BBC2 Newsnight – 10 April 2018
Emily Maitlis: I am joined from New York by Reza Afshar now. He led the Foreign Office’s Syria team until 2013. He now works for Independent Diplomat – that’s an organisation which advises the Syrian Negotiations Coalition of groups opposed to President Assad. Reza Afshar, thanks for joining us. It’s very easy, isn’t it, to talk about the superpowers and overlook what Syrians themselves want. What do the Opposition groups that you are advising want to happen now?
Reza Afshar: Well, thanks, Emily. They have been saying the same thing now for several years, which is: in order to bring this crisis to a close, Assad’s ability to kill civilians indiscriminately needs to be challenged and needs to be deterred. So what they are looking for is some kind of action that would deter indiscriminate killing of civilians. Now, the action that is being contemplated, I think, by the Americans against chemical weapons, is the kind of action – if it was targeted slightly differently – that could deter the killing of civilians, but if it remains narrowly focused only on the chemical weapons threat, then it won’t have that bigger impact.
Emily Maitlis: Interesting. So you think that, when the West hears or sees chemical weapons, that acts as a trigger that does not happen at other times when it should?
Reza Afshar: Yeah, I mean it’s absolutely clear that the chemical weapons issue is the key issue for the West at the moment. You can understand that to a degree, given the kind of architecture that is built around preventing the use of chemical weapons. But, at the same time, the Assad regime’s use of conventional weapons is the biggest killer in Syria, it is the cause of the continuation of the crisis. And it is also equally illegal because of the manner in which he is using weapons, so what I would say is that we need to tackle the bigger problem, not just the chemical weapons issue.
Emily Maitlis: You know as well as I do that some MPs respond to these claims, or these calls from the Opposition groups, by saying that there is actually no cohesion of what the groups on the other side want; that if Assad was removed, there would be further chaos, not resolution to this. What’s your response to that?
Reza Afshar: First, I mean, that’s simply not true. I mean, the coalition of Opposition groups that negotiates at the peace talks in Geneva, is very wide and includes a huge array of Opposition groups. Secondly, they know exactly what they want. They want a transition, and such transition preserves parts of the state – that’s actually a very sensible plan. And third, in a sense you can put that aside, you know, it is nonetheless important to uphold international law, and in so doing you will actually make the process of the negotiations easier, just like in Bosnia, where the Serbs had to be coerced into agreeing a peace. There is the same thing in Syria.
Emily Maitlis: What does this upholding mean? What does it actually look like to you now then?
Reza Afshar: Well, in terms of action, it would be very similar, actually, to the action that’s being contemplated on chemical weapons. The only difference would be that you would say, instead of saying ‘if you use chemical weapons, we will retaliate’, you’d say ‘if you kill indiscriminately, we will retaliate’. The action would actually be exactly the same.
Emily Maitlis: When you say ‘action’ – is it a strike overnight from Trump that we saw last year, is it a commitment to a long-term military offensive from a collection of allies, what is that action you want to see?
Reza Afshar: Well, you know, what Trump did last year is stage one. You need to take it a step further. You need to say ‘if you do this again, we will repeat the action that we did last year’, so it’s the matter of repeating the action every time civilians are killed indiscriminately or every time chemical weapons are used.
Emily Maitlis: But that didn’t work last year, did it?
Reza Afshar: Because they didn’t repeat it, this is what I’m trying to say, Emily. If you only do it once, it doesn’t work. You have to show the intent that you are prepared to completely stop their ability to pursue their military strategy or their attempt to use chemical weapons. So what you do is you repeat the action every time they do it and I would suspect that you do that six, seven, eight times, and the distance between the attacks that they do becomes greater and greater, because they recognise that they are going to be attacked each time they do it. It is simple, it’s very simple deterrence.
Emily Maitlis: Briefly – and I can’t even ask you to respond to that briefly – but you will understand my point. How does this war end?
Reza Afshar: Well, by a negotiation. And if you want to enable that negotiation, you have to limit Assad’s military strategy, including his use of chemical weapons.
Emily Maitlis: Thank you very much, Reza Afshar. Thank you.
We did ask the Government to join us tonight and the Russian and Syrian governments too – nobody there was available. But where is the politics on this here in Britain tonight? If there is action against Syria of the kind we heard described, should and could the UK be a part of it?
Joining me now is the Conservative MP and Chair of the Defence Select Committee, Julian Lewis, and a Labour Peer and former Lord Chancellor, who served under both, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, Charlie Faulkner. Very nice to see you both, Gentlemen.
Julian, let me start with you. A lot of people would think back to what we now think was a pretty seminal moment of 2013. David Cameron went to Parliament to ask about strikes on Assad, Ed Miliband led a veto, if you like, against that. You were one of those who voted against it. Does that still seem like the right way to have voted, or was it a massive opportunity missed?
Julian Lewis: No, it was exactly the right thing to do, and that interview that you’ve just done is hugely revealing, because we are hearing now what is being proposed. What is being proposed is that we should intervene massively on the side of the Opposition in Syria against Assad. And the truth is very different from the suggestion that there is a wide range of Opposition groups. Apart from the Kurdish-led fighters, the Opposition fighters in Syria are overwhelmingly led by jihadists, and both sides in this civil war are unacceptable to us. What is now being proposed is the thin end of the wedge, so that we would intervene and tip the balance against Assad and in favour of the Opposition.
Emily Maitlis: Reza Afshar, whom we’ve just heard, vehemently denied that there was that kind of split amongst the Opposition groups. You are faced with a leader, a dictator, who – as far as we know – is repeatedly using chemical warfare against his own people. So what do you do?
Julian Lewis: This is a crucial point. And I hasten to add that you described me as Chairman of the Defence Committee, but I am speaking here for myself. There is a range of views on the Defence Committee.
Emily Maitlis: Sure.
Julian Lewis: But the reality is that, if you look at the numbers of airstrikes that we carried out against ISIL/Daesh in Iraq and in Syria, the numbers ran for most of the time about 8 in Iraq for every one in Syria. Why is that? Because airstrikes can only be effective when they are in support of ground troops. The only ground troops in Syria that we could support were our Kurdish allies, and what’s more they are currently being attacked by Turkey, a fellow-member of NATO that is busy cosying up to Russia. A very good idea for us to get involved in that? I don’t think so.
Emily Maitlis: Do you think the PM has your ear on this? Do you think she is with you on this, or do you think she will go ahead and decide that action is needed?
Julian Lewis: I have no idea what she will do. I’ll wait to see with interest, but what I am concerned about is that you do not seem to accept that what we’ve got here in Syria is a choice between monsters on the one hand, and maniacs on the other. And it is absolutely untrue to say that, apart from the Kurdish-led forces, the Salafis and the jihadists are not in control of the Opposition groups. They are, and we will be helping al-Qaeda if we help them to do a sustained military campaign against the brutal Assad regime.
Emily Maitlis: Charlie Falconer?
Lord Falconer: There is a desperate desire to do something, but there is no point in, for example, using military force if it is completely ineffective. That would be worse than doing nothing, because ultimately you would be sending a signal that you can’t do anything about it. So I think that there are three things that need to be done: first, you need to have some definitive investigations to what happened, and although there has been disagreement in the Security Council –
Emily Maitlis: You had the Russian veto.
Lord Falconer: But the Organisation for Prevention of Chemical Weapons is, as I understand it, sending inspectors, in any event, so there will be some independent investigation taking place. I don’t know what form that would be, I don’t know the extent they will get access, but it’s important that there will be some definitive view.
Emily Maitlis: When you hear your old flatmate Tony Blair, for example, saying you don’t need a Parliamentary vote on this – sometimes you need to take the action at the time you need to take the action. Is he wrong?
Lord Falconer: I think, in these circumstances to go very quickly – without an authoritative view as to what happened, a sense that there was an international agreement on what had happened, and a convincing strike that would do something about it – would be a mistake. But I do not think one should go straight away, I do not think it should be done without a Parliamentary vote. I think, in strict constitutional terms the Executive has got a power to wage war or use a military force when the country is threatened, but I don’t think that is this case. Politically, there needs to be a Parliamentary debate.
Emily Maitlis: We are five years past a moment when we talked about red lines. So what does that say about any impact the West has any more or should have? Both of you are telling me tonight that that was the right decision and nothing would have changed in Syria if we had gone there.
Lord Falconer: The key bit of this must be to get Russia to stop supporting Syria in what it is doing. And identifying and tailoring things that will make Russia stop what it is doing is the key thing, and that requires –
Emily Maitlis: Taking Russia off the Security Council.
Lord Falconer: You can get a group of countries, a widespread group of countries, that will make Russia pay a price, not necessarily militarily, for what they are doing.
Julian Lewis: 2013 was exactly the right thing to do. If we had done what is now being suggested, which was being suggested then, which was to bring down Assad, it would have had exactly the same effect as bringing down other dictators. We would have the jihadists –
Emily Maitlis: Should we be working harder to prop Assad up, so that the war is over one way or another?
Julian Lewis: I would not like to involve ourselves in supporting either of the equally reprehensible sides in this civil war, because – whereas in Iraq we now have a situation when we feel we can support the government forces – in Syria we have recommended bombing first one side, and then the other, and now the first side again. And the answer is: we touch this at our peril. There is nothing going on that Assad is doing that Saddam Hussein didn’t do ten times over: thirty years ago he killed not 50 people with gas, he killed five thousand people.
Emily Maitlis: You voted for Iraq and we went into Iraq.
Julian Lewis: I did, and I made a mistake. And the point about this is: if you want to say we should bring down Assad now, then you’ve got to justify what we did in Iraq and you’ve got to be prepared to spend 15 years, as we did [in Iraq], turning Syria around.
Emily Maitlis: Lord Falconer now?
Lord Falconer: There will be no appetite anywhere here for going for 15 years into Syria, but we need to start building coalitions to make a real difference in relation to this; because I think the message of 2013 is that nothing happened after Parliament voted not to use force, which I think was the right decision at that stage, but then [everyone] went away.
Emily Maitlis: Thank you both very much; thank you for coming in.
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BBC Radio 4: The World at One – 10 April 2018
Mark Mardell: ... The Conservative MP Julian Lewis is Chair of the Commons Defence Committee and is sceptical about the UK taking military action.
Julian Lewis: “Some limited punishment strike – to try and send a signal to the Syrian Government that it will always pay a price when it does something like this – [would be] fair enough. But you’ve got still to bear in mind: what do you expect the eventual outcome to be? And remember: what you’ve got here are two equally unacceptable positions, from the point of view of Western values; and, if either of them triumphs, you can expect bad consequences.”