Britain’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, has spoken of a long drawn-out war against Islamic State (Isis) as the prime minister’s office released the text of the motion endorsing air strikes upon which MPs will vote on Friday.
The motion asks MPs to support “the government of Iraq in protecting civilians and restoring its territorial integrity” by measures “including the use of UK air strikes to support Iraqi, including Kurdish, security forces efforts against ISIL in Iraq”.
Following careful negotiation between government and opposition, the motion also explicitly rules out the deployment of troops in “ground combat operations” in Iraq and spells out that a separate vote would be required to endorse UK air strikes against Isis in Syria.
Many MPs will be absent on Friday, and some voting with the government are expected to express concerns about the aims of intervention and the practicality of destroying Isis without attacking the group in its base in Syria.
The cabinet met on Thursday to endorse military action and discuss the motion that will be put to MPs on Friday. The debate, which might last as long as seven hours, will be opened by David Cameron and wound up by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Downing Street has also released a summary of the legal advice given to cabinet that asserts military action is compliant with international law, almost solely due to the request for help by the Iraqi government.
The summary provided by the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, states the prohibition of the use of force “does not apply to the use of military force by one state on the territory of the other if the territorial state so requests or consents”.
“It is clear in this case that Iraq has consented to the use of military force to defend itself against IS in Iraq.”
The advice pointed to a letter dated 20 September to the president of the UN security council from the Iraqi foreign ministry seeking “additional support and assistance for the specific purpose of fighting Isil”.
The advice summary continued: “The government is satisfied that the consent of Iraq in these terms provides a clear and unequivocal legal basis for the deployment of UK military forces and military assets to take military action to strike Isil sites and military strongholds in Iraq.
“The UK will conduct military action in accordance with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.”
In an interview with the House magazine, Fallon said of the fight against Isis: “This has to be planned, it has to be sustained. This is going to be a long drawn-out campaign which we have to be careful, methodical and measured about. But equally there’s a determination right across Nato to tackle Isil. Because if we don’t, it comes back on us.”
He continued: “John Kerry [the US secretary of state] has estimated two to three years, that looks like a long haul to me. But we have to face up to this. This kind of extremism has been spreading, taking root in democracies.”
Fallon sought to justify the action by saying: “We all have a very direct interest. Britain does above all. We’ve seen already terrorist attacks here – the London tube, London buses, the murder of Lee Rigby, the attack on Glasgow airport – we’ve already been under attack from this kind of extremism and we have to deal with it. This is a very direct British interest and our armed forces are ready for it.”
Fallon said any action in Syria would have to be separately endorsed by parliament, but clearly thought the war in Iraq and Syria had to be seen sequentially.
He said: “They are different countries. Everything we’ve done in Iraq so far – every flight, every delivery – has been with the permission or at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Everything we are doing in Iraq we are authorised to do. And that doesn’t apply to Syria, so it’s a different legal situation and it’s also a different military situation because of Syria’s quite formidable air defence system. So clearly any approach in Syria will have to be different to that in Iraq.
“The main difference is Syria’s air defence system, and the fact that the picture in Syria is more complicated. It is the new government of Iraq that we need first to help. It’s only just been formed and we need to rally moderate Arab opinion behind it, we need to make sure it’s inclusive and we need to get the international community to support it and to help it repel Isil and to drive it back from the territory it’s claimed.”
He continued: “We are offering support and training to Iraq and Syria’s neighbours. There are many other ways we can help with logistics, supplies, surveillance, sharing intelligence. There are lots of other things we can do before it comes to direct military action. But we shouldn’t resile from direct military action if Isil is going to be defeated. This isn’t about containment. This is about the defeat of Isil.”
Labour sources said Ed Miliband’s approach would be based on looking at the legality, legitimacy and practicality of any bombing campaign. Miliband, like Clegg, opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 but seems to be convinced that the horror of Isis plus Iraq’s request for intervention make this a campaign that can be supported.
John Denham, who resigned from Labour’s government over Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq, is one of many Labour MPs who have said they will support action this time.
Full text of motion
• Condemns the barbaric acts of Isil against the peoples of Iraq including the Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Christians and Yazidi and the humanitarian crisis this is causing
• Recognises the clear threat Isil pose to the territorial integrity of Iraq and the request from the government of Iraq for military support from the international community and the specific request to the UK government for such support
• Further recognises the threat Isil poses to wider international security and the UK directly through its sponsorship of terrorist attacks and its murder of a British hostage
• Acknowledges the broad coalition contributing to military support of the government of Iraq, including countries throughout the Middle East
• Further acknowledges the request of the government of Iraq for international support to defend itself against the threat Isil poses to Iraq and its citizens, and the clear legal basis that this provides for action in Iraq
• Notes that this motion does not endorse UK air strikes in Syria as part of this campaign, and any proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote in parliament
• Accordingly supports her majesty’s government, working with allies, in supporting the government of Iraq in protecting civilians and restoring its territorial integrity, including the use of UK air strikes to support Iraqi, including Kurdish, security forces’ efforts against Isil in Iraq
• Notes that her majesty’s government will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations
• Offers its wholehearted support to the men and women of her majesty’s armed forces.
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