'WARS HAVE TO BE WON BY GROUND FORCES'

TRANSCRIPT OF ANDREW NEIL INTERVIEW WITH JULIAN LEWIS MP, CHAIRMAN OF THE DEFENCE SELECT COMMITTEE

Daily Politics, BBC2 – 22 April 2016

ANDREW NEIL: We are joined now from Southampton by the Conservative MP, Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis. Welcome back onto the programme.

Even if the Downing Street figures [more than 25,000 Islamist fighters killed in Iraq and Syria] need to be taken with some kind of warning, is it not clear to you that, although you oppose these airstrikes, they are having an effect on degrading Islamic State in Iraq and Syria?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, you do have to take such figures with caution and I noticed that a combined figure was given for alleged inflicted casualties in both Iraq and Syria. The truth is that there has been a credible air effort in Iraq, because there are forces on the ground – Iraqi Government forces – in support of which the airstrikes are being carried out. There have been far, far fewer such strikes in Syria.  And the problem in Syria is that our Government cannot make up its mind to choose one of the two not very attractive alternatives there: namely, that the Assad regime succeeds or that the Islamists succeed. And air power by itself is hardly ever decisive. Wars have to be won by ground forces with air power in support. In Syria, we lack the ground forces that we are supposed to be supporting, whereas the Russians have ground forces that they are supporting. They are called the Syrian Army.

ANDREW NEIL: But presumably you are not arguing for ground forces?

JULIAN LEWIS: No, I am not. In fact, in 2013, I was one of the 39 Conservative and Lib Dem ‘rebels’, so-called, who prevented us making the same disastrous mistake in Syria – namely pulling down another dictator and replacing him with another Islamist state – as had been made in both Iraq and in Libya.

ANDREW NEIL: So, was it a good thing that Mr Putin went in to, essentially, save Mr Assad?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, it depends on whether you believe, as the Government believes, that there is a third, democratic, pluralistic option – other than the authoritarian dictatorship of Assad, on the one hand, and another Islamist radical state, on the other.

ANDREW NEIL: But, assuming there is not an Islington Labour Party ready to take over Syria, which I think is a fair assumption –

JULIAN LEWIS: Exactly.

ANDREW NEIL: Is it a good thing that Mr Putin went in and stopped Assad being toppled?

JULIAN LEWIS: It is absolutely a good thing not to pull down Arab dictators, if the result is going to be that you are going to get another radical Islamist state. So the answer is: it is not good that there are these dictators in power, it is just less bad than the alternative.

ANDREW NEIL: I want to move on to Libya, because it is connected with Italy and the migration crisis. But before I do that, I just wanted to pin you down: you voted against these airstrikes. Of course, those of us who began our journalism in the Vietnam era were well taught to take official figures with a pinch of salt. I accept that, but could you not admit that the air campaign has been more effective than its critics have said? Otherwise, why would a lot of these Islamic State militants be fleeing from Syria to go to Libya?

JULIAN LEWIS: Absolutely not. I don’t agree with that, for the simple reason that I did not vote against airstrikes in Iraq. In Iraq, there were ground forces which can benefit from the use of airstrikes and, therefore, I supported them. In Syria, however, the only ground forces that really count are the ground forces of the Assad dictatorship, on the one hand, and the ground forces of the Islamists on the other. And in Syria there is little evidence of airstrikes by us having anything more than a marginal effect – which is exactly what critics like myself predicted at the outset. I should mention that these are my personal views. There are other people on the Defence Select Committee and they have different views.

ANDREW NEIL: I understand that: we are only asking you to speak for yourself – not even for your whole family! Some of the reports we have been getting are that a number of the IS people have fled not from Iraq, but from Syria, to go to Libya; but that brings me on to Libya. There is talk that the British may be asked to participate in what is being called a stabilisation force that will be deployed in Libya – my understanding is probably around the airport in Tripoli. They would secure that and then they would start to do some training there. Whether that is right or wrong, should the Government get the permission of Parliament to do that, or is it within the Government’s power to do it without Parliamentary approval?

JULIAN LEWIS: There is no doubt that the constitutional position is that the Government has the right, not only just to put forces into a country, but even to send forces to fight in a country, without asking Parliament first. But it would be a very risky thing for a government to take military action, if it didn’t have the support of Parliament. Sometimes a government has to take military action urgently and then, of course, it needs to try to get Parliamentary support as soon as possible thereafter.

ANDREW NEIL: They are meeting in Hannover in Germany on Monday, and this may be one of the outcomes. The Germans, of course, won’t participate; but the British, the French, the Americans and, we understand, it could well be an Italian-led force that does it. The Italians are particularly concerned about Libya. Does the Prime Minister have to come to Parliament to get approval for this or not?

JULIAN LEWIS: In advance, no. Retrospectively, it is not a constitutional requirement; but, in practical political terms, it is an absolute necessity.

ANDREW NEIL: All right. Julian Lewis, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIAN LEWIS: You’re welcome.