Iraq: Coalition Against ISIL

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Although I support the motion authorising military strikes on ISIL in Iraq, and although I fully support my party leader’s caution over extending it to Syria without UN backing, the blunt truth is that simply allowing ISIL to retreat across an invisible border, to them, that they control into Syria to regroup is no answer. First, why British military action against ISIL’s barbarity but not Assad’s butchery? Should not the haunting and ill-fated legacy of invading Iraq instruct us to stay well clear? In the Cabinet in 2003, I backed Tony Blair over Iraq because I honestly believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong. He did not. We went to a war on a lie, and the aftermath was disastrous. That has made me deeply allergic to anything similar in the region and certainly anything remotely hinting at cowboy western intervention.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend also accept that the intervention in 2003 was welcomed by a lot of the people of Iraq, particularly by the Kurds?

Mr Hain: I agree absolutely.

Even Libya, supposedly a surgical operation consented to by this House in 2011, is hardly a good advertisement for us, with chaos now in the country.

Mr Stephen O’Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): In supporting the motion, as I think broadly we are across the House, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the lessons from the 2003 intervention in Iraq is that we should have designed in the reconstruction of Iraq as a democratic state from the outset, rather than leaving it till after we had achieved some military effect?

Mr Hain: Indeed. We tried to, but the Americans took no notice, frankly. In the Syrian horror from which ISIL has sprung, of course Assad’s forces have unleashed waves of terror, but his jihadist opponents too have committed terrible atrocities. That is the context that has given birth to ISIL; not because the House prevented the Prime Minister from armouring moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army. Had the Prime Minister got his way last August, where might those British arms have ended up? Probably with ISIL. Instead of trying to bounce Parliament into backing military strikes in Syria last August, we should have been promoting a negotiated solution right from the beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad and, more importantly, his backers to shift towards compromise.

Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good; between a barbaric dictator and his repressed people. It is a civil war; a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril. At its heart are the incendiary internal Islamic conflicts—Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists and sponsors Saudi Arabia versus Iran. There is also a cold war hangover, of the US—with all its considerable military and intelligence assets in the region—versus Russia, with its only Mediterranean port and intelligence capability in Syria.

Even more crucially, Assad is backed by 40% of his population. His ruling Shia-aligned Alawites, fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority, along with the Kurds, Christians and other minorities do not like his repressive Ba’athist rule very much. They fear the alternative even more; becoming victims of genocide, jihadism or sharia extremism. Assad was never going to be defeated militarily and he is not now. That is the truth. If western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos on the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued. The Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, along with the UN, set out a political solution, which should always have been the imperative. That means negotiating with Assad’s regime, along with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him.

Our failure to undertake that is a major reason why the civil war, in my view, has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish. Medieval in its barbarism and its fanatical religious zeal, which views its own narrow Wahhabi sect, dating from the 18th century, as possessing the sole truth, it uses that as the justification for exterminating both all its opponents and any other religious group blocking its way to establishing a caliphate. It has to be stopped and Britain has the military surveillance and intelligence capabilities that those on the front line fighting ISIL do not. In northern Iraq, only US air power—at the request of the Iraqi Government, the Kurds and the minorities facing genocide by ISIL’s remorseless advance, and very significantly, with the military participation of half a dozen nearby Arab countries—has knocked back ISIL’s well-equipped army. It would not have happened otherwise. That Iran gave its de facto if covert blessing is of significance, opening an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included. Britain should also help local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support.

But not with troops on the ground. Countries in the region have to take ownership of this battle because ISIL threatens them all. But the elephant in the room, for me, remains Syria. ISIL will never be defeated if it is constantly allowed to regroup from its Syrian bases. Without either UN or Syrian Government authorisation, air strikes in Syria may be illegal, although there could well be justification under international law for such strikes, even without UN agreement. And UN authority for air strikes in Syria will not be granted without Assad’s and Putin’s agreement—maybe President Rouhani’s too. That is very difficult—to many, very distasteful—but very necessary. What is the alternative? Although Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences have been hit by the fighting, they are quite sophisticated. Even the US had to pre-inform Damascus about the timing and location of its air strikes this past week or so.

Yet engaging does not mean befriending. Rather, it is akin to what Churchill said in 1941: “If Hitler invaded hell”, he told his private secretary as Germany readied to invade Stalin’s Russia,

“I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

Handled sensitively this could be an opportunity—and I urge the Prime Minister to take it—to kick-start a proper Syrian peace process and to defuse the long-standing, deep and inflammatory divisions among Muslims in the middle east: Iranians as Shi’ites sponsoring Hezbollah and other militias; Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsoring al-Qaeda and other jihadists—including ISIL, where they have helped to unleash a monster that threatens to devour them all.

By acting carefully, not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy, Britain could even help realign middle east politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni-Shi’a fault line in the region. It is a big ask, and an even bigger task, but an immensely valuable one.