26 Sep 2014

MPs will back Iraq-only attacks

This debate was nothing like as charged as the debate that preceded action in Iraq in 2003. It wasn’t even as charged as the debate authorising action in Libya.

Speaker after speaker tried to ask the questions some wish they’d thought of back in 2003. Some repeated with variations the questions they asked last summer in the debate that refused David Cameron permission to attack Syria. Where does action end? How do we know what constitutes mission accomplished?

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One minister said the truth is that the attacks that will be authorised with today’s vote are one step on a ladder of 20 rungs and no one really knows what the other steps will turn out to be. Bombing from 12,000 feet will stabilise the situation, calm the advance but not of itself reverse the situation.

At the heart of today’s debate is what the prime minister called the “convention that has grown up in recent years” that parliament be consulted before military action. His hands are tied by the main opposition party but also by his own party and his coalition partners.

One Tory cabinet minister said that ducking shy of bombing Isis targets in Syria was dictated in part by Tory resistance (never tested in a proper whips’ ring round because Tory high command sensed it was too toxic to try).

Labour’s resistance to moving operations to Syria sealed the limited offer of help to the US but it was not its only author. I understand Nick Clegg didn’t think he could deliver his MPs if attacks on Syria were included in the motion today.

It raises the possibility in some minds, particularly in the military, that Britain will never again make bold moves in military intervention until all its concerns are satisfied – an unachievable aspiration.

Ed Miliband said the answer to the “why not Syria?” question was that we don’t know who occupies the space vacated if Isis is successfully attacked. Could it be the Assad jackboot or another Islamist group?

In Iraq at least there is a proxy force in the form of the Iraqi army to occupy the ground. Today’s Times reports that Assad’s forces have swept through 40 villages since the US-led airstrikes started.

Ken Clarke, until recently a cabinet minister sitting on the National Security Council, described the UK contribution to the attacks on Isis as “symbolic”.

He described the Libyan action proudly pioneered by David Cameron as one of a series of western involvements that had left the countries intervened on “at least as bad and largely worse”.

At one point he referred to “the so-called Iraqi government”. David Cameron looked pensive as he listened to a senior figure he calculated in the last reshuffle was safe to move outside the tent.

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