by air-strikes & the sheer numbers of potential civilian casualties surround the case for airstrikes. Further, Britain would be  entering a complex geo-political proxy conflict where a plethora of factions -(US/Russia,  Iran/S. Arabia,  Turkey & Assad, rival rebel factions) vie for power & control of territory, each with radically different objectives/designs. The ”Beast of Bolsover” Dennis Skimmer MP summed this up, stating:

”Is it not essential in any prelude to a war to be sure of our allies and to be sure of the objectives? Is it not a fact that Turkey has been buying oil from ISIL? They used Turkey’s trucks to store it. Turkey has been bombing the Kurds, and the Kurds are fighting ISIL. Turkey shot down a Russian jet, even though Russia wants to fight ISIL. The Prime Minister has the objective of getting rid of Assad. A Russian ally has the opposite objective. What a crazy war—enemies to the right of us, enemies to the left of us. Keep out.”

On the Andrew Marr show (29th November) Corbyn confirmed  insisted he alone will decide whether his MPs will get a free vote on British air-strikes in Syria. Things in Labour are tense. MPs will have spent the weekend looking at the evidence & discussing matter with their constituents to decide how to vote. Whether there will be a free vote, as requested & alluded to, is uncertain.

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Britain & America are reluctant to commit ground troops. Kurdish ”Peshmerga” fighters who have born the brunt of conflict with Daesh, are unlikely to fight outside Kurdish areas in Northern Syria & Iraq. The Kurds are too small a force, with little interest in fighting beyond neighbouring territory. The Iraqi army is riven by religious and ethnic divisions. David Cameron told the commons there were ”70,000” moderate Free Syrian Army solider & various affiliated rebel groups whom would be coordinated with in order to secure Syria following air-strikes.  The Prime Minister’s number came from an internal assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).  This number however has been heavily scrutinised, many consider it baseless. For example, U.S. General Lloyd Austin,  head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, that very few U.S. trained rebels were still in the fight. Other have expressed concern that with many of these groups we do not know who they are or their objectives. Conservative MP Dr Julian Lewis challenged Cameron over what he called his magical claim that 70,000 moderate fighters existed. These  rebel forces are deeply divided among lots of competing factions. For many of them, the focus is fighting Assad’s forces around Damascus, not Isis.

“I have to say that the suggestion that there are 70,000 non-Islamist, moderate, credible ground forces is a revelation to me and, I suspect, to most other Members in this House. Adequate ground forces, in my view, depend on the participation of the Syrian army, so if the dictator Assad refuses to resign, which is the greater danger to our national interest: Syria under him or the continued existence and expansion of ISIL/Daesh? We may have to choose between one and the other.”

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This work does not seek to assert whether the case for air-strikes is valid, but will direct readers to an excellent piece of analysis of Cameron’s proposals (featured in the Guardian) by Ewen MacAskill. Cameron has said he would not call a vote in the Commons on air-strikes in Syria until  there was  certainty of a clear majority in favour of action. The PM needs to persuade a group of  backbench Conservative MPs who thwarted his first attempt launch air strikes in Syria in 2013, (when Cameron intended to bomb Bashar Al-Assad) to change their minds and get enough Labour MPs on board to offset any rebellion on his own side. It is this which reveals, oddly the weakness of the Conservative majority. Parliamentary arithmetic shows that with enough internal dissent, the Conservative party can be paralysed. On the Andrew Marr show, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon did admit that he had been in talks with Labour MPs but added: “We’ve got to keep building the case” and that it would be harder to get the support if Labour ordered its MPs to vote against air-strikes in Syria.

By Frederick Antonio Gallucci | International Law LLM | @gibblegbble

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