David Cameron has begun the delicate process of persuading sceptical Labour MPs to back airstrikes in Syria, saying the UK was already facing the threat of mass casualties from Isis and arguing that Britain could not outsource its security to allies.
He said Isis had been involved in as many as seven plots in the UK, and had established an external group of deadly intent dedicated to inflicting mass casualties around the world.
In a lengthy, painstaking statement, Cameron came under pressure to justify his claim that 70,000 moderate Free Syrian Army fighters were willing to battle Isis on the front line, and that a realistic chance of a ceasefire existed that would hasten a democratic United Nations-led transition in Syria and the ultimate departure of President Assad. He said military action would not derail, but assist the peace process.
Cameron openly told MPs he would not call a vote in the Commons until there was a clear majority for military action, effectively leaving him to wait on the decision of a bitterly divided shadow cabinet.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, briefed with senior colleagues by security advisers on Wednesday night, asked a series of questions about the impact of extra RAF strikes and dismissed FSA troops as “relatively marginal and remote”, so questioning their ability to take back Isis-held territory. He suggested “stronger jihadist and radical Salafist forces” might instead take over.
The Labour leader also questioned whether airstrikes might have unintended consequences, and make Britain less secure. Cameron replied that Britain was already a first-tier target.
Corbyn also laid down a marker for the coming internal party debates by questioning whether the UN security council resolutions on Syria gave “clear and unambiguous authorisation” for UK airstrikes, the precondition set down by the Labour conference this year.
Labour law officers have said the UN resolutions do give authorisation, but this is being questioned by some shadow cabinet members. Cameron accepted the UN Resolution had Chapter VII language, even though it was not brought under Chapter VII of the UN charter, the clearest legal base for strikes.
The shadow cabinet was meeting on Thursday afternoon for an initial discussion before letting MPs hear the views of their local Labour parties at the weekend. It would hold a further shadow cabinet meeting on Monday, before what was likely to be a definitive meeting of Labour MPs on Monday.
With the Scottish Nationalists opposed to airstrikes, Cameron is dependent on a guarantee of substantial support from Labour MPs, either by a three-line Labour whip to support strikes, or a decision to give a free vote.
Releasing a 36-page memorandum making the case for war, Cameron gave assurances that any motion put to MPs would seek unambiguous military support solely for strikes against Isis and, if necessary, the drafting of the Commons motion could accommodate the views of the opposition. He also said he was willing for intelligence officers to give evidence to the foreign affairs select committee to justify its claim that 70,000 FSA viable troops existed.
In a fillip to Cameron’s chances of winning the backing of MPs, the Tory chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, Crispin Blunt, previously a war sceptic, said the terrorist attack in Paris and the gathering hopes of a Syrian peace process had helped change his mind. Blunt, with other members of his select committee, have been in the Middle East to gauge the mood in Tehran, Jordan and Riyadh.
Blunt told MPs: “In the light of Vienna and your response to the committee, it’s now my personal view, on balance, that the country would be best served by this House supporting your judgment that the United Kingdom should play a full role in the coalition to best support and shape the politics, thus enabling the earliest military and eventual ideological defeat of Isil.”
Blunt was one of four Tory MPs opposed to war in 2013 against President Assad who said they had changed their mind, even though the prime minister did not want to put a timeframe on what he admitted might be a long and complex strategy.
By contrast, the defence select committee chairman, Julian Lewis, said: “Airstrikes alone will not be effective. They have to be in coordination with credible ground forces.
“The suggestion there are 70,000 non-Islamist, moderate, credible ground forces, I have to say, is a revelation to me and I suspect most other MPs in this House. Adequate ground forces, in my view, depend on the participation of the Syrian Army.”
He also said: “We can’t have a future Syria with the existence of this caliphate taking over such a large amount of its territory. When we look to the future of Syria it’s going to need the involvement of moderate Sunnis in the future of that country so the more we can help them, the better the chance of transition is.”
Cameron told MPs: “The reason for acting is the very direct threat that Isil poses to our country and our way of life. They have already taken the lives of British hostages and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7 on the beaches of Tunisia.”
Cameron said seven attacks during the past year had been linked to Isis or inspired by its propaganda. “I am in no doubt that it is in our national interest to stop them,” he said. “And stopping them means taking action in Syria, because it is Raqqa that is their headquarters.”
He added: “We shouldn’t be content with outsourcing our security to our allies. If we won’t act now, when our friend and ally France has been struck in this way, then our friends and allies can be forgiven for asking: if not now, when?”
Cameron’s reply also acknowledged that airstrikes have their limits and that ground troops would be necessary to defeat Isis.
“Airstrikes can degrade Isil and arrest its advance, but they alone cannot defeat Isil. We need partners on the ground to do that and we need a political solution to the Syria conflict,” the prime minister said in the memorandum.
Cameron’s foreword referred to the need for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to stand aside. He said: “An orderly political transition in Syria would preserve Syrian state structures but deliver a new Syrian government, which is able to meet the needs of the Syrian people, and with which the international community could cooperate fully against Isil, as we do with the government of Iraq.
“But that is not possible for as long as Assad remains in power without any timetable for his departure, and for as long as his security forces murder, torture, gas and bomb his own people.”
Nigel Dodds, the deputy DUP leader, indicated he was likely to back airstrikes and issued a vicious assault on the Labour leadership, saying: “It’s the petulant, putrid response of the irresponsible revolutionary bedsit they barely seem to have clambered out of.
“No more time should be wasted on the opinions of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell,” he said. “And for Labour and the country’s sake, I hope Labour MPs waste no more time either. They have very little time left.”
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 26th November 2015 13.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010