TRANSCRIPT OF DERMOT MURNAGHAN INTERVIEW ON SYRIA WITH JULIAN LEWIS MP, CHAIRMAN OF THE DEFENCE SELECT COMMITTEE
Murnaghan, Sky News Channel – 4 October 2015
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So the Conservatives are gathering in Manchester today for their Party Conference and the Prime Minister appears to have put Defence firmly on the agenda with a promise to double the number of British drones to help tackle Islamic State. The question of military action in Syria is one that looms large for the Prime Minister with a fresh vote, perhaps, in the House of Commons.
Meanwhile, Russia is defying international criticism of its airstrikes and says it plans to intensify its raids. The Chair of the Defence Select Committee, the Conservative MP Julian Lewis, joins me now and a very good morning to you, Mr Lewis. One does outweigh the other militarily, but does it mean there is not much necessity for more drones and the SAS if the Russians are doing what they’re doing?
JULIAN LEWIS: A lot depends on what the Prime Minister wants to use the extra vehicles for. The only time in which there has been a drone strike in Syria so far was in response to a specifically identified threat from an individual. We are not going to be killing targeted individuals on a daily basis. This will be something that happens relatively rarely so, with this great increase in numbers, it may be to increase surveillance capability; but if it’s meant to be armed drones killing lots of people then, if that’s going to happen in Syria, there is going to have to be a vote in Parliament about it first.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: What about the Russian actions? It is too early, I suspect, for the Committee to have taken a view on it, but the criticism that is being aimed at it by the Prime Minister – is it aimed in the real world, in that we’re not going to get a settlement in Syria that gives us a shiny all-inclusive democracy. Everyone knows that. Is this at least an option? This just might settle things.
JULIAN LEWIS: Well I’m not sure everyone does know that we’re not going to get a democracy in Syria – and this fallacy that we might is what underlies many of the mistaken decisions that have been taken and are being taken. The Russians at least have got a strategy. They recognise that, if you intervene in a civil war in a country as divided as Syria, either one side is going to win or the other side is going to win or some third force possibly from outside – probably from outside – is going to have to come in and suppress both sides and be prepared to stay there indefinitely.
The Russians know that they want their client, the dictator Assad, to win. However, the West wants both sides to lose and that’s why we find ourselves in the ridiculous situation of having been urged by the Prime Minister in 2013 to bomb Assad and now, less than two years – no just over two years – later, being urged to bomb Assad’s enemies. And the reality is that the Russians recognise that from their point of view there can be only one or other outcome between Assad and his enemies, and we don’t. We are still trying to support groups that we imagine are moderate that could win.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: We can discuss that in a moment or two, how moderate are the ‘moderates’; but do you think that the lessons of Libya, for instance, have not been learned in the UK? All the talk there was about inclusive democracy and look what’s happened.
JULIAN LEWIS: Spot on, Dermot. Absolutely. And, I hasten to add, you rightly said the Committee – the Defence Committee – has not taken a view on these things. We all speak as individuals, including me the Chairman, and my view is that we were frankly misled into what happened in Libya. There was a vote in Parliament and I voted for the very limited proposition that was put to the Members of Parliament which was that we would have a no-fly zone and even then –
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: To protect Benghazi –
JULIAN LEWIS: To protect Benghazi. Exactly. And, even then, I expressed the view that there were no good outcomes in these sorts of situations, only the least worst; and I felt that what would happen then would be that you’d get a stalemate. And there probably would have been a stalemate, and that would have been the least-worst outcome. What we actually got, the moment we passed the vote to have a no-fly zone, was an all-out aerial assault to remove Gaddafi. And, if that had been put to Parliament, I don't think it would have got through – because many of us, including me, have learnt the lesson of what happened with Saddam Hussein. We thought that, by removing a dictator, democracy would emerge. All that re-emerged was the hatred between the Shias and the Sunnis.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: So apply that to Syria and the Janus-like policy that Britain has – or does it still have? – that Assad eventually must go. Should we almost put that aside? Because certainly the Alawite community would need protection, one would imagine, if Assad went and it were overrun in an unruly fashion. I mean there are more than two million Alawites there.
JULIAN LEWIS: On your channel yesterday – and I didn’t know this gentleman before I saw him doing an extensive interview – Peter Ford, a former British Ambassador to Syria, was quite clear. And he has the knowledge that someone like me only has the theoretical analytical approach to the question, but he actually was able to confirm exactly what I strongly suspect which is that, in seeking to bring down Assad, we are effectively promoting the jihadis, the extremists.
I know that historical parallels are always a bit dangerous and take this one with a pinch of salt, because Britain was fighting for its very existence in 1941 which we’re not now; but the difference in approach of governments was that Churchill, the great anti-communist, the moment his deadly enemy, Hitler, attacked Russia was on the Russian side and said if Hitler invaded Hell I’d have at least a good word to say for the Devil in the House of Commons. Now if we were to have our present ‘strategists’, so-called, in that situation today, they’d be saying something like:
"Well, Hitler has attacked the Russians. They’re both bloodthirsty, so what we need to do is get a load of moderates in, and they’ll see off Hitler first and then they’ll depose Stalin and we’ll have an all-inclusive democracy."
Now that’s absurd in that scenario and it’s ridiculous in the Syrian scenario today.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: It does sound ridiculous when you put it like that. So, okay, British policy doesn’t have to explicitly back Assad, you just back the Russians who are backing Assad.
JULIAN LEWIS: We don’t even need to back the Russians, we just need to recognise – as Admiral Lord West, the former Labour Security Minister, has said – you need to recognise which of the crocodiles swimming around in these infested waters is nearest to your boat.
Assad poses no significant threat to British interests. ISIS poses a huge threat to British interests and there is a very important thing about this: it is not just British interests in the Middle East, it’s British interests worldwide, including at home. And, amongst friends that I have who are part of the Muslim community and who are serious analysts, they say that the reason why al-Qaeda has faded while ISIL or Daesh, as we ought to call it, has prospered is purely on the perception of success. And the fact is that al-Qaeda has not had much in the way of success, so people have turned away from it. This organisation – Daesh – has seized huge chunks of territory, but in that lies its weakness because the strength with terrorist movements is normally that they melt away. And, by seizing large areas of territory, this lot have given up their best asset – invisibility. They are vulnerable to attack.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: But, given all we’ve discussed there about the big forces, political and military, at work there, when it comes – if it comes – to a vote in the House of Commons about extending the limited British military activities into Syria, doesn’t it all seem like an irrelevance now?
JULIAN LEWIS: It’s a mere gesture, because the only way in which airstrikes can make a difference is in support of credible ground forces – and so the question is, who is going to supply those credible ground forces? Now, if we had a situation where for example the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Turks – even if they weren’t too over-occupied with trying to fight the Kurds rather than ISIS – if they all said:
"Right. We’re going to assemble a force which is going to remove this cancerous growth. We’re going to go in on the ground and, Britain, will you support us with close air support?"
I would vote for it. But what we’re doing here is airstrikes on their own, which are no more than a gesture with three other countries already mounting them.
DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Mr Lewis, good to talk to you, thank you very much indeed. Julian Lewis there, the Chair of the Defence Select Committee.
EXTRACT FROM THE CATHOLIC HERALD WEBSITE
9 October 2015
... Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria, criticized Britain's foreign policy against Assad as a "shambles". In an Oct. 3 interview with Sky News, Ford predicted that the Christian minority in Syria would be "massacred" by jihadists if Assad was ousted.
"The fall of the regime will be opening a Pandora's box such as we saw with the fall of Gadhafi in Libya and when Saddam Hussein fell,"
"Is this what (Prime Minister) David Cameron really wants – to open another Pandora's box?" he said. "Does he not realize that the fall of the Assad regime would lead to the massacres of Christians, Shias, Alawites, Druze and other minorities?
"I realize it is not fashionable to point to the plight of Christians in the Middle East today but he (Cameron) would have blood on his hands if Assad were to fall as the result of Western support for what Cameron amazingly called the 'legitimate opposition' to Assad,"
"Let us be clear here – we are talking about jihadis,"
"Most of the opposition groups are jihadis, the so-called Free Syrian Army is just a footnote. If Assad was to fall – and the Russians thankfully realize this – it would be a disaster."