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Murnaghan, Sky News – 22 November 2015

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: David Cameron is going to set out his strategy for Syria this week with reports that MPs could be voting on airstrikes by the RAF within a fortnight; and also, tomorrow, the government is expected to unveil its Strategic Defence and Security Review, SDSR, setting out its priorities for the Armed Forces.  At its centre is expected to be a deal worth around £12 billion for 138 stealth fighters. Well, I am joined now by the Conservative Chair of the influential Defence Select Committee, he is Julian Lewis.  A very good morning to you, Mr Lewis, let’s start with the issue of Syria and airstrikes first of all, and I know you have written to all MPs this morning and you are still standing by your position that it would be a bit of an empty gesture unless, I suppose, an end-strategy is sorted out, a vote on airstrikes.

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, that’s totally my position and I should emphasise I am only one of eleven members on the Defence Committee and other members of the Committee will take quite probably very different positions; but my view is that airstrikes alone will be ineffective and what the government has to do is to decide what its preferred outcome is, and that outcome has to be a credible one.  Now I hope the Minister [Matthew Hancock] – I just caught a snatch of it whilst waiting to come on – was saying earlier they were hoping to rectify the mistake that was made two years ago; but two years ago we were being asked to bomb one side in the civil war and now we are being asked to bomb the other side in the civil war.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Well one of the other sides.

JULIAN LEWIS: Well the question is, how many other sides are there that are realistic and credible?  We were trying two years’ ago, the government I should say, was trying to persuade MPs that we ought to bomb Assad’s forces and I have no doubt that, if parliament had voted for that, the bombing would have continued until they had got some sort of result. And the result would have been similar to what happened in Libya and what happened in Iraq before that, so I and others rebelled on that occasion because we felt it would be a fatal mistake to bring down yet another Arab dictator if the result was to replace it with an Islamist cauldron.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Well in terms of the credible way forward that you are looking for in any vote on action against Syria, are we talking about another Arab dictator, are we talking about President Assad?  If you heard from the government that we would join the Russians, perhaps not all the way down the line but we will join the Russians and support the Assad regime, it still has a credible fighting force there with boots on the ground, we’re not going to put any there, if we support Assad we can at least destroy IS.

JULIAN LEWIS: Well asking the government to support Assad is going to be very difficult given that right up till the time that David Cameron made his statement to parliament a few days ago, he was saying there is no government in Syria with which we can deal. So what we have here is a refusal by the government to recognise that this is a choice of the lesser of two evils; and it is dangerous enough, as I said on your programme previously a month ago, it is dangerous enough to intervene to try to help one side in a civil war beat the other side in the civil war, but to try and intervene so that both sides will lose – that Assad will lose and that the Islamists will lose – that’s really asking for trouble.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: But to cut to the quick here, be explicit: isn’t the policy to destroy Islamic State and the caliphate, and by whatever means necessary as the United Nations has said, well then if that means making your enemy your friend for the time being well that’s the way to do it?

JULIAN LEWIS: And this is what strong leaders have done in Britain’s history – and the classic example was when Churchill allied himself with the Bolsheviks, the communists, with the Stalin Russian Army, because he saw the greater evil of the Nazi threat. But unfortunately we don’t seem to be willing to face up to the fact that it is a choice of that sort, and we have this notion that there is some third force.  As I said on the previous programme, if we were back in that scenario in 1941 with the Nazis attacking Russia, I’m afraid if we transplanted our strategy to that scenario we’d be talking about training up social democrats to go into theatre to defeat the Nazis and then, while they’re about it, take out Stalin as well and that is a preposterous substitute for a strategy.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: All right, I just want to get on to the strategic defence route in a moment or two but just on this point, on Syria, you would still oppose the government if it comes to a vote unless you hear something about that?

JULIAN LEWIS: Yes, I absolutely believe that Daesh ISIL must be destroyed, suppressed, driven out of its heartland.  The question is, who will supply the ground forces to do it?  History shows time and again that air power will not induce surrender on the ground.  Now you’ve got to decide which army you want to win and preferably it should be regional Muslim forces; but it should at least have the acquiescence of the Russians and the Syrian Army because they’ve got a vote in this, even though we don’t like them.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Let’s talk about the future and defence spending, and you mentioned Libya earlier on and the failed state that that now is after 2011. It’s interesting about the previous spending review, our aircraft carrier went and then along came Libya.  What I’m saying is planning for the future is almost impossible in terms of the threat that we will face.

JULIAN LEWIS: Well, now I can more comfortably don my hat as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee and say that we produced this report in advance of the Defence Review which will be published tomorrow. What we have done is to set out 11 general threat areas and vulnerabilities that we believe any Strategic Defence and Security Review worth its salt must cover. But one of the things that we have identified is a problem with the methodology – because what underlies defence reviews and the National Security Strategy that’s due to be published very soon as well, is a system of ranking risks or threats, and it goes in this way.

They say that if something is high probability, high impact, it’s Tier One; and if it’s low probability and low impact, it’s Tier Three; but the tricky one is if they say it is high impact – like nuclear war or conventional warfare between states – but low probability. Then it goes in Tier Two. And so everybody thinks Tier Two threats are less important than Tier One threats. But the reality is, Dermot, that almost every time we get involved in a war, a conflict or a crisis, it comes upon us with almost no notice whatsoever. Therefore, it is a mistake to create gaps in your capability rather than having flexible Armed Forces so that whichever of these potential threats becomes an actual danger, you can react to it.

Now what happened as a result of this risk-based, predictive approach was that in 2010 they said we don’t need aircraft carriers or fixed wing flying from the sea for at least the next five years – so they got rid of the Harriers.  Do you know what happened? 2011 – Libya. And do you know which warship our French allies in that campaign sent first to the Eastern Mediterranean?  Yes, the Charles de Gaulle, their aircraft carrier; and our people tried to argue that we wouldn’t have done that, but of course that’s precisely what we would have done.

DERMOT MURNAGHAN: Mr Chairman, I’m afraid we are out of time, thank you very much indeed. Very interesting, as ever.  Julian Lewis, Chair of the Defence Select Committee there.