Interview on 'The World This Weekend', BBC Radio 4 – 19 July 2015
Mark Mardell: The very complexity of shifting alliances in the Middle East goes a long way to explain what is seen as a lack of proper strategy and clear objectives from the West. But that may be David Cameron’s biggest problem in getting another vote through the House of Commons. Julian Lewis is one of 30 Conservative MPs who rebelled last time and is now Chair of the Defence Select Committee.
Julian Lewis: First of all, we are able to take military action in Iraq because we are doing so at the invitation of the legitimate Iraqi Government. The problem in Syria is that the Government here – the British Government – does not want to recognise the legitimacy of the Assad regime; but without the approval of the Assad regime it is an entirely different legal situation if we start getting involved in military action in Syria.
On the other hand, the situation is the diametric opposite to what was being proposed in 2013. Then the Government’s idea was that they wanted to bring down Assad. Many of us were greatly hostile to that idea because we thought that that would end up only benefiting the Sunni extremists – possibly ending up with Al-Qaeda or its lookalikes inheriting Assad’s chemical weapons.
Now, only two years later, they want to attack the Sunni extremist groups like Daesh or Al-Qaeda and its allies, and therefore the obvious consequence of that is that it is going to assist Assad. Yet, the Government does not want to face up to the fact that if it attacks one side, it is going to assist the other – and until it faces up to that fact, it won’t have a very coherent strategy.
MM: So, how would you vote?
JL: It depends what is proposed. I don’t have a problem in principle with intervening to weaken and diminish the deadliness of our opponents – our enemies in Daesh and Al-Qaeda. What I have a problem with is finding a proposition that is going to be effective in doing that. If we are simply talking about mounting a few extra British air-strikes added to the significant number of American air-strikes, is that anything more than a gesture?
So I think how I vote will depend upon whether the Prime Minister – instead of making this up on the hoof, as it’s been the case, I am afraid, up till now – presents Parliament with an integrated strategy approved jointly by the heads of the Armed Forces as something that will produce a decisive result.
MM: So you don’t think at the moment the Government does have a coherent strategy?
JL: Absolutely, I don’t think this – and I must stress here that I am speaking as an individual, and not as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, because the Committee hasn’t yet had a chance to meet and discuss this matter. I must stress that point.
But my personal view is that the Government doesn’t have a coherent strategy, any more than it had a coherent strategy over Libya. I’m afraid that this goes back to a structural problem, because – and it may surprise listeners to know this – you can be the head of the Army, the head of the Royal Navy, or the head of the Royal Air Force and not be directly involved in feeding strategic advice to the Government. And that in my opinion, my personal opinion, is why we have so much of these half-baked theories about how to handle these dangerous opponents.
MM: If and when Mr Cameron goes for a vote on military action in Syria, how much support will he have on the Backbenches?
JL: Well, I think he will have a lot more support than he had in 2013 where, as I stress, we were proposing to intervene on the opposite side – which would have actually helped the Sunni extremists. Now at least we are proposing to intervene against the Sunni extremists, even if we are in denial about the fact that that will inevitably help President Assad.
I think the key thing will be what the Labour Party decides to do; and the Prime Minister no doubt will have calculated that the Labour Party at the moment is not yet in a position to take a firm view, because it doesn’t know who its own Leader is going to be. So I suspect that the Government might well get this through; but it doesn’t alter the fact that the problem is not going to be solved until we have an integrated military strategy – and that will be the assembly of an effective army of reliable Muslim forces from the region. That is what has to be put together. If that cannot be put together, then the idea that air-strikes alone can somehow resolve this problem is for the birds.