The consensus yesterday during the Syria debate was that Parliament failed to live up to the occasion. This was probably because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Jeremy Corbyn’s free vote of Labour MPs ensured that David Cameron would have a majority at the end of the day.
Britain was almost certainly going to war, yet not even the Prime Minister could explain why. Uncertainty radiated from both Tory and Labour benches. The cross-party Commons foreign affairs committee had delivered its negative verdict on the case for bombing.
David Cameron’s hurried speech failed to convince sceptics on either side. He didn’t even convince many of his own supporters that there were 70,000 “free Syrian troops” waiting for our air cover before they took out IS or Daesh or ISIS (delete as applicable).
When you go to war, it helps to know who your enemy is and the Islamic State acronyms weren’t the only puzzle. The whole Syrian crisis is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, a poisonous conflict in which no one is quite sure who is on side with whom.
We are joining with Russia in bombing IS, it seems, so they are presumably now among the good guys. Yet Vladimir Putin supports the Syrian President Bashir Assad, whom David Cameron wanted to bomb only three years ago for barrel-bombing his own citizens.
But since President Assad’s Syrian army is also fighting IS – supposedly an “existential” threat to Britain – are we not in a de facto alliance with Assad, if only on the principle that our enemy’s enemy is our friend?
Contrariwise, since many of the Sunnis in Raqqa apparently welcomed IS because they were against Assad, are our friends not also among our enemies? Certainly, our allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been helping IS, which must make them friends of our enemies.
No, it’s not easy to know who should be in the line of fire.
David Cameron brushed aside these complexities, saying, first, that France wants our help because of the Paris attacks; secondly, that the “free Syrian” forces will somehow settle their differences and fight both IS and Assad; and thirdly, that we need to take out IS to stop terrorists from attacking British cities.
Joining a war you don’t believe in because an ally wants you to is the kind of logic that led to the First World War. France wisely stood aside in 2003 when Tony Blair and George W Bush wanted their support in the UN. Britain is not under any moral obligation, therefore, to enter the push-me-pull-you Syrian conflict.
Syria is only one focus of a regional conflict between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam – a sectarian divide roughly equivalent to the Protestant/Catholic divide in Europe in the late Middle Ages. Mr Cameron is right that this conflict recognises no borders but nor do we have a clear interest in supporting either side. It is fantasy to believe that some “free” pro-Western army is going to ride over the hill to turn Syria into a liberal democracy.
The Prime Minister’s final case for ignoring the complexities is the least convincing of all: that we must act to keep terrorism off British streets. He appears to believe that the command and control apparatus for terrorism in Europe lies in Raqqa.
But IS doesn’t operate like that. It doesn’t have anything resembling identifiable buildings where military action is planned and orchestrated. The Paris attacks were planned and executed by jihadis who were brought up in Belgium.
Indeed, Mr Cameron might as well be bombing the Molenbeek suburb of Brussels if he wants to attack the command and control centre for the French atrocities.
Like its predecessor, al Qaeda, IS is a terrorist franchise. It may have a central ideology based on a primitive interpretation of Islam and a wish for an apocalyptic confrontation between the Caliphate and the West. But there isn’t a central military command handing down orders to battlefield generals. They leave it to home grown jihadis.
If there is another terrorist attack in Britain, it will almost certainly be conducted by young British-born Muslims, radicalised by the succession of British military engagements in the Middle East. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria: the West has bombed each of them in turn and each time terrorism worsened.
By bombing Syria we are doing exactly what IS want Britain to do. They will post on the internet the images of dead women and children, the inevitable collateral damage of air strikes. Jihadis in this country will do the rest.
Every MP in Westminster realises this, including Mr Cameron, who insisted it was irrelevant as Britain was already a target. “It’s who we are; not what we do”, he told MPs. But that is no reason to conspire with IS in perpetuating the deadly myth that the West in conducting a crusade against Islam.
Fear of reprisals should not mean we do nothing, of course, when attacked. But nor should we invite reprisals for no strategic purpose; for a pointless engagement with no plan and no exit strategy. As President Obama pointed out, there are precious few targets left in Raqqa and a lot of planes on the runway.
So it was hardly surprising that Parliament was subdued yesterday. There was little enthusiasm for the bombing, even by its supporters who conveyed an air of reluctant warriors who couldn’t think of anything better to do.
By his failure to lead the growing opposition to the war, Mr Corbyn had ensured that it would happen, which made the debate largely otiose. Only by whipping his MPs into line could Labour possibly have called a halt to this questionable military excursion.
The Labour leader had the support of the majority of Labour MPs and of the party membership for opposing airstrikes. He had an increasing number – probably a majority – of the British voters agreeing with him. Yet he gave in to his fractious front bench, abandoned collective responsibility and guaranteed a victory for Mr Cameron.
We can perhaps better understand now why it is generally seen as the duty of an opposition, faced with an issue of life and death, to have an internal debate, come to a conclusion and then act on it. That’s what opposition means.
Of course it was difficult for him. At the Dispatch Box yesterday Mr Corbyn looked more like a hostage than a leader, flanked by grim lieutenants Hilary Benn and Tom Watson who both support the bombing. Their body language was as eloquent as any speech.
It was left to Angus Robertson, the SNP’s skilled parliamentary leader, to give the speech Mr Corbyn should have delivered. Labour commentators have been critical of the unity on the SNP benches, claiming that it is a product of thought control. But perhaps MPs were merely reflecting the fact that, according to the latest opinion poll, Scottish voters are overwhelmingly opposed to the bombing.
It is from Mr Robertson’s local constituency base, Lossiemouth, that the British warplanes will leave for Syria. Events will take their deadly course as Westminster awaits the consequences of its own uncertain action: the war no-one knew how to stop.