BBC News Channel – 18 June 2013
Interviewer: Conservative MP, Dr Julian Lewis, who is opposed to arming the Syrian opposition, joins us now. Thank you very much indeed for talking to us.
David Cameron has been talking in Lough Erne about this, and he is saying that, although he is worried about some elements of the Syrian opposition, his argument is that we shouldn’t accept that the only alternative to Assad is terrorism and violence – saying that we should be doing more to help the Syrian opposition.
Dr Julian Lewis: The problem with this is that our most deadly enemies are the Al-Qaeda organisation and the bodies that are affiliated to it. And affiliated to Al-Qaeda are several thousand fighters, who are at the heart of what the rebels are doing, and therefore, as I’ve said before and I keep saying, it is potentially suicidal for us to assist any organisation which contains large numbers of Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters to take over a country. And it’s not just the question of if we give weapons to the supposedly moderate elements, somehow we’ll stop them getting into the hands of the extremist elements. The real question is: what happens when all these people, if they do take over the country, take over Syria’s stocks of weapons of mass destruction – such as the nerve gas Sarin. That is the question the Government cannot answer, and yet that is the thing that would pose the most deadly threat to the strategic interests and the safety of the United Kingdom.
Interviewer: The Foreign Secretary [William Hague] has been pointing out this morning that already Britain is helping the more moderate parts of the Syrian opposition; and what David Cameron is arguing is that we do need to try and look to those who want a more peaceful and democratic future for Syria.
Dr Lewis: Well, I think that this is a rather naïve and idealistic view of the situation. What’s going on here is a really vicious and brutal civil war, and what makes it worse are two other factors: one is that our deadliest enemies are fighting alongside the people we are proposing to help – that’s Al-Qaeda and its affiliates – and the other is that, if they succeed, they’ll get their hands on deadly weapons which would then be used against us. And that would be folly.
Interviewer: Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, is saying that he doesn’t think that David Cameron can convince the House to back him on this. David Cameron is suggesting very strongly that the House of Commons would be given a vote. Do you think that it would be impossible for David Cameron to win a vote in the House of Commons to send arms to the Syrian opposition?
Dr Lewis: I think it would be extremely difficult for him to win such a vote. It’s hard to see how he could do it, because Labour would vote against it, the Liberal Democrats tend to vote against armed intervention, even when they ought to be supporting it, and a huge number, I believe, of my Conservative colleagues think that this policy is madness, frankly. Interestingly enough, a "senior Tory source" was quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Times as saying, and I quote:
"The bottom line is that we will avoid at all costs a vote as we don’t think we can win it".
So, if David Cameron is not going to hold a vote, as I’ve said before, it would be very unwise of him to press ahead with a policy that, if he did hold a vote, would be heavily – I believe very heavily – defeated.
Interviewer: Given that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has also said that he doesn’t think it’s the right thing to do at the moment, do you think that the Prime Minister is going to have to back away, at least for the time being, from actually providing any weapons and look at other ways of supporting the Syrian opposition?
Dr Lewis: Well, he is already doing everything he can, as I understand it, to support the Syrian opposition in other ways. The only sensible thing, I think, that he could do, if we are really concerned, as we must be, about the terrible slaughter, would be to try and arrange to convene a peace conference without preconditions. At the moment, the Government’s position tends to be to say
"We want to have a peaceful transition",
which means you have some conference and Assad peacefully agrees to step down. Now, you might get one thing but, if you do, you won’t get the other. You might get Assad to step down, but in that case it’s going to be a very bloody process, as it has been all along. Or you might be able to get some sort of ceasefire, if you did it without the precondition that you’ve got to have a transition and that the Assad regime – which is horrible – have got to hand over to the opposition – which is a mixture including some equally horrible people and, what’s more, equally horrible people who have got us in their sights if ever, heaven forbid, they manage to take over Syria’s stocks of deadly weapons of mass destruction.
Interviewer: Just briefly though, Dr Lewis, what about William Hague, the Foreign Secretary’s, concern that if the West – Britain, France and the United States – does not help the opposition, there is a danger that Assad will just exterminate the opposition and carry on overriding his opponents, using chemical weapons?
Dr Lewis: First of all, the question of whether chemical weapons have been used is a moot point, because it is odd that they should have used them, as has been alleged, and yet used them in such small quantities that they couldn’t possibly be decisive. But putting that to one side, if you are saying that William Hague’s fear otherwise would be that Assad might – far from being defeated – might actually emerge victorious, this is all the more of an argument to say that the Big Powers, the United States, the Russians, and Great Britain, and possibly the Iranians, as a sponsor of the Assad regime, should try to get together and agree to freeze the situation and go for a ceasefire.
It is playing with fire to get alongside our deadliest enemies and try and help the people who are fighting alongside them to take over a country. This is not going to lead to a good outcome.
Interviewer: Dr Julian Lewis, thank you very much indeed for talking to us.
Dr Lewis: Thank you.