Richard Butler. Bombing Syria: Where’s our Debate?

Dec 4, 2015

On December 2nd, the UK House of Commons debated for 10 hours, a motion moved by the Government, that it should authorise bombing of DAESH targets in Syria by UK airforces. (Prime Minister Cameron announced early in his statement that, henceforth, ISIL should be referred to as DAESH: the acronym of its name in Arabic).

Some 150 members of the House took part in the debate. The motion was approved by a vote of 397 for, 223 against. Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn had approved a “free vote” for members of his party. 66 Labour members exercised that right and voted with the Government.

The debate saw repeated interventions on points of order and points of detail from both sides. More significantly, it was somewhat overshadowed by repeated opposition demands that the Prime Minister withdraw and apologize for remarks he was heard to have made, the previous day, that those who would vote against his motion would do so because they were “terrorist sympathizers”. He refused to do this.

The debate was certainly lively, if not always edifying. It served to justify the notion of a house of elected representatives of the people as the key place in which matters of undoubted public importance and policy should be aired.

That airing included the reliance, by both sides, on their gut political credo, rather than on hard evidence for any particular point of view. Prime Minister Cameron, was particularly light on evidence for his views.

On the Conservative side, the main elements of that credo, were the beliefs in: the efficacy of military action in bringing about political outcomes; fighting the enemy abroad would keep the homeland safe; and, the notion that Britain had an indispensable role in maintaining a civilized world. This last idea seems not dissimilar from the US’ notion that it is the “exceptional country”, or indeed former Prime Minister Abbott’s now revealed notion that the current crises in the Arab and Russian worlds meant that history had, once again, handed to the “Anglosphere” the unique duty to put things to rights

On the Labour side, the fundamental concerns expressed were: that military action was not the solution to the problem of DAESH; what was needed was concerted political/diplomatic action to bring about an end to the Syrian war, and extreme doubt that expanded military action would be effective in both curtailing DAESH or preventing further terrorist acts outside the Middle East, indeed, it might fuel them.

The undoubtedly remarkable feature of the debate was that it took place. It was never going to fully satisfy the evident need for an improved public and revealed official understanding of the dreadful complexity of the situation in the region extending from Turkey in the North West to Yemen and the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, in the South East. The same would appear to be true of the extent to which the turmoil in that region is authoring a post-Cold War competition, by proxy, between the US and Russia.

But, the debate will surely prove to be an important marker in the passage towards resolution of the challenges now posed by the disorder in the post colonial Arab world, the need for what could be termed a post Cold War settlement, and the challenges posed to international law and order posed by non-State actors such as DAESH.

Where is the debate in the Australian Parliament? The Abbott government committed Australian military assets to action in both Iraq and Syria without any such debate. Labor acquiesced, for reasons unstated.

Infamously, Prime Minister Howard committed Australia to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ignoring massive public demonstrations against it and without Parliamentary debate. That invasion is now widely regarded as having stimulated the formation of DAESH.

We now learn from Peter Hartcher’s series, “Shirtfronted” (SMH), that the basis of Abbott’s decisions on these matters was gut instinct.

We have not yet heard from Prime Minister Turnbull on how he might arrive at decisions on matters which might involve Australian forces, although we also learn from Hartcher that Abbott exclude him from membership of the National Security Committee of Cabinet because he knew Turnbull would not support his gut instincts.

In the new circumstances of a growing international coalition against DAESH and the UN Security Council resolution following the Paris attacks, authorizing states to “take all necessary measures”, the Australian people have a right to know what it is the Government proposes to do, why, and what it hopes to achieve. A debate in Parliament would serve that purpose.



Richard Butler AC, is former Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq

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