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.

ISIL Will Not Be Beaten Without Air Strikes In Syria

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Is not the truth that ISIL will not be beaten without air strikes in Syria as well, and that means engaging with the Assad regime and Iran—however unpalatable—as well as with the Saudis? Perhaps that is also a route to resolving the bitter and dangerous Shi’a-Sunni conflicts in the region, because ultimately ISIS poses a bigger threat to nations in the region than it does to us.

The Prime Minister: I will make two points to the right hon. Gentleman, whose views on this matter I respect. First, I would argue that Assad’s brutality has been one of the things that has helped generate the appalling regime that ISIS represents. Secondly, what we want to see—we are consistent across the piece on this—is democratic Governments that are pluralistic and represent all their people. We want to see that in Iraq, which is why we support Prime Minister al-Abadi in his attempts to build an inclusive Government, and we should support attempts in Syria to have a democratic transition to a regime that can represent everyone in Syria.

EU Council, Security & the Middle East

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I support air strikes on ISIS to stop its genocidal attacks in the region, particularly against Shi’a Muslims and Kurds and minorities, but there should be no question of British troops on the ground. However, we do need to support the Kurds particularly, in providing the equipment they need. In addition, neighbouring nations need to take ownership of this fight and the solution to it. Could the Prime Minister, therefore, press our close ally, the Saudis, to stop funding mediaeval barbarism by ISIS, and could he get Iran and Turkey to engage as well? Finally, could he schedule a full day’s debate in prime Government time on foreign policy? The world is a very dangerous place at the moment, including between Russia and Ukraine, and we need to have a proper debate, welcome though statements are.

The Prime Minister: On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about a fuller debate, we are looking at that: the House authorities are looking at it and I think it would be extremely worth while if time can be found. I very much agree with the tenor of what he says, which is that we should be looking to ask how we can best help those on the ground—the Iraqi Government, the Kurdish forces—who are doing their best to prevent humanitarian catastrophes and to make sure that Islamic State is properly addressed in Iraq? We should be asking how we can help, rather than thinking the west can somehow lead and overtake an intervention, but I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there should be no question of British combat troops on the ground.

Israel & Gaza

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the terrible carnage in Gaza means that the prospects for the two-state solution we all want are vanishing? It was still very possible back in 2000; I recall that when I was middle east Minister I had discussions with Prime Minister Barak and Yasser Arafat in Palestine, but that all collapsed and Hamas was elected. Now, Israel’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Hamas, coupled with its merciless assault on Gaza, risks inviting in something even worse and more extreme—ISIS. Surely we should learn from Northern Ireland that to end wars people have to negotiate with their enemies or the terror simply gets worse.

Mr Ellwood: I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his interest and experience in this area. He is right to point out that we face very difficult challenges. On a positive note, we welcome the announcement of the formation of a new interim technocratic Government for the Occupied Palestinian Territories, reuniting Gaza and the west bank under a Government committed to peace, which is a necessary condition for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Syria, Ed Miliband deserves praise not poison

Guardian

David Cameron has a streak of petty, bullying arrogance which often reveals itself at Prime Ministers’ Questions – very un-Prime Ministerial. Now his henchmen have been trying to spin his humiliating defeat by Parliament into an unedifying character assassination of Ed Miliband.

It wasn’t Miliband who attempted to grandstand by bouncing Parliament prematurely into attacking Syria.

The Labour Leader hasn’t been responsible for perhaps the most monumentally misjudged British foreign policy in recent times.

Cameron began two years ago demanding regime change – which didn’t work. Then he resourced the rebel forces – which failed too. Then he tried to send arms to the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that: perhaps he forgot the series of protests by MPs culminating in the vote opposing his policy by 114 to 1 on 11 July on a backbench motion moved by Tories?

When first phoned last week by the PM and informed of his intentions to recall Parliament at short notice, Ed Miliband initially offered to cooperate – as was his duty. The hideous chemical weapons attack revolted everyone.

But he was not prepared to support an ill-judged and rushed decision to use military force: before the UN weapons inspectors had reported, before the UN Security Council had even debated and voted on the basis of the evidence presented, and before the wider impact of military action on the region had been properly weighed up. Ed has been consistent ever since he was elected Labour leader three years ago: these are the lessons of Iraq. We have to learn them.

Instead Cameron insisted Parliament vote ahead of the evidence– and Parliament refused to be bounced. No amount of poisonous Tory briefing can escape that truth.

Yes, on Wednesday backbench and frontbench Labour MPs made it clear they were unwilling to go along with the PM. As did many Tories too – though Number 10 ignored them, in a way the Labour Leader did not of his Party.

But the real problem is that Cameron on Thursday gave absolutely no sense of where this was all going to lead to. What would happen after a military strike – ‘surgical’ or not? What about collateral civilian casualties, retaliatory attacks, escalatory consequences?

Although they do indeed cross a red line in warfare, chemical weapons actually account for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria. What would Parliament be asked to do next?

If Cameron had all along been dovish over Syria and come to MPs saying: ‘we simply must stop chemical attacks’, maybe he might have achieved a different result. But he has been repeatedly and publicly straining at the leash of British military intervention for over a year now. The chemical attack simply seemed like an excuse to do what he had long wanted.

The fundamental flaw in the position of the government, the US and its allies, is to see Syria as a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.

It’s a civil war: a quagmire involving Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, the US versus Russia, with Al Qaida fighters increasingly prominent amongst the rebel forces.

Assad has the backing of 40 per cent of the population who may fear his ruthless dictatorship, but fear much more becoming victims of genocide or Sunni extremism.

Surely if western military strikes toppled Assad without a settlement in place, there could be even greater chaos and carnage in a powder keg of a region?

There can be no military victory by either side. The alternative is to drop a failed British policy and promote a negotiated settlement between Assad and his enemies. However impossible that looks today, it’s the only way to solve this bloody and increasingly dangerous war.

If Cameron stopped his poisonous spin and changed course he would find Miliband and MPs of all Parties willing partners.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/02/syria-ed-miliband-david-cameron