Speech against military intervention in Syria

Jeremy Corbyn: The whole House recognises that decisions to send British forces to war are the most serious, solemn and morally challenging of any that we have to take as Members of Parliament. The motion brought before the House by the Government, authorising military action in Syria against ISIL, faces us with exactly that decision. It is a decision with potentially far-reaching consequences for us all here in Britain, as well as for the people of Syria and the wider middle east.

For all Members, taking a decision that will put British servicemen and women in harm’s way, and almost inevitably lead to the deaths of innocents, is a heavy responsibility. It must be treated with the utmost seriousness, with respect given to those who make a different judgment about the right course of action to take. That is why the Prime Minister’s attempt to brand those who plan to vote against the Government as “terrorist sympathisers”, both demeans the office of the Prime Minister and, I believe, undermines the seriousness of the deliberations we are having today. If he now wants to apologise for those remarks, I would be happy to give way to him.

Since the Prime Minister is unmoved, we will have to move on with the debate. I hope that he will be stronger later and recognise that, yes, he made an unfortunate remark last night, and that apologising for it would be very helpful and improve the atmosphere of this debate.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is appropriately pointing out that by not withdrawing his slur on me and others, the Prime Minister is not showing leadership. Does he also agree that there is no place whatsoever in the Labour party for anybody who has been abusing those Labour Members who choose to vote with the Government on this resolution?

Jeremy Corbyn: Abuse has no part in responsible democratic political dialogue, and I believe that very strongly. That is the way I wish to conduct myself, and I wish others to conduct themselves in that way.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box and made a clear apology with a simple “I’m sorry”, he would clear the air immediately and we could move on with this debate?

Jeremy Corbyn: As he often does on these occasions, the Prime Minister appears to be taking advice from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on this matter. If he wants to apologise now that is fine. If he does not, well, the whole world can note that he is not apologising.

Since the Prime Minister first made his case for extending British bombing to Syria in the House last week, the doubts and unanswered questions expressed on both sides of the House have only grown and multiplied. That is why it is a matter of such concern that the Government have decided to push this vote through Parliament today. It would have been far better to allow a full two-day debate that would have given all Members the chance to make a proper contribution—you informed us, Mr Speaker, that 157 Members have applied to speak in this debate.

Nadhim Zahawi: The right hon. Gentleman and I have worked together on the Kurdish issue, and he knows how tough the Kurds are finding it fighting ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. The shadow Foreign Secretary believes that the four conditions debated at the Labour party conference for taking action in Syria have been met. Why does the Leader of the Opposition disagree with him?

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman may have to wait a few moments to hear the answer to that, but I promise that it will be in my speech. I am pleased that he made that intervention about the Kurdish people, because at some point over the whole middle east and the whole of this settlement, there must be a recognition of the rights of Kurdish people, whichever country they live in. The hon. Gentleman and I have shared that view for more than 30 years, and my view on that has not changed.

John Woodcock: I am glad that my right hon. Friend has mentioned the Kurds. Could he be clear at the Dispatch Box that neither he, nor anyone on these Benches, will in any way want to remove the air protection that was voted on with an overwhelming majority in the House 14 months ago?

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is not part of the motion today, so we move on with this debate.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister understands that public opinion is moving increasingly against what I believe to be an ill-thought-out rush to war. He wants to hold this vote before opinion against it grows even further. Whether it is a lack of strategy worth the name, the absence of credible ground troops, the missing diplomatic plan for a Syrian settlement, the failure to address the impact of the terrorist threat or the refugee crisis and civilian casualties, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Prime Minister’s proposals for military action simply do not stack up.

Ian Blackford: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the case has not been made. Under the circumstances and the slur on Opposition Members, will he reconsider the importance of the Labour party, in its entirety, joining those on the Scottish National party Benches in opposing the Government, and whip the Labour MPs to make sure the Government are defeated on the motion?

Jeremy Corbyn: Every MP has to make a decision today, every MP has a vote today, every MP has a constituency, and every MP should be aware of what constituents’ and public opinion is. They will make up their own mind. Obviously, I am proposing that we do not support the Government’s motion tonight and I encourage all colleagues on all sides to join me in the Lobby tonight to oppose the Government’s proposals.

Last week, the Prime Minister focused his case for bombing in Syria on the critical test set by the very respected cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee. Given the holes in the Government’s case, it is scarcely surprising that last night the Committee reported that the Prime Minister had not “adequately addressed concerns”. In other words, the Committee judged that the Prime Minister’s case for bombing has failed its tests.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): The Committee resolved four to three that the Prime Minister “has not adequately addressed concerns” contained in the Committee’s second report. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who would have resisted, were absent. It is on a narrow point where, logically, it is almost impossible for the Prime Minister to adequately meet those concerns, given the fact he is not in a position to produce sufficient detail to satisfy some of my colleagues. It is a very weak point for the Leader of the Opposition to rely on. He needs to go to the substance.


Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and I have often had very amicable discussions on many of these issues and I am sure we will again. The fact is, however, that at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Committee the verdict was that the Prime Minister had not adequately addressed concerns. Obviously, I understand there are differences of opinion. Goodness, there are plenty of differences of opinion all around this House, on both the Government and Opposition Benches. I therefore ask the Chair of the Select Committee to recognise that a decision has been made by his Committee.

After the despicable and horrific attacks in Paris last month, the question of whether the Government’s proposals for military action in Syria strengthen or undermine our own national security must be at the centre of our deliberations.

Jeremy Corbyn: I have given way quite a lot of times already. There are 157 Members who wish to take part in the debate. I should try to move on and speed it up slightly, something which appears to meet with your approval, Mr Speaker.

There is no doubt that the so-call Islamic State has imposed a reign of sectarian and inhuman terror in Iraq, Syria and Libya. There is no question but that it also poses a threat to our own people. The issue now is whether extending British bombing from Iraq to Syria is likely to reduce or increase that threat to Britain, and whether it will counter or spread the terror campaign ISIL is waging across the middle east. The answers do not make the case for the Government motion. On the contrary, they are a warning to step back and vote against yet another ill-fated twist in this never-ending war on terror.

Let us start with a military dimension. The Prime Minister has been unable to explain why extending airstrikes to Syria will make a significant military impact on the existing campaign. ISIL is already being bombed in Syria or Iraq by the United States, France, Britain, Russia and other powers. Interestingly, Canada has withdrawn from this campaign and no longer takes part in it. During more than a year of bombing, ISIL has expanded as well as lost territory. ISIL gains included the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. The claim that superior British missiles will make the difference is hard to credit when the US and other states are, as mentioned in an earlier intervention, struggling to find suitable targets. In other words, extending British bombing is unlikely to make a huge difference.

Secondly, the Prime Minister has failed to convince almost anyone that, even if British participation in the air campaign were to tip the balance, there are credible ground forces able to take back territory now held by ISIL. In fact, it is quite clear that there are no such forces.

Last week, the Prime Minister suggested that a combination of Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army would be able to fill the gap. He even claimed that a 70,000-strong force of moderate FSA fighters was ready to co-ordinate action against ISIL with the western air campaign. That claim has not remotely stood up to scrutiny. Kurdish forces are a distance away, so will be of little assistance in the Sunni Arab areas that ISIL controls. Neither will the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country. The only ground forces able to take advantage of a successful anti-ISIL air campaign are stronger jihadist and Salafist groups close to the ISIL-controlled areas. I think that these are serious issues that need to be thought through very carefully, as I believe the Prime Minister’s bombing campaign could well lead to that.

Jeremy Corbyn: I will give way again later in my contribution, but I should be allowed to make what I think is an important contribution to the debate.

That is why the logic of an extended air campaign is, in fact, towards mission creep and western boots on the ground. Whatever the Prime Minister may say now about keeping British combat troops out of the way, that is a real possibility.

Thirdly, the military aim of attacking ISIL targets in Syria is not really part of a coherent diplomatic strategy. UN Security Council resolution 2249, passed after the Paris atrocities and cited in today’s Government motion, does not give clear and unambiguous authorisation for UK bombing in Syria. To do so, it would have had to be passed under chapter 7 of the UN charter, to which the Security Council could not agree. The UN resolution is certainly a welcome framework for joint action to cut off funding, oil revenues and arms supplies from ISIL, but I wonder whether there are many signs of that happening.

Charlotte Leslie (Bristol North West) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman and I do not agree on very much, but I very much agree with him on the necessity to cut off oil supplies. I am therefore at a complete loss when it comes to understanding why he would oppose airstrikes, which play such a crucial part in targeting the oil supplies that provide funding for ISIL/Daesh.

Jeremy Corbyn: The problem is that the oil supplies sold by ISIL go into Turkey and other countries, and I think we need to know exactly who is buying that oil, who is funding it, what banks are involved in the financial transactions that ultimately benefit ISIL, and which other countries in the region either are or are not involved. That is despite the clear risk of potentially disastrous incidents. The shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish forces is a sign of the danger of a serious escalation of this whole issue.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): The number of ground troops is, as my right hon. Friend says, unknown, and their composition is also unknown, but what we do know is that they are, by definition, opposition fighters: they are anti-Assad. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister still has a question to answer about how we can work with them to retake ground from Daesh without becoming drawn into a wider conflict with Russia, given that they are on the other side?

Jeremy Corbyn: That is an important point. The hon. Lady has been very active in trying to promote peace and humanitarian resolutions to the many conflicts that exist around the world.

Fourthly, the Prime Minister has avoided spelling out to the British people the warnings that he has surely been given about the likely impact of UK air strikes in Syria on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK. That is something that everyone who backs the Government’s motion should weigh and think about very carefully before we vote on whether or not to send RAF pilots into action over Syria.

It is critically important that we, as a House, are honest with the British people about the potential consequences of the action that the Prime Minister is proposing today. I am aware that there are those with military experience—Conservative as well as Labour Members—who have argued that extending UK bombing will “increase the short-term risks of terrorist attacks in Britain.”


We should also remember the impact on communities here in Britain. Sadly, since the Paris attacks there has been a sharp increase in Islamophobic incidents and physical attacks. I have discussed them with people in my local mosque, in my constituency, and they are horrific. Surely this message must go out from all of us in the House today: none of us—we can say this together—will tolerate any form of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism in any form in this country.


In my view, the Prime Minister has offered no serious assessment of the impact of an intensified air campaign on civilian casualties in ISIL-held Syrian territory, or on the wider Syrian refugee crisis. At least 250,000 have already been killed in Syria’s terrible civil war, 11 million have been made homeless, and 4 million have been forced to leave the country. Many more have been killed by the Assad regime than by ISIL itself. Yet more bombing in Syria will kill innocent civilians—there is no doubt about that—and will turn many more Syrians into refugees.


Jeremy Corbyn: I will give way in a moment.


Yesterday I was sent this message from a constituent of mine who comes from Syria. (Laughter.) I am sorry, but it is not funny. This is about a family who are suffering.

My constituent’s name is Abdulaziz Almashi.


“I’m a Syrian from Manbij city, which is now controlled by ISIL”, he wrote.

“Members of my family still live there and Isil didn’t kill them. My question to David Cameron is: ‘Can you guarantee the safety of my family when your air forces bomb my city?’”

[Interruption.] It is a fair question, from a family who are very concerned.

Johnny Mercer (Plymouth, Moor View) (Con): I speak as someone who was a member of the military but has left. It seems to us that the Leader of the Opposition is making a fundamental point, namely that this is about national security. It is extremely difficult to deal with all the conflicting arguments and complex situations, but this comes down to national security, and the need to inhibit what these people are trying to do on the streets of this country.


Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, of course security on the streets of this country, in all our communities, is very important. That is why we have supported the Government’s action in no longer pursuing the strategy of cutting the police, and also increasing security in this country. Clearly, none of us wants an atrocity on the streets of this country. My borough was deeply affected by 7/7 in 2005—


Mr Speaker: Order. The Member who has the Floor cannot be expected to give way to a further intervention when he is in the process of answering an existing one. The hon. Gentlemen are experienced enough denizens of this House to be aware of that.


Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I would like to give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy).


Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab): I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for giving way. Does he accept that the 70,000 moderate Sunnis who the Prime Minister claims are in Syria comprise many different jihadist groups? There is concern across the House that in degrading ISIL/Daesh, which is possible, we might create a vacuum into which other jihadists would come, over time. Surely that would not make the streets of Britain safer.

Jeremy Corbyn: For the sake of north London geography, I shall now give way to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes).


Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has maintained a consistent position in this House on airstrikes. On 26 September 2014, when he voted against airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq, he said:


“I do not believe that further air strikes and the deepening of our involvement will solve the problem.”—[Official Report, 26 September 2014; Vol. 585, c. 1332.]

Does he maintain his opposition to airstrikes in Iraq, as well as to extending them to Syria?


Jeremy Corbyn: I thank both Members for their interventions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) makes a serious point. We have to be careful about what will happen in the future. As the Prime Minister and others have said, we must be aware of the danger that some people, mainly young people, will become deeply radicalised and end up doing very dangerous things. Is the radicalisation of a small but significant number of young people across Europe a product of the war or of something else? We need to think very deeply about that, about what has happened in this world since 2001, and about the increasing number of people who are suffering because of that. I rest my case at that point.


There is no EU-wide strategy to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims. Perhaps most importantly of all, is the Prime Minister able to explain how British bombing in Syria will contribute to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian war? Such a settlement is widely accepted to be the only way to ensure the isolation and defeat of ISIL. ISIL grew out of the invasion of Iraq, and it has flourished in Syria in the chaos and horror of a multi-fronted civil war.


Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): The Prime Minister spoke often of the choice between action and inaction, but those of us who will be voting against the airstrikes also want to see action. The Prime Minister said almost nothing about cutting off the financial supplies to Daesh that buy the bombs and help to radicalise recruits. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need action on that matter?


Jeremy Corbyn: We absolutely need action to ensure that there is a diplomatic and political solution to the crisis. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about speeding up the process in Vienna, but surely the message ought to be, “Let’s speed that up,” rather than sending the bombers in now, if we are to bring about a political settlement.


We need the involvement of all the main regional and international powers. I know that that has been attempted. I know that there have been discussions in Vienna, and we welcome that, but it is regrettable that Geneva II—


Jeremy Corbyn: Mr Speaker, I will try to make some progress with my speech, if I may. Over 150 Members wish to speak, and long speeches from the Front Benches will take time away from the Back-Benchers’ speeches. The aim must be to establish a broad-based Government in Syria who have the support of the majority of their people, difficult as that is to envisage at the present time. Such a settlement—


Sir Simon Burns (Chelmsford) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


Jeremy Corbyn: No. Such a settlement could help to take back territory from ISIL and bring about its lasting defeat in Syria, but — Mr Speaker, I am really sorry to have to tell Conservative Members that I have given way quite a lot to Members on both sides of the House, and I am now going to continue with my speech. Ultimately—


Mr Speaker: Order. It is a long-established convention of this House that the Member who has the Floor gives way, or not, as he or she chooses. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that, for now, he is not giving way. The appropriate response is not, then, for a Member to jump and shout, “Give way!” That is just not terribly sensible.

Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr Speaker. The point I was making was that ultimately, the solution has to be brought about by all the people of Syria themselves. On that, surely, we are all agreed. The Government—


Sir Simon Burns: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


Jeremy Corbyn: I thought I had made it clear, and that the Speaker had made it clear, that at the moment I am not giving way; I am really sorry, but I am not. Okay? The Government’s proposals for—


Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Though it is indeed customary that he who holds the Floor decides whether to give way, is it not also customary to answer questions when they are put in interventions? We are waiting for the right hon. Gentleman’s answer on Iraq.


Mr Speaker: The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) is a sufficiently experienced parliamentarian to know that he has made his own point in his own way, and it is on the record.


Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government’s—[Hon. Members: “Answer!”] Mr Speaker, if I could move on with my speech, I would be most grateful. The Government’s proposal for military action in Syria is not backed by clear and unambiguous authorisation by the United Nations. It does not meet the seven tests set down by the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it does not fulfil three of the four conditions laid down in my own party conference resolution of a couple of months ago.


In the past week, voice has been given to the growing opposition to the Government’s bombing plans—across the country, in Parliament, outside in the media, and indeed in my own party. I believe that this is in consideration of all the wars that we have been involved in over the last 14 years. These matters were debated a great deal during my campaign to be elected leader of the Labour party, and many people think very deeply about these matters. In the light of that record of western military interventions, these matters have to be analysed. British bombing in Syria risks yet more of what President Obama, in a very thoughtful moment, called the “unintended consequences” of the war in Iraq, which he himself opposed at the time. The spectre of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya looms over this debate.


Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?


Jeremy Corbyn: No, I will not give way; I will carry on with my speech. To oppose another war and intervention is not pacifism; it is hard-headed common sense. That is what we should be thinking about today in the House. To resist ISIL’s determination to draw the western powers back into the heart of the middle east is not to turn our backs on allies; it is to refuse to play into the hands of ISIL as I suspect some of its members want us to. Is it wrong for us here in Westminster to see a problem, pass a motion, and drop bombs, pretending we are doing something to solve it? That is what we did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Has terrorism increased or decreased as a result of all that? The Prime Minister said he was looking to build a consensus around the military action he wants to take. I do not believe he has achieved anything of the kind. He has failed, in my view, to make the case for another bombing campaign.


All of our efforts should instead go into bringing the Syrian civil war to an end. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya: I ask Members to think very carefully about the previous decisions we have made. [Interruption.] What we are proposing to do today is send British bombers—


Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a number of occasions complaints have been received from the public, particularly about Prime Minister’s questions. What do you think the public make of it when my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is shouted down constantly by those on the Government Benches?


Mr Speaker: I think what the public want is a civilised, although robust, debate by Members on both sides of the House. I thank the hon. Gentleman, a very experienced Member, for that point of order. Let us proceed without fear or favour. I call Mr Jeremy Corbyn.


Jeremy Corbyn: Thank you, Mr Speaker. Sometimes in this House we get carried away with the theatricals of the place, and forget there are millions of people who have sent us to this House to represent them. We should be able to conduct our debates in a decent, respectful and civilised manner. Short as this debate is, given the number of Members who want to speak, I hope all those Members who have applied to speak get called.


I conclude with this point: in my view, only a negotiated political and diplomatic endeavour to bring about an end to the civil war in Syria will bring some hope to the millions who have lost their homes, who are refugees, and who are camped out in various points all across Europe, dreaming of a day when they can go home. I think our overriding goal should be to end that civil war in Syria, and obviously also to protect the people of this country. I do not believe that the motion put forward by the Prime Minister achieves that, because it seems to put the emphasis on bombing now, whereas I think it should be not on bombing now, but on bringing all our endeavours, all our intelligence and all our efforts—[Interruption.] It is very strange that Members do not seem to understand that there are millions who watch these debates who want to hear what is being said, and do not want to hear people shouting at each other.


For those reasons, I urge Members on all sides of the House to think very carefully about the responsibility that lies with them today. Do we send in bombers, not totally aware of what all the consequences will be, or do we pause, not send them in, and instead put all our efforts into bringing about a peaceful humanitarian and just political settlement to the terrible situation faced by the people in Syria?