After Tough Debate Britain Joins Air War Over Syria

Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s return to RAF Akrotiri after their first mission since the parliamentary vote to undertake air strikes in Syria. (Crown Copyright 2015)

During the night of Wednesday, Dec. 2, two RAF Tornados scrambled from their base at Akrotiri on Cyprus, laden with 500 pounds of Paveway conventional bombs; they were later followed by two more warplanes. They were heading to an ISIL controlled district of Syria. All four returned, without their bombs, to Akrotiri, after a three-hour mission. The sortie came only an hour or so after U.K. lawmakers voted on Wednesday evening—concluding a passionate 10-hour House of Commons debate—to approve Tory Prime Minster David Cameron’s proposal to begin the bombing.

The debate itself showed the best and the worst of the U.K. Parliamentary system and made life even more difficult for Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. A committed advocate of nonviolence and, in this matter, of strenuous efforts towards a diplomatic solution to the Syrian cataclysm, he had steadfastly refused to water down his approach in the face of many demands from within his own party. Since the moment of his election as leader he has faced opposition within the parliamentary party, from those alarmed by some of the hard-left positions he has taken, and stood by, for many years.

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Depending on your viewpoint, he made either a principled statesmanlike decision to let his MPs have a free vote in this debate, not whipped to a party line; or he was forced to accept the inevitable and did not try to have them vote against the bombing, at the risk of open rebellion. In the end 66 of his MPs voted with the government and against him; a further 10 abstained and no fewer than 11 of his shadow cabinet voted against him.

The speech of his own shadow Foreign Secretary appointee Hillary Benn, MP, that took the complete opposite line from Mr. Corbyn’s, has been widely acclaimed, drawing cheers in the chamber from Tories and some Labour members alike. Mr. Benn, whose late father Tony is widely admired (by the Left) or denigrated (by the Right) as a solid left-wing firebrand, likened the conflict to the struggle against fascism. The media picked up on this.

But most failed to report that Mr. Benn’s opening remarks were a clear statement that, despite that they would walk though different voting lobbies, he admired Mr. Corbyn, who “is an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man.” All the same, the fissures in Labour are there for all to see, leading to some concern that at times like these our parliamentary democracy needs a lucid opposition to hold the government to account and in check. It fell to the Scottish National Party to provide the only coherent opposition to the Tories.

Opposition to the bombing included that of many faith-groups. Many ridiculed the government’s assertion that the United Kingdom’s new generation of smart-bombs would have the ability to distinguish non-combatants thus avoiding innocent “collateral” death and maiming. British Quakers stated that "bombing is no solution. Quakers…deplore a decision which will lead to lives being lost. Quakers call for a creative nonviolent response, respecting the humanity of all in the region.”

Former Member of Parliament Sarah Teather, who now works with the Jesuit Refugee Service, in a social media comment noted that, “escalating military activity, justified or not, will significantly increase refugee numbers. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of joining the bombing we now urgently need a plan to step up help.”

Ms. Teather’s comment brought us back to the awful reality of the plight of these refugees that has confronted Europe all summer and autumn. Now we may find even more coming, forced to flee, some to Britain, to escape British bombs falling from RAF warplanes. Refugee numbers are bound to increase even further. European nations and the European Union as a whole have still failed to respond adequately. These suffering people, too, need to be seen as collateral casualties.

Pope Francis has, several times recently, noted that we are living through a kind of Third World War that happens in installments. As Catholic Christians prepare not only for the coming of the Prince of Peace this Advent, but also for the Year of Mercy commencing on Dec. 8, we will have much to ponder and pray about—precisely what is the mercy that this troubled world needs most at this moment? And can a smart-bomb ever be the vehicle of that mercy?

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