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History will judge whether bombing Isis was the right decision but no one can doubt MPs debated it with rigour and – mostly – politeness

By Rafael Behr

Guardian Online – 2 December 2015

It is unfortunate for the reputation of British politicians that Parliament is often at its best when hardly anyone is looking. So it was with Wednesday’s epic debate on airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria. The opening scenes – the ones that made early news bulletins – were the least edifying. David Cameron came under sustained pressure to apologise for comments the previous evening that a vote against the government would be complicity with “terrorist sympathisers”. The Prime Minister refused, conceding only that principled positions were found on all sides. But the recurrent fury of reasonable dissenters knocked him off his rhetorical stride. He repeated arguments made earlier in the week, but with decayed authority.

The Tory benches bristled with impatience for debate to progress beyond the gaffe. A low point came in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech. He cited correspondence from a constituent – a Syrian refugee, fearing for the safety of his family – and some Conservatives failed to suppress the irritation they routinely show at Prime Minister’s questions when the opposition leader uses this device. This was not the appropriate case on which to hang their sneers. Yet Corbyn, like Cameron, missed a chance to command the house. He tetchily refused to take interventions, rattling through his well-established objections to the dropping of bombs.

The party leaders’ speeches turned out to be a false start. It was Margaret Beckett, the Labour grandee and former Foreign Secretary, who steered Parliament into maturity of tone with a measured but steely case for striking Isis in Syria … From that point onward, the debate was fluent and balanced.

Some of the strongest arguments against Cameron’s position came from his own MPs. Julian Lewis, the chair of the Defence Select Committee, made a sturdy, pragmatic call for caution, accusing the Prime Minister of being “in denial” about the complexity of dynamics in the Middle East and rejecting as fanciful the idea that there was a “third way” between the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and Isis. Cameron’s reliance on the notion of 70,000 potential ground forces ready to follow up airstrikes was rubbished as a “bogus battalion” equivalent to the notorious “dodgy dossier” of intelligence that made the 2003 case for war in Iraq. David Davis and Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury committee, dismantled the technical side of Cameron’s position with similar rigour.

Other former ministers usually associated with Labour’s Blairite wing – Liam Byrne, Ivan Lewis – made equally cogent cases against action, prefacing their remarks with denunciations of Isis before querying the viability of a government plan that appeared long on moral purpose but short on strategic clarity.

… When the votes were counted, the result in favour was not a surprise, nor was the scale of division within the Labour ranks. But no one who watched the debate could credibly question the rigour with which the case was interrogated, nor the sincerity and gravity with which MPs on all sides made their decisions. It will, no doubt, be said this was a precipitate rush to war, but military action is by definition a matter of urgency.

Whether the right choice was made or not, history will have to judge. But when that verdict is given, it should be recalled that, after a shaky start, Parliament gave the matter due and dutiful consideration; that it fulfilled its constitutional function properly and, for the most part, with civil propriety. The outcome may be bitterly regretted by some, but the institution deserves more credit than contempt for the way the choice was made.

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MPs have voted for Britain to join the bombing of Syria, but the Commons debate showed that Parliament’s backing rightly remains conditional

Guardian Online – 2 December 2015

Ministers always said that Parliament would not be asked to debate the bombing of Syria unless the government already had the numbers to win the vote. On Wednesday, after more than 10 intense hours in the Commons, the government duly got an emphatic 174-vote majority, with 397 MPs backing the extension of the campaign, 66 of them Labour rebels. Britain is now a fully committed participant in the US-led aerial alliance against Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. A largely defunct international border will now be crossed. But so will a new political watershed for Britain.

The decision has, however, been taken. Many MPs made thoughtful speeches through the long day and several have produced website statements and other analyses that do credit to their serious approach to an indisputably difficult set of dilemmas. What matters now is that the government should not delude itself into thinking that the hard part is over. It isn’t. If anything, the hard stuff – military, diplomatic, political and humanitarian – starts here. Ministers need to realise that, as Yvette Cooper put it, the country has lent the government its support for the Syrian campaign on a variety of important conditions. And what has been lent can later be reclaimed.

The first of these conditions concerns the way the bombing raids are carried out. Mr Cameron said some reassuring things about precision weapons and pilot skills. But public opinion, here and elsewhere, will not stand for mass civilian casualties or ineptly conducted missions. Isis is adept at concealing itself behind human shields and it will do so. As a general rule, Britain must not bomb human shields, however important the Isis targets behind them. Mr Cameron should have set out the RAF rules of engagement more openly. He should have been challenged more robustly on the subject. He still can be, and he must.

A second condition is that the diplomatic drive must be redoubled, not forgotten. Mr Cameron must recognise that he won the vote because MPs and the public want and expect the diplomatic solution to be the government’s foreign policy priority now. Yet that is easier said than done. Progress in Vienna is welcome, but it remains little more than embryonic at this stage. There are no cosy choices here, as the Defence Committee chair, Julian Lewis, said in his speech.

MPs must also turn up the heat on timings. Parliament has been promised quarterly reviews of the progress of the campaign. That is not enough. MPs should put a sunset clause into the commitment in Syria and be ready to withdraw their support if the hoped for progress is not made. Britain must also accept that more war means more refugees and an increased obligation to do more for them and to take a larger share. This week is the start of what could be a long commitment. But the focus must also already be on the finish.

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All other Commons business has been set aside as MPs spend 10-and-a-half hours setting out their views before voting on stepping up military action

By Rowena Mason, Political Correspondent

Guardian Online – 2 December 2015

… Some Labour MPs will be trying to read the mood of the room before deciding which way to vote. A large rebellion against Corbyn would give them cover, but a small one would mark them out as possible targets for those activists who want to get rid of disloyal Labour MPs … A similar game will be happening on a lesser scale in the Tories but with promotions and patronage at stake. Those planning to vote against are mostly well known as veteran rebels. The most influential of the sceptic camp is probably Dr Julian Lewis, the Commons Defence Committee chairman, whose contribution could sway undecideds his way … Some passionate oratory on all sides is guaranteed. The House of Commons is usually at its best debating matters of grave seriousness. There are likely to be heartfelt speeches against extending the bombing by Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Angus Robertson in the SNP, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and rebel Tories such as David Davis. Equally fervent interventions in favour are likely from Cameron, and Labour figures like Mary Creagh, Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn.

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David Cameron will make his case for extending military action in a House of Commons statement on Thursday

By Patrick Wintour, Political Editor

Guardian Online – 22 November 2015

Britain’s stop-start march towards joining the air war in Syria now appears irreversible, after key Tory sceptics and a growing number of Labour MPs have signalled that they are ready to back an extension of airstrikes.

David Cameron will make his case for extending military action in a House of Commons statement on Thursday, Downing Street confirmed, following a UN Security Council resolution authorising powers to “take all necessary measures” to defeat Isis. Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, will then provide a private briefing to Labour MPs on the military position less than a week later on 2 December, leaving the government’s Chief Whip, Mark Harper, to make the calculation over the following weekend as to whether Cameron has a Commons majority for war … With Parliament due to go on Christmas recess from 17 December until 5 January, ministers will want to keep up the momentum and stage the vote in early December.

… There are clear signs that Cameron is winning over sceptics as tentative progress is made on the diplomatic front to start a process geared towards a political transition in Syria, a ceasefire and a means of assembling ground troops from the region. There are also signs that Russia is willing to focus its bombing campaign on Isis. Russia has stepped up its airstrikes since a bomb brought down a Russian plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people on board.

France has meanwhile dispatched an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean to enable French jets to multiply strikes on Isis targets. Cameron is due to meet François Hollande in Paris on Monday to discuss the air campaign and identify the ground troops that might be needed to take and occupy ground in Syria currently held by Isis.

He will have been heartened by opinion shifting at Westminster. The Democratic Unionist party’s leadership at the weekend suggested it was likely to back war, boosting the Commons arithmetic in Cameron’s favour. Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader at Westminster, said in a speech:

“We have always said we can back British military force, provided it is realistic and in the national interest. The scene is set for our action being just that.”

But the Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis, remains sceptical, saying on Saturday:

“What we have here is a refusal by the government to recognise that this is a choice of the lesser of two evils. It is dangerous enough to intervene, to try to help one side in a civil war beat the other side in the civil war, but to try and intervene so that both sides will lose – that Assad will lose and that the Islamists will lose – that’s really asking for trouble.”