Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa, Security Debate

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I agree with the Government that it would be a folly for western powers such as Britain to barge in, cowboy-like, and lead the fight against ISIL; but we do have unique military, surveillance and intelligence capabilities which those on the front line do not have, and which should be deployed if—and only if—they request it. That has been the case in northern Iraq with the request from the Iraqi Government, the Kurds and the minorities which risk extermination by ISIL, and—very significantly, if covertly—from Iran. The fact that Iran has given its de facto blessing to US air strikes is of seismic importance. It opens up an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, including, possibly, Israel-Palestine. We also agree on the need to help local Iraqi and Kurdish forces to defeat ISIL by air strikes, supplying military equipment and other military and intelligence support, which has clearly been the only force capable of stemming ISIL’s remorseless and ruthless advance.

That brings us to the elephant in the room: Syria. ISIL will not be defeated if it is constantly allowed to regroup there, because it is from its Syrian bases that it has launched into Iraq. It must be confronted and defeated in Syria too, and, like it or not, that means engagement with the Syrian regime. No one disagrees that Assad is a barbarous, blood-soaked dictator; but he heads the Syrian Government, and he is backed by approximately 40% of the population. Surely, by now at least, the United Kingdom Government and the United States must acknowledge that he is not going to be defeated—not because the Prime Minister was prevented by this House from getting his way with air strikes and, before that, with arming Assad’s opponents, and not because the House said no to pulling Britain into the quagmire of the Syrian civil war, trapped between Sunni and Shi’a, between ISIL and Assad, between Saudis and Iranians in their proxy conflict. Contrary to the line peddled, regrettably, by the Foreign Secretary today, there is no prospect of achieving a transition in Syria without negotiating with Assad and his regime, especially with Russia standing behind it. Our failure to understand that is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged, and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.

Mr Redwood: What kind of morality is it that says that if a bully is a successful bully, we should want to be friends with him, and completely stand on its head the policy of trying to get rid of him?

Mr Hain: It is not about befriending Assad; it is about the reality of moving forward. If we do not recognise the reality, we will not move forward, but will continue to shout and scream and oppose to no effect at all.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that Bashar al-Assad’s main incentive for working with us is the fact that we are worried about terrorism on his eastern frontier. Why would he co-operate rather than leaving those terrorists there, given that they now provide the main underpinning legitimacy of his regime? Why would he work with us on this, sincerely?

Mr Hain: Let me come to that, and explain.

The Prime Minister has described President Assad as “illegitimate”, implying that Britain and the United States could act in Syria with impunity. Surely that position is legally questionable, given that Assad won recent—admittedly highly manipulated— elections, and given that the divided rebel factions do not constitute an alternative Government. Russia, Assad’s ally, would be likely to veto any attempt to gain United Nations authority for air strikes, and Assad can deploy sophisticated Russian-made air defence systems and fighter planes. His air capacity may have been degraded, especially over the parts of Syria that he no longer controls, but it is still formidable. I simply do not see how we could mount air strikes—as I believe we must in Syria if we are to degrade and help to defeat ISIL—without engaging with the regime in some way. That does not mean befriending Assad, and it does not mean legitimising his regime in any way. It could mean back-channel contact. But whatever the means, a way must be found to clear the path for air strikes. We should also have to engage with Iran, and with Russia—which, again, will be difficult, especially given Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine, but which is, in my view, essential.

The Government know full well that I have been a consistent critic of its Syria policy. I have described it as ill-conceived and ultimately counter-productive, as, indeed, I believe events have proved it to be. However, we do not have to agree on that to find common ground over the urgent need for us to act in order to tackle the barbarous mediaeval threat of ISIL, and to act now.

As for Ukraine, I think that Europe’s and NATO’s further push right up to Russia’s front door is ill-advised. Western political bluster, military bombast and tit-for-tat sanctions will not resolve the problem. Why not instead press for a negotiated agreement, however difficult? Under such an agreement, Ukraine would be militarily neutral, which would mean no membership of NATO, and certainly no Russian military pact. Ukraine’s status would be comparable to that of Finland, but, obviously, without membership of the European Union. It would be guaranteed by Moscow and Washington. There would be no further NATO encirclement or enlargement around Russia’s borders, in return for no illegal or aggressive moves by Russia in Ukraine, Moldova or any of its other neighbours. I think that that should be part of a geopolitical deal with the European Union too, in which it, like NATO, would recognise limits to its eastward expansion. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am now being cheered by the Eurosceptics whom I continually oppose, as a pro-European, but I still believe that that is the right policy.

Europe’s March 2014 agreement with Ukraine should be revisited, to offer a reciprocal agreement between Russia and Ukraine with guarantees for Moscow on both trade and political co-operation. Trade and co-operation agreements with those countries—including Ukraine—is desirable, but not full European Union membership. I believe that such a strategy offers a far more promising route to ending the current mutually damaging conflict that has engulfed Ukraine; but, again, it does not mean treating Putin as a buddy. It does not mean endorsing his nakedly manipulative aggression, his authoritarianism or his shameful human rights record. It simply means acknowledging that Russia’s backyard matters greatly to it, just as ours does to us. Then we might be able to build stability and peace in that region.

As will be apparent, I have big areas of agreement with the Government’s approach but big areas of disagreement as well, especially on Syria and the whole approach to the middle east region, and also in terms of Russia and Ukraine. I do hope the Government will think again about these matters. I think there is a prospect of moving forward in both areas. It is going to be very difficult, and there will be all sorts of setbacks, but I am confident—I am absolutely certain—that pursuing the policy we are currently pursuing will bring no practical and positive results at all.