But, instead of tens of thousands of British troops being despatched to the border to gather as part of a massive international invasion force, Britain plans to add a few planes – Tornadoes and Typhoons – to the eight Tornadoes already carrying out bombing sorties on ISIL in Iraq. We are assured that this exceedingly modest force will produce real, tangible results; that we will witness the Brimstone missile – which adorns the Tornadoes but not the Typhoons – accurately decapitating ‘the snake’ with the minimum of collateral damage and those already fighting really cannot cope without our input.
It may be the case that this small increase in airpower does, indeed, make an important difference but there must certainly be a risk it simply adds yet more complications to a perilously messy battleground. And while we wait to see how the military action plays out, the political risks on all sides will remain immense.
There seems to be universal agreement that defeating ISIL cannot simply be done from the air but the motion to be voted on tomorrow rules out deploying British forces - one wonders whether this will remain a firm pledge if there were a Paris-style atrocity in London. Instead, we are, apparently, hoping to rely on 70,000 ‘moderates’ to secure land vacated by ISIL as they retreat from our bombs. There is a great deal of scepticism about this assertion and, in what was an otherwise impressive performance by David Cameron in the House of Commons, it was the closest the prime minister came to a ’45 minutes from attack’ claim. If things go wrong, if little evidence of this force emerges and terror returns to the streets of Britain, it will appear as though Cameron, like Tony Blair before him, massaged the views of the Joint Intelligence Committee to push Britain into another conflict. His authority will be dashed for good.
Moreover, it has emerged on the eve of the debate and vote Cameron has told his MPs:
'You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers'
This thoughtless, dim comment blows apart Cameron's attempts to build a broad coalition for bombing ISIL in Syria. There are many differing, and honourably held, views about how to tackle this terror threat but no one taking part in the debate here feels any 'sympathy' for ISIL. It is an astonishingly offensive and foolish thing to say which not only insults vast numbers of people across the country - probably a majority - who oppose further military action but may also galvanise parliamentary opposition on all sides.
For Jeremy Corbyn, it is hard to find anything in his self-destructive handling of the situation about which to be positive. While the debate should be focused on the rights and wrongs of military involvement in Syria, what we might be able to achieve balanced against the inevitable risks of conflict, the centre of attention has been Corbyn and the furious split that has emerged within Labour. Corbyn has a strong mandate and plenty of support within the wider Labour Party as a whole but he is a terribly isolated figure within the parliamentary Labour Party. It is not hard to imagine figures such as Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn and Shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle vacating their positions soon.
As a permanent rebel, Corbyn was never likely to inspire much loyalty from his shadow ministers and when it is so blatantly clear his policies – on matters such as Trident and military action – contradict the opinions of so many of his close team, he was always on a hiding to nothing. While not having a collective policy on the matter of whether the country goes to war or not is a blow to Labour’s authority, offering his MPs a free vote on the matter was always the likely outcome and should have been offered from the outset. Instead we’ve been exposed to Corbyn at one moment trying to be the diplomat allowing debate within the parliamentary party while in another attempting an impression of a tough guy, insisting that he and only he would be deciding Labour policy.
There is no doubt that misguided military action in the region has helped create the stage upon which the ISIL death cult has been able to flourish and we can’t afford another incompetent intervention like Iraq and Libya. We must try and starve ISIL of funds and weapons – as Corbyn has argued – but in the short and medium term this does nothing to stop further attacks in Europe and more terror in their lands.
It is impossible to present a good answer to this desperate situation. Bombing at any stage will cause civilian casualties, but we see civilians being murdered in horrifically perverted ways on a daily basis by ISIL regardless. Without Syria returning to a stable state the refugee crisis that has swept across the Middle East and into Europe cannot be solved. ISIL can play no role in the future; but fighting them from the air, across a land beset with chaos, seems unlikely to contribute to any sort of stability. Yet, it is at this moment that the UN has called, with remarkable unanimity, for states to join war against ISIL, wherever its war-mongers can be found. And, whilst ISIL can ignore the border between Iraq and Syria, it makes no sense for those fighting the cult to do the same. Furthermore, even if our military power is unlikely to make any significant difference to the outcome, our commitment to supporting our close political allies – especially France, at this time of great need – will be valued. What is more, if we were to refuse to fight in the air over Syria, where Raqqa has been declared the capital of the ‘caliphate’, we would be handing these people a propaganda victory.
And yet, I must repeat: there is no good answer to this desperate situation. I find myself in the odd position of thinking that, were I to have a vote tomorrow, I would probably side with Corbyn, despite little of what he has said influencing my thinking. I would oppose getting involved now on the basis of that dodgy ’70,000 moderates’ claim and the belief that a much more comprehensive international coalition needs to be formed to do the job properly, both during the conflict and, even more crucially, afterwards.
The only certainty is that we cannot ignore ISIL. This is a movement inspired by violence and it will not neglect us. Whatever is to come, we can be pretty sure it will be terrible. Perhaps the only logical conclusion is to acknowledge that, ultimately, we surely cannot rule out doing the job properly and using British ground forces.