November 23: Syria airstrikes must be a last resort

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UNLIKE the previous House of Commons vote which vetoed British airstrikes against Syria, David Cameron does, at least, have United Nations backing if, as now appears inevitable, the issue is put to MPs again in the coming days.

That the UN Security Council decided unanimously, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, the security lockdown in Brussels and the blowing up of a Russian airliner, to call upon member states to take all necessary measures, in compliance with international law, to “eradicate” Islamic State’s “safe haven” in both Iraq and Syria is almost without precedent.

The tragedy is that it has taken such loss of life on the streets of Paris, and also the cold-blooded execution of British holiday-makers on the beaches of Tunisia earlier this year, to shock world leaders into working together to tackle this barbaric threat to the liberty of all – this remains a global crisis which demands a global response.

However, as David Cameron travels to Paris to meet French president Francois Hollande prior to setting out the conclusions of Britain’s Strategic Defence and Security Review to Parliament, the Prime Minister needs to be mindful of political grandstanding on this issue as the drumbeat of war becomes ever louder.

Appealing to the emotions of MPs, and telling them to start behaving like “Churchill not Chamberlain”, should not be necessary if the Government’s case for war is a compelling one.

Though public support for military action has increased in the aftermath of the Paris bloodbath, and Labour’s complete and utter disarray over the issue of national security, this should not preclude the Prime Minister from deploying British fighter jets, and so on, without giving sufficient consideration to these three questions.

First, the Government needs to demonstrate how British airstrikes against IS are, in fact, part of a wider and political approach to bring about an end to the bloodshed in Syria when the West is still at odds with Russia, for example, over the fate of Bashar al-Assad.

Can targeted attacks work without ‘boots on the ground’ being required and can the PM be certain that the terrorists will not regroup elsewhere?

Second, Mr Cameron must not give up on diplomacy – he needs to be working with his counterparts, like President Hollande, to breathe new life into Middle East peace initiatives while ensuring that the European Union’s border controls and checks are fit for purpose.

Third, the Prime Minister needs to reach out to Muslims in this country and explain why airstrikes against the Islamic State are a price worth paying. If his strategy can secure the endorsement of those imams and clerics who have become increasingly vocal in their condemnation of IS and its poisonous ideology, it might prevent community relations deteriorating as a result of military intervention.

In all likelihood, this will be most onerous decision of Mr Cameron’s premiership – he has access to classified briefings from the intelligence services that all others are denied.

It’s also his misfortune that UK foreign policy has been so compromised by Tony Blair’s mishandling of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as well as a continuing delays to the Chilcot report which was initially intended to help shape the decision-making process in circumstances like these.

Yet the public should be assured that Mr Cameron has, after the 2013 vote, has sought to build a consensus, and this change in strategy and tone is welcome.

However the deployment of the RAF – despite the precision accuracy of the latest military hardware – should only be the action of last resort, and this remains so in spite of Paris.

Fair funding for all: Victory for rural Yorkshire schools

THOUGH George Osborne’s spending review is still a work in progress – it is being overshadowed by a row over police cuts and higher-than-anticipated borrowing levels – the Chancellor should be praised for introducing a fairer funding formula for England’s schools.

This commitment has particular resonance here in Yorkshire where Tory MPs have not only proven to the Treasury that the existing system penalises pupils from rural communities, but they have persuaded the Chancellor to act on an issue ignored by previous governments.

However, as is always the case, the devil is in the detail – Mr Osborne’s recalibration will not go down well in those areas which were beneficiaries under the old arrangements. Because of a need to avoid a repeat of the Home Office’s recent miscalculations over police budgets, the Chancellor’s homework, prior to Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, is to demonstrate how this change will be fair to all.