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.

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.