Dr Julian Lewis: Hon. Members are being asked to back airstrikes against Daesh in order to show solidarity with our French and American friends, yet a gesture of solidarity, however sincerely meant, cannot be a substitute for hard-headed strategy.
Most Defence Committee members probably intend to vote for such airstrikes, but I shall vote against airstrikes, in the absence of credible ground forces, as ineffective and potentially dangerous, just as I voted against the proposal to bomb Assad in 2013. Indeed, the fact that the British Government wanted to bomb first one side and then the other in the same civil war, and in such a short space of time, illustrates to my mind a vacuum at the heart of our strategy.
At least we are now targeting our deadly Islamist enemies, rather than trying to bring down yet another dictator with the same likely results as in Iraq and Libya. Daesh must indeed be driven out of its territory militarily, but that can be done only by a credible force that is ready and able to do the fighting on the ground. So who will supply that force, without which airstrikes cannot prevail?
The failure of the ineptly named 'Arab spring' in so many countries shows the two most likely outcomes: a victory for authoritarian dictatorship on the one hand, or a victory for revolutionary Islamism on the other. Moderation and democracy have barely featured in the countries affected, and Syria seems to be no exception. I am genuinely sorry to say that we face a choice between very nasty authoritarians and Islamist totalitarians; there is no third way.
Our Government, however, are in denial about that. They do concede that airstrikes must be in support of ground forces, and they have come up with a remarkable figure, from the Joint Intelligence Committee, of 70,000 so-called moderate fighters with whom we can supposedly co-ordinate our airstrikes. It is very doubtful, however, were such an alliance to be successful, that the territory freed from Daesh would cease to be under Islamist control.
Dr Lisa Cameron: Can the right hon. Gentleman comment specifically on the independent reports indicating that the Free Syrian Army is currently selling supplied weapons to Daesh in its own fight against Assad?
Dr Lewis: It is certainly true that there have been well documented cases of such weapons ending up in the hands of Daesh, although I would not wish to tar the entire Free Syrian Army with what some of its factions might have done, or in fact have done, as the hon. Lady rightly suggests.
Mr Jim Cunningham: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: In a moment.
In an attempt to try to establish the facts about the 70,000, I made inquiries of two people whose expert opinion I much admire. One is the writer and journalist Patrick Cockburn, who is one of Britain’s leading commentators on Syria and Iraq and who was one of the first to write about the threat from what was then called ISIS, long before it captured Mosul. This is what he tells me:
"Unfortunately, the belief that there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters on the ground in Syria is wishful thinking. The armed opposition is dominated by Isis or al-Qaeda type organisations. There are many small and highly fragmented groups of opposition fighters who do not like Assad or Isis and could be described as non-extremist, but they are generally men from a single clan, tribe or village. They are often guns for hire and operate under licence from the al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, or its near equivalent, Ahrar al-Sham. Many of these groups seek to present a moderate face abroad but remain violently sectarian and intolerant inside Syria."
Crispin Blunt: Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Dr Lewis: No, I am sorry – I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham).
Mr Cunningham: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is a ridiculous situation where on the one hand the Government praise the Kurds, but on the other hand the Government’s ally, Turkey, is attacking the Kurds? How much more ridiculous can you get?
Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. It is not only ridiculous but highly dangerous. I will insert at this point something I was going to leave out, and say in passing that to have separate conflicts going on within the same battlespace, without reaching a proper agreement, can lead us into all sorts of nasty confrontations—the worst of which would be if we ended up eyeball to eyeball with the Russians when they and we share the same common enemy in ISIL/Daesh.
The second expert I consulted was our former ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who describes the Free Syrian Army as
"a ragbag of 58 factions (at the last count) united mainly by a desire to use the FSA appellation in order to secure Gulf, Turkish and Western funding…most of the factions, which are extremely locally based, have no interest whatsoever in being drawn into battles against groups which basically share their sectarian agenda hundreds of miles away in areas with which they are unfamiliar."
So instead of having dodgy dossiers we now have bogus battalions of moderate fighters.
Once Daesh has been driven out, as it must be driven out – if, eventually, we get an overall military strategy together, which adding a few bombing raids does not comprise – there arises the question of the occupying power, because an occupying power will have to remain in control for many years to come if other Islamists are not going to take over from Daesh. That occupying force must be a Muslim one, and only the Syrian Government army is likely to provide it. Indeed, as the Prime Minister himself acknowledged in the Commons,
“in time the best ground troops should be the Syrian army”. – [Official Report, 26 November 2015; Vol.602, c.1501.]
Airstrikes alone are a dangerous diversion and distraction. What is needed is a grand military alliance involving not only the west but Russia and, yes, its Syrian Government clients too. We need –
Crispin Blunt rose –
Dr Lewis: We need – [Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I honestly think that my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has had more than his fair share in this debate, and I am going to make use of mine.
We need to choose the lesser of two evils and abandon the fiction of a cosy third choice. There is now a general consensus that the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was a terrible mistake, but Saddam Hussein was every bit as much of a vicious dictator as we are told that Assad is. So ask yourself this, when you are thinking about the hard choice that has to be faced tonight: you may feel pious looking back on the wrong decision that was made about Saddam Hussein, but a very similar decision confronts us tonight. It is a question of choosing the lesser of two evils, not fooling ourselves that there is a cosy third option, which is, in reality, a fantasy.
[NOTE: To watch the video of this speech, click here.]