SYRIA – DAVID CAMERON QUESTIONED BY THE LIAISON COMMITTEE [EXTRACTS] – 12 January 2016

Grimond Room, House of Commons

Questions 13 – 26

[NOTE: Participants have not yet had the opportunity to correct any errors in this transcript.]

Q13 Dr Julian Lewis: Prime Minister, I would like to start with the Government’s determination to see Assad and his regime removed. In March 2003, you and I and a large majority of MPs from both main parties voted for the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein, who I think we would easily agree was as brutal, if not more so, than Assad. In the light of what we now know happened afterwards, do you share my view that we voted the wrong way and that it was a terrible mistake, even though Saddam Hussein was a terribly brutal dictator?

David Cameron: I don’t choose to go back over these votes and take that view. I think there are important lessons to learn that what happened afterwards – the dismantling of the entire regime, the dismantling of the armed forces, the radical de-Ba’athification of the entire country – meant that there was no state and there was no authority. That was the biggest problem of all and we need to learn the lesson from that. Drawing conclusions between these two dreadful people? They are both ghastly. The extent of the hell that Assad has rained down on his own people – we have seen it most recently in using hunger as a weapon of war in Madaya – could certainly be said to be as brutal, if not worse, than things that Saddam Hussein did.

Q14 Dr Lewis: I entirely agree that there is little to choose between them. It is precisely because I and many other people have learned a lesson from that earlier event that I refer to it. The lesson is that sometimes you can remove a very brutal dictator and end up with a worse situation. Arguably, some might say, the same thing has happened in Libya. Do you accept in principle, if there isn’t a[ny other] choice, between a brutal secular dictator and a totalitarian Islamist alternative, it can make sense to leave a brutal secular dictator in place?

Mr Cameron: Where you and I disagree is that it is impossible, in my view, to envisage a situation in which Assad stays in power and Syria is not a threat to our national interest. It is a threat to our national interest at the moment in two very important ways. There is the migration crisis engulfing Europe, which is clearly a threat to our interests. A large part of the cause of that migration crisis is Assad. The second reason that it is a threat to our national interest is that, as long as you have Assad in power, you are in danger of having a Daesh-style, Sunni-broken, terrorist-style state in western Syria. I do not really buy the idea that there is an alternative view in which you say,

"Well, let’s pick the one that is least bad and sort of make an accommodation with them,"

because I just do not think that would work. I think you would still have the problems of the migration crisis and the problem of Daesh, because he has been such a recruiting sergeant for Daesh. You have to ask yourself, looking at those pictures of people starving to death in Madaya or people who have left because they have been bombed out of their houses by Assad, is there any prospect that they could be part of a Syria run by this man? It seems to me that wanting Assad to leave power and saying he cannot be part of a future Syria, is not so much a question of political preference but a statement of political fact. I don’t think you can have a stable Syria with Assad in charge. Therefore, I do not go down your comparison.

Dr Lewis: I think the problem surely is –

Mr Cameron: Where I agree with you is that there are lessons to be learned from previous conflicts in terms of not dismantling states and having plans for reconstruction and thinking through political processes. I agree with all of that; I think there is a lot of common ground there.

Q15 Dr Lewis: It seems to me, Prime Minister, that you still subscribe to the view that there is a third alternative, which is some form of inclusive democracy. Some of us take the view that we have to choose the lesser of two evils; but let’s assume then that we are going down the route of saying that there is a third option, and that that option are opposition moderates. We all know that in order to be decisive, airstrikes need to act in support of credible forces on the ground. You famously told the Commons, and you have repeated it again today, that the Joint Intelligence Committee estimates there to be 70,000 moderate fighters whom we can support. If those people are fighters, there can be little grounds for secrecy about their identity, so why won’t you or the Defence Secretary name the supposedly moderate groups in whose name these fighters are in the field?

Mr Cameron: First, let’s be clear about the terminology. The figure I gave to the House of Commons is not a figure I invented; it is a figure I asked the JIC to give me as their best estimate. Their estimate was that there were 70,000 non-extremist opposition fighters in Syria. The largest number of those is the Free Syrian Army, who we are familiar with. As I said, the representatives, who all turned up at the Riyadh conference, all signed up to the Geneva principles; but if you are arguing,

"Are all of these people impeccable democrats who would share the view of democracy that you and I have?"

– no. Some of them do belong to Islamist groups and some of them belong to relatively hard-line Islamist groups. None the less, that is the best estimate of the people that we have potentially to work with. The reason for not breaking down in huge amounts of granular detail exactly who they are is simply this: we would effectively be giving President Assad a list of the groups, the people and potentially the areas that he should be targeting. That is not my approach. [Emphasis added]

Q16 Dr Lewis: But surely, Prime Minister, lists have been published by people supportive of your position on this which have identified well known groups of various sizes, including the Free Syrian Army, that does have a large number of very small and disparate affiliates to it. The suspicion has to be that, if the Government will not name these supposedly moderate groups, it becomes impossible for any sensible assessment to be made of whether they really are moderate or whether they are Islamist and extreme.

Mr Cameron: Our reason for not publishing is the reason I have given. Other people publishing this is different from the Government officially publishing a list. I am being very frank with you. In the debate I said,

"If people want to say there aren’t enough opposition ground troops, I totally agree".

They are not all in the right places – I couldn’t agree more. They are not all the sort of people you would bump into at the Liberal Democrat Party conference – correct: I would agree with all those assessments. But the point I would make – which you go back to – is whether there is a third way. Is there a third way between a Daesh-style state and President Assad, the butcher, remaining in charge of this country? My answer would be that there has to be a third way – we have to find a third way. It should involve of course people, perhaps Alawites, perhaps even who have taken part in the state run by Assad. We don’t want to dismantle that; but to argue that the Sunni majority in Syria simply are too extreme, too hopeless or too whatever to take part in the future running of their country is a counsel of despair. [Emphasis added]

We have to try to find this third way. To be fair to these opposition groups who pitched up at the meeting in Riyadh, who signed up to the Geneva principles, a large number of them do want to see some form of diverse, democratic regime in Syria, which we should be supporting. So I do not think we have a lot of choice but to back that.

On the numbers, to be clear, that 70,000 does not include the 20,000 Kurdish fighters in Syria. The other point I make to people who say that somehow 70,000 is a chimera or doesn’t properly exist – if it doesn’t exist, who on earth have [been] the 240,000 troops that Assad has been fighting for the last four years?

Q17 Dr Lewis: Prime Minister, I have no doubt at all that there is a large number of fighters in Syria who have been fighting Assad. The question is, are they moderate or not? I will quote to you an answer that was slightly more informative than the answer I got when I asked who the groups were that have been classed as moderate. This was a question answered by the Defence Secretary. He was asked which moderate, non-Islamist groups with credible ground forces, other than Kurds, are fighting Daesh in Syria. He was asked that on 19 October, and he replied on 26 October as follows:

"There are a number of moderate opposition forces focused on fighting the Assad regime. Many are also fighting ISIL in areas of strategic importance, for example north of Aleppo. The vast majority of these opposition groups are Islamist." [Emphasis added]

Unless there is a mistake in the Secretary of State’s answer, it reveals that what the Government regard as moderate groups are actually, in many cases, Islamist ones. That is why I urge you again, if you want people to be able to make an informed choice between a secular, brutal dictator and an Islamist alternative, we really ought to be told more about the composition of the allegedly moderate forces that we are mounting air strikes to support.

Mr Cameron: I have given you my answer about what we are going to publish and I am not going to change that answer. I repeat, though, that, yes, some of the opposition forces are Islamist. Some of them are relatively hard-line Islamist and some are what we would describe as more secular democrats, but I would make the point that there are groups such as al-Nusra Front or Jund al-Aqsa whom we would not work with. If you [are] arguing that there are not enough, we need to build them up, yes, we do, I agree, but you have to start somewhere. [Emphasis added]

Q18 Chair [Rt Hon Andrew Tyrie]: We are running over the same ground.

Mr Cameron: I know, but that’s the point: every day we do not support moderate forces, they are hit by Assad and attrited further.

Q19 Mr Tyrie: Have you not considered that there might be something between this huge, granular detail, as you put it, that might give assistance to Assad on the one hand and some general information that might give more credibility to that number which you could put into the public domain?

Mr Cameron: I have considered it, but I have given the answer I think is appropriate.

Q20 Mr Tyrie: Because without it, people are going to wonder whether this is a reliable number.

Mr Cameron: Look, all I can say is that we had an NSC discussion, the Joint Intelligence Committee produced a figure, I questioned and probed the figure and they said they thought 70,000 was the best estimate of non-extremist opposition fighters. The Americans have said that is within their estimates. To be absolutely transparent with you, the Americans said it was towards the top end of their estimates. If you want to say that the JIC misled me or Parliament –

Q21 Mr Tyrie: Of course we do not want to say anything in particular; what we want to do is to get to the facts.

Mr Cameron: You are saying that no one is going to believe me unless I give more detail, but I think that is why we have a JIC. It was set up after the Iraq war for precisely this purpose.

Q22 Mr Tyrie: I did not say no-one is going to believe you; I said it would increase your credibility if you come forward with some detail, but you have made it clear you are not going to. We went into Syria to degrade ISIL. Is it fair to say that the Libyan intervention has deprived the region of one of ISIL’s most ruthless opponents, in Gaddafi?

Mr Cameron: It is certainly true that Gaddafi was, particularly in his latter days, an opponent of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, and he worked, famously, with the previous Government towards that end, but I do not think we should in any way look back fondly to the time of Gaddafi.

Q23 Mr Tyrie: No-one is suggesting that either. I am just asking whether we have lost a character there who, for all his manifest shortcomings – and he was an extremely nasty piece of work – was at least on the right side on the main reason you have gone into Syria.

Mr Cameron: Well, towards the end of his time in office he might have been on the right side on that issue, but we are still dealing, in Northern Ireland, with Semtex given to the IRA by Gaddafi, so I do not look back and think that was somehow a golden era in Libyan relations. Look, we have a problem now with a growing ISIL franchise in Libya, just as we have a problem with growing ISIL franchises in many countries around the world. The truth is that we are dealing with an extremist, violent ideology that is taking hold in all states that are fractured, broken or insufficient in any way. You see that with Boko Haram in Nigeria, with al-Shabab in Somalia and in Libya. This points towards making sure, as Ban Ki-moon put it, that a missile can kill a terrorist but good governance is what kills terrorism. We need to work, in all these circumstances, in the same way, which is to build strong and inclusive Governments that can deliver for their people.

Q24 Mr Tyrie: Yes. You said on that there are lessons to be learned from these earlier interventions. In fact, you said that we have learned that we have to be careful about not dismantling states and having plans for reconstruction. That also went disastrously wrong in Libya too, didn’t it? We intervened, got rid of Gaddafi and now they are in a terrible mess.

Mr Cameron: Well, the Libyan people were given an opportunity. Gaddafi was bearing down on people in Benghazi and threatening to shoot his own people like rats. An international coalition came together to protect those people and to help the Libyan people who then got rid of Gaddafi. They had an opportunity to build what they all said they wanted, which was –

Q25 Mr Tyrie: You are not saying it is their fault, are you?

Mr Cameron: No. What I am saying is that that opportunity was not taken. It is a matter of huge regret. A lot of assistance was offered. I took the Libyan Prime Minister to the G8 in Northern Ireland but, for reasons that we can go into – of militias and all the rest of it – it was not possible to deliver that sort of Government. There is a new opportunity now, with the coming together of a Libyan national Government, to try to deliver that. The critics of these things – the choice we made in Libya, partly at the request of Libyans themselves with the demise of Gaddafi, was not to go in heavy-handed with boots on the ground and troops and try to help them construct their Government. They said they did not want that – that it would be counterproductive. They believed they would be able to put together representative institutions. It was not possible, in spite of the help that was proffered. If you are saying that these things are complicated and difficult to get right, yes, they are.

Q26 Mr Tyrie: No, I am not saying that. I am just saying that the humanitarian balance sheet of this intervention does not look good, Prime Minister. The failure to engage in nation-building has created a breeding ground for ISIL, hasn’t it?

Mr Cameron: We were involved in nation-building. We were there to help the Libyan people. We tried to do it in a way that was more remote than what had happened in Iraq, but on this occasion clearly it did not work. [ … ]