Nicolas Watt – Guardian.co.uk Sept 9, 2015
David Cameron has said “hard military force” will be needed to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria and to defeat Islamic State.
As he signalled the start of a government push to make the case for greater British military involvement in Syria, the prime minister said that a failure to take military action was “a decision itself and has consequences”.
Cameron made his remarks at prime minister’s questions as Harriet Harman, in her last appearance at the dispatch box as Labour’s interim leader, pressed him to put a figure on the number of people Britain was prepared to take from refugee camps in countries neighbouring Syria.
The prime minister said: “She talks about going to the causes of these crises. She is absolutely right about that. We have to be frank, particularly the eastern Mediterranean crisis is because Assad has butchered his own people and because Isil [Isis] have in their own way butchered others, and millions have fled Syria.
“We can do all we can as the moral humanitarian nation taking people, spending money on aid and helping in refugee camps. But we have to be part of the international alliance that says we need an approach in Syria which will mean we have a government that can look after its people. Assad has to go, Isil has to go. Some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but it will on occasion require hard military force.”
The prime minister’s remarks suggest the government is preparing the ground to make the case for military action, which could take place on two fronts. These are expanding British involvement in airstrikes against Isis targets from Iraq to Syria, and possibly taking action against Assad. The prime minister’s decision to highlight the need for “hard military force” to remove Assad may cause some surprise as he lost a parliamentary vote in August 2013 that was designed to lead to military strikes against the Assad regime.
The prime minister has signalled in recent days that he would not seek parliamentary approval for an extension of British involvement in airstrikes from Iraq to Syria unless he could be guaranteed a cross-party consensus. This was seen as a sign that he would not hold a vote if Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader.
But the prime minister indicated he would step up his efforts to make the case for military action. “When we don’t involve ourselves in these issues and take difficult decisions, that is a decision itself and it has consequences,” he said. “That is what I hope we can debate and discuss in the coming months.”
The prime minister responded to Harman’s questions on refugees by saying the government would convene a meeting of councils and the relevant agencies to work out the settlement of the refugees. Government sources indicated a change of tack by saying they have been advised by aid groups that run the camps not to place the emphasis on unaccompanied children. The government had said it would place a focus on orphans.
Harman said: “The responsibilities we share as well as the threats we face reach across borders in this globalised world. To be British is not to be narrow, inward-looking and fearful of the outside world but to be strong, confident and proud to reach out and engage with the rest of the world. The government should rise to this challenge of our time and I urge him to do so.”
The prime minister said he was happy to consider an investigation by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee into the military operation to kill suspected terrorist Reyaad Khan in Syria.
But with the government insisting it would not hesitate to take similar action against others on a reported “hitlist” of Isis extremists, he said he would not “contract out” responsibility for the UK’s anti-terror policy.
Pressed by the SNP’s Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, who will serve on the committee, to refer the drone strike to the ISC, he said he would be “very happy to discuss that with the new chair”.
But he added: “The only proviso I would put on it is that the intelligence and security committee cannot be responsible for overseeing current operations.
“The responsibility for current operations must lie with the government, and the government has to come to the House of Commons to explain that.
“I am not going to contract out our counter-terrorism policy to someone else. I take responsibility for it.”