Alan Whitehead

Labour MP for Southampton Test

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My Position on Airstrikes in Syria

Last week the Prime Minister put the case for the extension of the existing agreement to UK airstrikes in Iraq to Syria. He clearly considered that the issue was clear cut – a view I do not share, just as I do not share the view of some that there is obviously no case to consider.  In truth the question as to whether bombing by the UK in Syria would serve any clear purpose or add to a planned strategy on the future of Syria is a very complex, finely balanced matter. 

 It is unfortunate that the question of bombing or not bombing Syria seems to have become embroiled with considerations of the internal dynamics of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and I need to measure a decision as to whether to support bombing or otherwise on a far higher bar than whether my vote makes me pro- or anti-Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Party.

What is clear is the ISIL have to be defeated: they are a murderous perversion of Islam: a death cult posing as a state; and represent a threat both to the civilian population of all religions in Syria and Iraq as well as an escalating threat to our safety and security in Europe – as the recent tragic events in Paris have underlined.

It is also clear I think that, with the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 2249, a ‘necessary measure’ to prevent and suppress terrorist acts by ISIL could be seen to be a process of bombing ISIL, and opposition to potential bombing because it has no legal or political grounds is not tenable.

 I have listened very carefully to the debate, and have tried to find out for myself as much as possible about the complexities of this truly horrific war being fought in Syria, between multiple and shifting alliances both within Government and rebel forces. What is still lacking, I think, is a clear strategy for engineering the defeat of ISIL; it is by no means apparent that bombing by British forces will have the material impact on the situation that over 8000 airstrikes and 57,000 sorties by mostly US forces patently so far have not.

In one sense bombing in Iraq against ISIL is far simpler. This is being undertaken at the request of an established and legitimate government against a threat to its territory, and forces. The Iraqi Army, or the Kurdish Peshmerga have shown they can take and hold territory subsequently.

It is, however, very unclear as to whether the presumed main purpose of bombing, which would be to assist anti-ISIL forces take and hold previous ISIL territory, or rather the ‘right’ forces being able to take and hold such territory in Syria is a feasible proposition right now.  Bombing ISILs lines to find that equally unsavoury forces, such as Al Qaeda affiliates of the Syrian government, filled the space would be counterproductive. I do not find the claims that there are ’70,000 moderate rebel forces’ ready to take and hold territory credible: many of this number (if such exist) are engaged in in-depth struggles to hold territory against the Syrian Government and parts of the country well away from ISIL’s lines and would not be available suddenly to fill a vacuum left by others.  Furthermore the conflicting interests of major external forces – some backing the Syrian regime, some backing some rebels but not others, some backing ‘moderate’ rebels but not ‘extremist rebels’.

It seems to me that, unless some kind of strategic progress can be undertaken which places those forces into different configurations against ISIL, such as a successful conclusion of the tentative Vienna talks which could enable Syrian forces, shorn of Assad and joined by substantial elements of rebel forces, to make a real and sustainable impact against ISIL, we will not achieve the desired outcome. I think pursuance of such initiatives, together with sustained action to strangle all forms of financial and material support for ISIL, covertly or overtly, represents a better strategic way forward than adding a small further ingredient to an already confused and intractable situation. Britain can best make its contribution through such initiatives and through continuing to support the degradation of ISIL’s presence in Iraq.

For these reasons, I am not convinced by the Prime Minister’s propositions concerning bombing, and I will not be supporting his resolution when it is put forward later this week.


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