New Forest East




Today, BBC Radio 4 – 21 November 2015

NICK ROBINSON: I am joined in the studio now by Julian Lewis, Conservative MP, Chairman of course of the Commons Defence Select Committee. In a moment we are going to talk about an important report by this Committee which is coming out on Monday about the future of the Armed Forces in general. But first of all, Dr Lewis, I’d like to get your own, personal view on this important question of whether British forces should extend attacks into Syria, not just in Iraq. Now, you have been a leading sceptic for military reasons. I was reading what you’d been saying. You described it as ‘futile and extremely dangerous’ to bomb Syria. Is that still your view?

JULIAN LEWIS: It is absolutely still my view, unless this is done in support of ground forces that we are happy to see win in this conflict – and credible ground forces that are then prepared to stay for years as an Occupying Power.

NICK ROBINSON: As you listened now to President Obama’s representative – he talked about plans being in place, ready to move on Raqqa – does that begin to sound like the sort of forces you want to hear about?

JULIAN LEWIS: It’s beginning to sound a bit like that; but that’s not really quite enough, because we are still faced with a civil war in which there are two sides, both of them unpleasant, and the West seems to want a third alternative which there is little sign of existing. There is still a failure to face up to the fact that in this civil war we’re faced with the choice of evils: either the Islamists will win, or the Syrian Government will win, and there is little sign of non-Islamist forces coming out on top.

NICK ROBINSON: There may be people who say after Paris: 'We now know which evil we prefer or which we detest more. They are coming for us. They are coming onto the streets of Europe. No, we don’t like Assad. No, we hate the idea of giving him a victory, but so be it. That’s what we now need to do.' Why is that, in your view, not the right answer?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, I’m afraid, in my view, that may well be the right answer. I’ve said all along that the reason why 39 Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against the bombing of Assad, the Syrian leader, two years ago, was precisely because we thought that if we brought him down, the result would not be a democratic state. It would be another strategic 'own goal', such as occurred in Iraq and in Libya.

NICK ROBINSON: Now, your fellow Committee Chairman, Crispin Blunt, another Tory who chairs the important Foreign Affairs Select Committee – they were as sceptical as you are sounding now; but Mr Blunt has told the Guardian [that] we now face "a completely different set of circumstances", and what he is hearing from the Prime Minister has answered in large part the questions the Committee has asked. They are on a move. You will be left alone, won’t you?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, it won’t be the first time I, and other people, have been left alone. What I want to make clear are two things. First, the Defence Committee as a whole has not taken a corporate view. We all have individual opinions, we are entitled to express them, and I as Chairman am entitled to express my personal opinion. And, secondly, I am in favour of effective military action to destroy Daesh/ISIL. Bombing alone, without credible ground forces, is ineffective action. There is little, if any, evidence in history of a successful bombing campaign unless there were ground forces to take over.

NICK ROBINSON: Now, you can, and indeed you are here to do this, express a collective view on this new report which is coming out. You are going to look into the future, aren’t you, at the point that the Government is trying to look into the future, at what we should spend on defence forces. What is the big lesson that you want the Government to learn?

JULIAN LEWIS: The big lesson that I want the Government to learn and that the Committee wants the Government to learn, is that there are a range of threats and vulnerabilities, all of which are credible and potential dangers to us, but we are unlikely to predict, with any amount of time in advance, which ones are going to become actual threats and actual dangers. And, therefore, instead of getting rid of whole capabilities in the Armed Forces, whether for a temporary period or permanently, what we must do is have versatile and adaptable and flexible Armed Forces, so that whenever the threat becomes a real danger, they are able to react appropriately.

NICK ROBINSON: Because what in your view has gone wrong in the recent past?

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, let me give you a perfect example of this. In 2010, at the last minute, the Defence Review decided to get rid of fixed-wing flying from aircraft carriers; and they said that a gap of a few years until the new aircraft carriers come in shouldn’t be a danger. Do you know what happened in 2011, Nick? We had the Libya campaign. What was the first ship that the French sent to the Eastern Mediterranean? Their aircraft carrier. And although some of our people tried to argue that we wouldn’t have sent ours, that was absolute nonsense. It would have been the first vessel in the area. Perfect example of getting rid of a whole capability because we thought we could predict the future, and we can’t.