Peter Hain featured on yesterday’s Sunday Supplement to discuss the growth of Islamic State with host Vaughan Roderick.
Due to give a lecture at Swansea University later this week the veteran MP argued that growing sectarianism among Muslim communities within the Middle East could only be combated by the region’s political powers taking a leading role in fighting Islamic State.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): As a former Minister with responsibility for the middle east, may I express my disappointment at the Foreign Secretary’s failure to answer the pertinent questions put by the shadow Foreign Secretary? In particular, does not the situation around Kobane symbolise the complete failure of this Government’s policy towards dealing with Syria and the wider conflict that it has spawned around ISIL? The truth is that the Turkish Government are unwilling to intervene to stop ISIL—its tanks are literally parked looking down at Kobane—until Assad has gone. Assad is not going to go, however much we all want him to, because he has too much firepower standing behind him, including the Russians and the Iranians. Until there is a serious strategy of engagement and negotiation to bring about the transition, we will continue to pursue this futile policy and we will not be able to defeat ISIL. Does he not agree?
Mr Hammond: The right hon. Gentleman says that he speaks as a former Minister with responsibility for the middle east, so he will know, perhaps better than most, the complexity of this area. We can only guess at the complex motives and motivations of Turkey in its individual actions, but I am not sure that his analysis of why the Turks have not intervened in Kobane is correct. Frankly, I think this has more to do with intra-Kurdish politics than it has to do with the regime in Damascus, but it is a complex situation. There are many different conflicts wrapped up within this overall battle, many of them deeply historic and with very complex roots.
In the debate a couple of weeks ago on intervention in Iraq, the right hon. Gentleman made very clear, to his credit, his view that we should be further forward- leaning still—that we should be prepared to intervene in Syria. What I would be very interested to hear, and did not hear from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman’s speech, is an indication whether that is now the Opposition’s view.
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.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I support the Prime Minister’s motion. I also think that, in the end, we will have to deal with ISIL in Syria as well. Did I hear him correctly a moment or two ago? Did he say that if there was an urgent humanitarian need, he would take the action and then get subsequent support from the House? Surely it should be the other way round.
The Prime Minister: No, no. To be absolutely clear, the right hon. Gentleman heard me right the first time round. If there was the need to take urgent action to prevent, for instance, the massacre of a minority community or a Christian community, and Britain could act to prevent that humanitarian catastrophe—if I believed we could effectively act and do that—I am saying I would order that and come straight to the House and explain afterwards.
Let me be clear: I think the convention that has grown up in recent years that the House of Commons is properly consulted and there is a proper vote is a good convention. It is particularly apt when there is—as there is today—a proposal for, as it were, premeditated military action. I think it is important to reserve the right that if there were a critical British national interest at stake or there were the need to act to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, you could act immediately and explain to the House of Commons afterwards. I am being very frank about this because I do not want to mislead anybody.
Why British military action against ISIL’s barbarity, but not Assad’s butchery? And shouldn’t the haunting, 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 Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie. And the aftermath was disastrous.
Which has made me deeply allergic to anything similar in the region – certainly anything remotely hinting of western cowboy intervention.
But that doesn’t mean doing nothing. When I was Africa Minister we were right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.
The Syrian horror from which ISIL has sprung is very different. Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed waves of terror, but his Jihadist opponents have also committed terrible atrocities.
Instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, David Cameron should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise.
For Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.
It is a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril, at its heart the incendiary internal Islamic conflict – Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And also a cold-war hangover: the US with all its considerable assets in the region versus Russia with its only Mediterranean port in Syria.
Even more crucially, Assad is backed by 40 per cent of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities. Although few like his repressive Baathist rule, they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism.
Assad never was going to be defeated. And if western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued.
As the UN set out, a political solution was always the imperative. And that means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him. Our failure to undertake this is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.
Medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal which views its own narrow Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century as possessing the sole truth, ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – the justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking their way to establishing a caliphate.
The icy cast-iron certainty of ISIL’s fundamentalism has to be stopped, and like the US, Britain has military, surveillance and intelligence capabilities which those on the front line fighting it 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 crucially with the military participation of half a dozen nearby Arab countries – has knocked back ISIL’s well-equipped army.
That Iran gave its de facto if covert blessing is of seismic importance, 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 each of them.
However ISIL will never be defeated if it is constantly allowed to regroup from its Syrian bases, and UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without Assad and Putin’s agreement – maybe Rouhani’s too.
Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending. Rather, akin to Churchill 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.’
Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – and in ISIL they have helped unleashed a monster which 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 possibly even help realign Middle East politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni/Shia fault line in the region. A big ask, but a worthwhile one.