With Regret, I Feel I Have No Other Option But to Abstain on Syria

This article was written for and published by The Huffington Post today.

The Syria debate has been unhelpfully framed by two extremes.

The ‘something must be done’ brigade who understandably are desperate to respond to the fascism of Isis and the threat to the UK, but who are often less reflective on the type of action that might be needed, the danger of unintended consequences or the specific conflict dynamics in Syria. There’s a danger of them falling into the trap of the man with a hammer who thinks everything is a nail. We need a nuanced approach not a one tactic fits all plan.

On the other hand there are the ‘nothing can be done’ sect who see military action as an anathema in all circumstances, who view the role of Britain with suspicion and who trace back most if not all injustices in the world to UK imperialism. This depressing lack of sophistication airbrushes from history the role we played in cases such as Kosovo or Sierra Leone – where civilian protection was key – and fixates on Iraq as the sole frame. This group deny they are against action per se (we want a ‘new diplomatic push’ goes the cry), they assert they are just against military action. Yet almost all of them have remained remarkably silent about Syria while hundreds of thousands have been killed, only now raising their voices to state what they are against rather than what they are for. It is best personified by the ‘Stop the War’ coalition, a coalition who don’t seem to know or care that there is already a war in Syria and has been for many years. If they were really the ‘Stop the War’ coalition they would have been actively campaigning for resolute international action to protect civilians and end the war in Syria for many years.

Both extremes are completely unhelpful to the debate. They risk playing out the same tired arguments almost irrespective of the facts on the ground in Syria. They become hypothetical and ideological rather than practical and specific. I’m glad to say the vast majority of MPs are not at either extreme. They are thoughtful and engaged, determined to make the right judgement. Within the Labour party, even in response to some disgraceful politicking and student union-type pressure tactics, the vast majority of MPs are making the judgement on what they think will work, not what will be popular or easy. And that makes the judgement even harder.

As someone who cares deeply about Syria, who has campaigned on the issue before entering parliament, who has pushed for more resolute action at every stage, it is with regret that I feel I have no other option but to abstain on this evening’s vote.

I say regret because I’ve always thought abstaining on key debates was due to one of three things; a cowardly opt out designed to avoid accountability, a case of chronic and unacceptable indecision or the judgement to place political positioning over conviction.

So I have thought long and hard before deciding that I have no other choice. The reason is simple, I’m not against airstrikes in principle. In fact as part of an integrated strategy for Syria they are almost certainly a necessary part. But airstrikes are a tactic not a strategy and outside a strategy I fear they will fail.

Everyone I have spoken to accepts that airstrikes alone will not work, yet the focus on the other elements of the strategy are too weak to be effective, too underdeveloped to be compelling.

I have long argued that Isis and Assad are not separate problems to be chosen between, but are action and reaction, cause and symptom, chicken and egg, impossible to untangle no matter how much we might like to. The brutality of Assad (who has killed seven times the number of civilians as Isis) has helped nurture Isis and been its main recruiting sergeant. As such they can only be addressed together, as part of a coherent strategy.

I have been pushing for this comprehensive strategy for many months and welcomed the Prime Minister coming to the house to set out his plan last week. There were encouraging elements to this plan and at last Syria was being treated with seriousness it deserved (after several years of self-defeating neglect).

Since the first outline of the plan by the Prime Minister I have studied the case he has set out in detail, discussed it with officials and experts, with Syrian people and with campaigning groups trying to end the conflict. My reluctant conclusion is that beyond the tactic of airstrikes, the wider plan remains undeveloped. While much of the intent and language is there, the thing I am most concerned about and which in my view will most change the conflict dynamic is the protection of civilians, particularly from Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs. This is relegated to second order status in the strategy, underdeveloped and unthought out. It is a fatal flaw in the strategy.

The Prime Minister has compounded this for me by positioning the strategy as “Isis first”, like we are picking from a menu of independent variables. First we’ll deal with Isis and then we’ll come back to Assad. Wars don’t work like this. Indeed, by refusing to tackle Assad’s brutality we may actively alienate more of the Sunni population, driving them towards Isis.

So I have decided to abstain. Because I am not against airstrikes per se, but I cannot actively support them unless they are part of a plan. Because I believe in action to address Isis, but do not believe that it will work in isolation.

My final hope and plea is whether or not the Government win this vote that they take a long hard look at revamping their strategy for civilian protection in Syria. That in the weeks that come the protection of civilians becomes the central component in our plan. In my view it is only when civilians are protected that we will defeat Isis, and until that is at the centre of our plan I will remain an outspoken advocate for that cause.

Jo Cox is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen

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