Before I call the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) to move the motion, I should point out that there is a large number of would-be contributors to this debate, a rather disturbing proportion of whom are not yet in the Chamber. I hope that will be remedied before long. We do not want standards to slip. [Interruption.] Well, every Member has a responsibility to keep an eye on the annunciator. The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) says that the debate started too soon. It may have started too soon for other Members, but not for him. He, typically, was in his place at the appropriate time. We are grateful to him, as indeed are a great many others.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s role in the Middle East.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and the dozens of parliamentary colleagues from many political parties who supported me in securing the opportunity to discuss this most important of subjects at this most critical of times. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for their support. The importance of this subject to the House can be seen by the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has seen fit to allocate a full day to the debate and by the number of Members who are present and who have indicated that they would like to contribute.
In opening this debate, it is incumbent on me to acknowledge Great Britain’s historical ties with the middle east and state my belief that with that unique history comes a special responsibility to continue to engage with this difficult yet crucial area of the world. I am sure that the Minister will say more about Britain’s historical links to the region later.
In the short time since I made my initial application to the Backbench Business Committee, there have been numerous developments that are relevant to the topic of this debate: a Russian passenger plane blown out of the sky over the Sinai peninsula, a suicide terrorist attack in Beirut, more lives lost in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the first full parliamentary elections in Egypt since the second revolution, the deadly bomb attack in Tunisia, the tragic events in Paris, the downing of a Russian jet on the Syrian-Turkish border by the Turkish air force, the unanimous passing of United Nations resolution 2249, an increase in anti-Semitic attacks across Europe and violent clashes with UK Muslim communities, including two attempts to torch Finsbury Park mosque this weekend alone. That is not an exhaustive list. Those events serve as a reminder of the challenges we and the international community face in understanding the issues and how to deal with them.
Before and during my time serving in this Chamber, I have travelled extensively in the region and worked as a doctor among Muslim communities in the UK, seeking to deepen my understanding. I lay no claim to the answers, but one thing has always struck me as essential: the need to take a coherent and comprehensive approach across the middle east as a whole, and to recognise the shoots and roots of the threats emanating from that region which are growing in our own society.
There are many such risks and threats to confront. They are linked across the whole region and are complex. Tribal and ethnic loyalties, cultural ties, religious differences and centuries-old conflicts, most of which transcend national borders, all bedevil the region. The consequent instability inevitably spills over into the mass displacement of people and the consequent humanitarian need. There is the Syrian civil war, the Yemeni civil war, the Libyan civil war, and the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Many global actors have been sucked in and continue to be sucked in. Proxy wars abound, such as Saudi Arabia versus Iran and the US against Russia. The huge range of actors involved in the Vienna process is evidence of that. There are also historical challenges. Changing borders have resulted in diverse communities within national borders. Colonial powers have been a malign influence via Sykes-Picot. The US and Russia have both been involved. Since 1979, there appears to have been a continuing battle between Shi’a and Sunni.
Within that complex situation the House is soon to be asked to decide whether UK air strikes should be extended into Syria. I do not find that a difficult question, but we must be clear about why we are proceeding in this way.
First, we must not declare war on ISIS; we must not legitimise those barbarians in that way because—unlike them—we are not medieval religious crusaders. Instead, we should help to eradicate groups of people anywhere who abuse authority in order to behead children, systematically rape women, kill people whose religious views or ways of life are not the same as their own, and whose extortion, terror and hatred make it impossible for people to live in the territory they control, and those who commit murder and spread terror in other parts of the world. Such people are not worthy of whichever god it is in whose name they claim to act.
That is why I support the Prime Minister’s proposal to extend air strikes into the ungoverned space of eastern Syria. For the record, I would have supported military action to create safe havens for people in 2011, and I would have included Syria when air strikes against ISIS/Daesh began in 2014, as I regard the current circumstances—in which the RAF can find a foe but not destroy it—as nonsense. The threat from ISIS is clear and present, the legal justification for action is strong, and it is right that Britain should play a leading role with its allies in eradicating ISIS/Daesh from the face of the earth.
The difficult question is how we use military force to constructive and not destructive ends, and on that critical point I do not believe that we have yet got a sufficient answer. Military action never has reliable outcomes, and it spreads fear and chaos. Protracted air strikes will do more harm than good as civilian casualties rise and infrastructure is destroyed. Strikes are not a decisive game changer, but I believe they are an important part of a bigger effort.
Air strikes may be our only hope of getting, and then keeping, parties in the Syrian civil war around the table, but we must be clear about who we are fighting for and how military action ends. Our focus must be on building the 10 or 20-year stabilisation force needed to generate the space required for lasting solutions to be found. I suspect that we will have to contribute ground forces at some point, and we must rapidly evolve a new sort of international action capability if we are to face up to the immense task of social and physical reconstruction. That needs people who are capable of building the foundations that underpin stability: political reform, economic development, legal systems, education and the creation of opportunity for young people, and all peoples must be engaged, not just the political elites. The Government stabilisation unit is a start, but it must be built into the sort of capability that the King of Jordan once described as an army of “blue overalls”, not “blue helmets”.
The scope of this debate is deliberately broad, and I hope it will convey three messages to our country. First, every individual and community in the UK has a stake in the direction that the Government choose to take in the middle east, and towards the threats and risks that emanate from there. This is not just about immediate questions of foreign policy or military action; it is about our future way of life, how we educate our children, how we welcome and integrate immigrants and refugees, and how we teach respect and loyalty for our country, values, traditions and laws. All those things affect whether or not our generation will deal with the issues relevant to this debate.
It is also true that we are, and will remain, at high risk of attack. Broadening our bombing campaign against ISIS will, I fear, increase that risk, but that is not a reason not to act. I believe that the majority of the British public understand that the frontline against Islamic extremism is not just in Raqqa but also here on the streets of Britain. Gone are the days of wars being fought in distant lands. The Gallipoli of the past could be a provincial shopping centre of tomorrow, and until we stop our society breeding new generations of radicalised young people, until we stop sheltering those who wish our society ill, and until we achieve a fully integrated society in which values are shared, laws are respected, and loyalty to Queen and country is separate from loyalty to a religion, we will not be secure. The risk of atrocity will remain.
Secondly, we must act in the middle east. We must do so now, and we must act more decisively and comprehensively than ever before, recognising where we need to do more to achieve the long-term effects we want. Often in the past, we have been too narrow and reactive. In the west, we have tended to suffer from chronic short-termism. Those who have travelled in the region can attest to the different sense of time in our respective worlds. We have been blinkered to the interconnected nature of the risks and threats. Disengagement is just not an option.
Our approach must change. Above all, we must recognise the threat of Islamist extremism and the conditions allowing it to flourish. We must eliminate them all, not just its latest iteration ISIS. We must remain credible, consistent and reliable partners to our regional and international allies in this struggle. This must come with an understanding that our allies are often imperfect. We must distinguish carefully between regional Governments battling extremism and its regional supporters. We must be aware of the ever-changing balance of power across the region and that power is shifting away from elites to people on the street. Arabic social media is an extraordinary force. We also need to assess the relative power of religion, tribal loyalties and national identities that in some countries are still quite strong. For example, some analysts have detected a reduction in religious adherence, especially among the young. If accurate, this phenomenon would be hugely significant.
We must accept that reform takes time, influence and patient engagement, not imposition and insistence. We must be pragmatic and treat the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. We must better recognise trends. We did not see the Arab spring or ISIS coming. For too long we have played the equivalent of a child’s game of whack-a-mole, with threats and challenges emanating from the region. We deal, or half deal, with one symptom, only for another to pop up elsewhere. We are not yet on a path to defeat the causes of today’s wars and instability, or to deal with challenges fast coming down the line. This can and must change. Our national and international machinery of government must be strengthened to bring about that change.
Our strategic focus must be a more stable region. The Vienna process is a welcome sign that necessary powers may wake up to the effort that a long-term solution in Syria will take. We must wake up in the same way to the whole region. Its neighbourhood, including the Gulf states Iran and Israel, has a vital role. It must become a bigger part of the solution and stop being part of the problem. That will not happen without much stronger institutional machinery and sustained international attention. We must acknowledge that our tools are inadequate. This is not an excuse for not acting, but it should determine our priorities.
Thirdly, Parliament—this Chamber—has an important and constructive role not just in holding successive Governments to account when it is too late, but in ensuring that they shape policies in the first place that are in our nation’s and our constituents’ long-term best interests. Our current range of interventions in the middle east are not yet on track to end well. In some cases, we are already seeing the effects in Libya and with the recent refugee crisis. Others will play out over the coming decades. We must set ourselves up to succeed as a nation and not to fail. We must consider our 10-year, 20-year and 30-year priorities, as well as any immediate threats. The education of the next generation and the emancipation of women are crucial. The British Council is doing good work on those areas, particularly in the refugee camps around the Syrian border. Such work must be better funded and expanded further throughout the region. I have long believed we need a middle east strategy similar to that rightly commissioned by the Prime Minister towards the Gulf states. Here, Madam Deputy Speaker, I must declare an interest, as my wife wrote the recently adopted UK strategy towards the Gulf. Developing such a comprehensive strategy towards the middle east would, of course, be a larger undertaking requiring proper funding, but it would certainly be worth our while.
Britain, of course, already contributes a great deal in terms of humanitarian aid, as well as militarily and diplomatically. We support our allies. We are a strong and steadfast partner. The proposed military intervention will not be a game changer, but our brainpower and diplomatic clout, and the respect in which we are held throughout the region very well could be. Let me be clear: I believe that the most valuable role Britain can play in the middle east is to give the world a plan for peace and stability in the region.
In conclusion, I offer this word of caution from Winston Churchill:
“Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”
At such a febrile moment in the region’s history, it is important that we step back. There is huge scope for miscalculation. It would be easy to sleepwalk into a new type of global conflict for which, I fear, we are not prepared. We cannot afford to restrict our horizons. Above all, though, we must challenge ourselves. It is time we paid more attention to a way out of this chaos. The apocalypse that Daesh et al seek must be prevented. To this generation of political leaders falls the responsibility of delivering a comprehensive long-term strategy towards the middle east so as to achieve that noble goal. It will require patience, courage and determination. By applying ourselves properly, we can secure our children’s futures and do the country and the wider world a great service.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. It will be obvious to the House that a great many colleagues wish to take part in the debate, so I am restricting Back-Bench speeches to seven minutes.
It is a great pleasure to follow that wide-ranging and comprehensive speech from the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee). It set out well the problems that we face and people’s outrage at the horrific actions of the death cult of Daesh.
The cry is, “Something must be done”, and we are always being asked, “How can Britain intervene? What can we do to put it right?”. One of the best writers I have read on intervention says that intervention is unpredictable, chaotic, uncertain, often prevents local leaders from taking responsibility, does not put pressure on settlements between enemies and is often crippled by the frequently changing aims of intervening Governments. I think that sums up what happens when we intervene. It is from that reality base that we will have to decide, very soon, whether we as a country should extend our intervention from Iraq to Syria.
One thing that worries me about the proposed intervention is our capability—not whether our armed forces are determined or skilled enough, but whether we have the platforms. In the 1991 Gulf war, we had 36 fast jet squadrons; today, we have seven, only three of which are Tornado squadrons. We have eight Tornado GR4 aircraft in Cyprus that have flown 1,600 missions and carried out 360 airstrikes. No one has told us how often those aircraft have had to turn back at the Syrian border. I would like some facts on that. We are saying we have to intervene, yet we do not know the facts.
We have carried out one strike in four missions: a strikingly modest contribution. The Tornados are due to be decommissioned in 2018-19. Each plane has a pilot and a navigator, but we have a limited number of planes and pilots and a shortage of navigators for the GR4. We originally had six planes in Cyprus, but now we have eight. We need eight because they need considerable maintenance and spare parts from other planes to keep flying. We increased the number to eight, so let us be clear: we need eight planes in Cyprus to fly two.
The Tornado is an incredibly capable air-to-ground attack plane, capable of carrying 12 of the much talked-of Brimstone missiles. It is generally considered to be poor at air-to-air combat, which is where the Typhoon excels although it does not carry the Brimstones. We need to know how many Tornado pilots, navigators and ground crew would be needed to maintain and arm our planes to extend our mission into Syria. Is it going to be the same eight planes, or are we going to add to those planes? If so, where are those planes coming from? Where are the planes and the crews currently deployed? What missions will we need to cease or decrease to allow them to fly in Syria? Very importantly, will harmony guidelines be breached for those crews, because that is a vital question to which we need to know the answer?
The Prime Minister told us last week that 70% of the territory held by Daesh in Iraq is still to be recaptured. Our 360 strike missions have helped to regain only 30% of the territory over the last year.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. When we went to Iraq as a Defence Committee—my hon. Friend being a member at the time and she still is—what we heard when we met a number of the leaders of the Sunni tribes was that they wanted arming in order to take on ISIL, but that that was not happening because the Iraqi Government was not doing that. Does my hon. Friend believe that that is essential to bring about a proper solution here?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. The critical issue is how we engage the Sunni tribes in fighting for their own future, and how we ensure that the Sunni become an integral part of the change that is needed both in Iraq and in Syria. Without them, our intervention is nonsense and a complete waste of time.
I, too, was on the same trip, but I visited the peshmerga in the north of Iraq whereas she and her hon. Friend visited Baghdad. Does she agree that one of the greatest forces we have in Iraq, and potentially in Syria, too, are the peshmerga?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who serves valiantly on the Defence Select Committee with me. I know how much work he did on that visit, when we really delved deeply into what the capability and the success of the intervention were. Of course, the peshmerga are a tremendous asset and a great fighting force, but they are not going to fight everywhere in Iraq. They want to focus on their own area and on protecting Kurdish lands and Kurdish people. They are not the Iraqi armed forces; they are the Kurdish armed forces.
The Prime Minister told us last week that we are going to regain more territory. I do not want us to transfer our limited intervention capability from Iraq to Syria. In December 2015, our military presence in Iraq outside of the Kurdish regions was three individuals—we met them—yet our missions there are critical to preventing Daesh from spreading across Iraq.
I urge Members to read the Defence Committee report produced in January this year, which outlined the problems we faced in Iraq and the capability we had to intervene there. The report states that we saw no evidence of the UK Government seeking to analyse, question or change the coalition strategy to which they are committed. Ministers, officials and officers failed to set out a clear military strategy for Iraq, or a clear definition of the UK’s role in operations. We saw no evidence of an energised policy debate, reviewing or arguing options for deeper engagement.
Is it not also the case that if we are to launch air-to-ground attacks, we need to be able to collaborate with forces on the ground to report the targets and whether or not the attacks were successful?
That is exactly the information that we need. We know that 360 attacks have been made by our planes, but what we do not know is how valid they were. Were they successful? Are they making a difference? Here we are, talking about intervening somewhere else, when we do not even know how successful our intervention has been in Iraq.
The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army fell apart when confronted by Daesh. The army has serious structural issues, poor-quality leadership, and a sectarian divide that must be addressed before any real progress in combating Daesh is possible. The brutality of the Shia militias often forces Sunni tribes into seeing Daesh as the safer alternative; let us never move away from that recognition. Sunni reconciliation and the taming of the Shia militia are impossibly difficult. If we cannot make that happen in Iraq, what chance have we in Syria? What is the basis of the sectarian divide? Is it simply religion, or is it also the age-old strategy of divide and rule? Is it a question of getting groups to fight among themselves, and allowing the corruption and the repression of the autocratic ruling regime to continue, allowing the poverty to grow, and allowing young men to turn to jihadism when there is no work and no hope for the future?
In Syria there is no compelling image for the future, and there are no leaders to rally behind. Syria is a state in the midst of civil war. In Syria there is nothing that will pull people together, but in Iraq we have potential. There is a Shia president, a Sunni defence Minister, and a wonderful Kurdish president.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing the debate, and on his very thoughtful introduction to it.
I share the outrage that has been aroused by the atrocities in Paris, Tunisia, Beirut, Sinai and elsewhere. Any action that is necessary to protect Britain from similar horrors will have my full support, especially if we can simultaneously deliver fellow Christians and other minorities from the barbarity of the ISIL regime. However, I still need to be persuaded that the Government’s policy is likely to be effective and realistic, although I want to be persuaded. Let me spell out my concerns and doubts.
Above all, we must learn the lessons of experience from Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, all of which continue to haunt us. Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was to keep on doing the same thing and expect a different outcome. My colleagues are eminently sane, so I hope that they have learnt what I believe to be the three key lessons of recent history. First, it is comparatively easy to destroy a regime. Secondly, it is next to impossible to install a new regime or defeat an insurgency by air power alone, without boots on the ground: troops who are prepared to stay for the long term, preferably because they are in their own country. Thirdly, the only thing worse than a tyrannical regime is the chaos and anarchy that may replace it.
I need persuading first that if we join the bombing campaign, it will be in support of forces that are capable of retaining ground that air power may help to clear. In Iraq, we are supporting the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and if it is militarily necessary to take action across border in their defence, that is fine by me. However, I must say this about Syria. The Prime Minister referred to
“70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups”.—[Official Report, 26 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1491.]
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when the Select Committee was in Iraq, we were told that 1 million Shia fighters alone were willing to combat Daesh. Do we not have a greater chance in Iraq than in Syria?
The hon. Lady has made a very good point, and she made an extremely good speech.
I would like to believe that the Free Syrian Army is more than a label attached to a ragbag of tribal troops, factional militias and personal armies with no coherent command structure. I would like to believe that they are moderates. However, when I was carrying out a study of the conflict in Ulster many years ago, I examined similar situations, and concluded that
“it is nearly a law of human nature that where people fear the disintegration of the state they rally to the most forceful and extreme advocate of their group.”
In those circumstances there are no moderates, so at best we will have to rely on some pretty violent and unpleasant forces.
I would like to believe that there will be an effective fighting force. However, in October, the commander of the US central command, General Lloyd Austin, reported to the Senate that the programme to train some 5,400 moderate Syrians each year at a cost of $500 million had so far produced only four or five fighters. The number could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I would also like to be convinced that, if those moderate fighting forces existed, they could be persuaded to fight the Islamists rather than Assad, whom they have mostly considered to be their main enemy up to now.
But is not the issue for any Government contemplating air strikes the question of who they would get in touch with and co-ordinate with on the ground?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have signally failed to train any forces, and it is far from clear that we could achieve our aim without any.
My second area of concern is whether this aerial bombardment in Syria will actually help to prevent terror on our streets in Britain. I should make it clear that I am not one of those who believe that we should hold back from bombing ISIL for fear of provoking more terrorism. Even if there were such a risk, to allow a handful of terrorists to determine British policy would be cowardly in the extreme. But in any case, the truth is that these extreme Islamists attack us not because of what we do but because of what we are.
The preamble to the Prime Minister’s memorandum to the Select Committee states that
“it is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against this country are planned and orchestrated.”
I would like to believe that this was a simple matter of taking out the command and control system to prevent the main threats of terrorism in this country, yet even in that document, when detailing the seven plots foiled by our security forces in the past 12 months, that claim is watered down to say the plots were merely “linked to ISIL” or “inspired by ISIL’s propaganda”.
The truth is that the atrocities we have seen in Britain and France were almost invariably carried out by home-grown terrorists. Many of them were probably inspired by ISIL propaganda or emulating previous suicide bombers and terrorists, but I have seen no evidence that any of them were controlled by, let alone dispatched from, Raqqa. Those plots were hatched in Brussels, not in Syria, and if the French and Belgian security forces on the ground could not identify and stop them, it is pretty unlikely that any plans being hatched in Syria could be prevented by precision bombing from 30,000 feet. In any case, the fact that one horrifying atrocity follows another does not mean that they are directed and controlled by a single organisation. We have seen horrifying school bombings in America, with one following another and one example leading to another, but that does not mean that there was a single controlling mind behind them.
My third concern is that we are led to believe that degrading and disrupting ISIL will reduce the flood of refugees. As I understand it—I am open to correction on this—scarcely any of the refugees coming to us or going over the border into Turkey are coming from the ISIL-controlled areas. My fear is that if we disrupt and reduce that area through bombing, we will add to the flow of migrants into Europe.
The real reason that the Government wish to join the operations in Syria is that we want to join our US allies. It is Britain’s default position that we should support America unless there is good reason not to, and that is a position that I hold to, but when there are doubts and reasons not to go ahead, we should reason and argue and try to persuade our colleagues to change their strategy before we join in.
We are celebrating this year the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson, whose great achievement was to remain the closest ally of the United States while not being drawn into the Vietnam war. I believe we should learn from that example and, if my doubts cannot be cleared up, hold back rather than join in with our friends and allies in their endeavours, which possibly are doomed to failure unless they have boots on the ground to support the bombs from the air.
I, too, begin by thanking the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing this debate. One of the first things I was able to do in this House was secure a debate on the case of Raif Badawi, and I know the Minister understands my interest in it. Since then, I have developed something of an insight into how the United Kingdom sees its relations with countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is cultivating a “second Syria” in Yemen. We are continually given assurances that Britain is working hard behind the scenes, in ways that may not be immediately apparent, to secure concrete and durable change—I do not doubt for a moment that that is the case. I stand here in what is possibly the most self-satisfied legislature in the world, the mother of all Parliaments. I have no doubt that the people on these Benches wish to see concepts of democracy, civil society and the rule of law—things they consider to be their own—exported to other countries in the middle east. The problem is a reality in which that idea has yet to arrive. There are too many in this House whose idea of intervention goes back to a previous time. When I asked the Prime Minister last week about the protection of minorities in this seemingly inevitable conflict, I prefaced the question by comparing the middle east to the Mitteleuropa of a century ago. I did so expressly, but the fact is that there has been a slow bleed of peoples from the wider region over that period: and I cannot help but see this country’s hand behind it.
David Lloyd George set the template for UK foreign Policy in the modern era, arming, financing, and encouraging a disastrous Greek invasion of Asia Minor, an action that ended in flames in Smyrna and with a Pontic Greek population that had predated Homer destroyed. Even the greatest leaders cannot seem to help but overstretch themselves; Churchill thought he had no choice but to install Nuri al-Said as regent in Iraq—a regent who was still in power when possibly the greatest Jewish city on earth, Baghdad, was cleansed of that Jewish population. More recently, less illustrious Prime Ministers have led us back to Mesopotamia; an often overlooked corollary of Blair’s war in Iraq was the setting to flight of one of the oldest Christian populations in the world.
I do not offer those examples as a reason why we should not intervene in Syria—if anything, they do not demonstrate the inefficacy of UK intervention, only that it more often than not has unintended consequences. I do not doubt that there is a robust military plan and that our military forces, which are surely the best in the world, will have the better of Daesh, be it from the air or on the ground. It is worth reiterating that the Scottish National party is not a pacifist party, and the Prime Minister would do well to remember that. Of course it goes without saying that something must be done, specifically to those who struck at the heart of Paris a fortnight ago, but the lesson we take from history is that it is simply not enough to say, “Something must be done.”
I beseech the Prime Minister to show that he understands our unease and that he is able to put the immediate problem at hand into the wider context in which it exists. For let us be in no doubt: there is a wider problem facing us that resembles the Europe of 1914. From west Africa to the Sahel, through the Maghreb and the Levant, and to the end of the Arabian peninsula, and from the Caucuses to Kashmir, are a series of insurgencies, failed states and civil wars that we are often unable or unwilling to confront. My principal fear is that in chasing Daesh from Syria and Iraq, it will simply reappear elsewhere. The Government’s willingness to act in Syria must be used not as an end in itself, but as a means to seek solutions in the broadest context.
What we need now is a modern Marshall plan for the region, the participation of as many nations as possible and the determination to see it through. The most pernicious lie that too many have fallen for is that this is the clash of civilisations. What, under any other circumstance, would have been a series of local conflicts has been given greater resonance by the injection of jihadist and sectarian rhetoric; a black and white distinction drawn between the faithful and the Crusaders and the ability of many to bring the “near war” and the “far war” together. Let us not forget that that was Bin Laden’s strategic dream. Too often, the actions of our Governments have exacerbated these problems not from malign intentions, but from their inability to think adequately about what follows an initial military invasion.
Let there be no doubt about this: had the Prime Minister come to this place with a plan not just to bomb Syria, but to ensure that there were both funds and a willingness to rebuild afterwards, and to put in place the appropriate forces to occupy and pacify the country; and had he come here with a plan that placed our intentions in Syria into the context of plans for the wider region, and shown that he had the willingness to join, or build, a coalition of states that were willing to spend the time untangling the myriad regional disputes that have set this part of the world aflame—
The hon. Gentleman is getting to the heart of the issue. The Prime Minister was able to come pretty close to answering the seven points that the Foreign Affairs Committee raised. There is a limitation on what he can actually say, because creating this entire international coalition is active work in progress, which it was not back in September and October. That is the change. We need our Government to be fully committed to that process. Air strikes are a smokescreen for the more substantial question, which is this: how can our Government most effectively contribute to the international coalition that he is talking about, either as a full member of the coalition or as a non-belligerent in Syria?
I always listen to the hon. Gentleman with great respect, and he makes an important point. The Vienna talks provide the platform for the United Kingdom to show the leadership that we all want to see.
I would have been willing to support military action had the Government met the criteria that I have just outlined, but the reality is that they have not done so. Instead what we have is a political version of “virtue signalling”—a token effort that, while it may be appreciated by our allies, does nothing to address the deep misgivings in this House and among the wider public. The point is not to attack ISIS, but to defeat it, and to defeat it not just in Syria, but across the whole arc of insurgency.
While our military forces have learned from decades of involvement in the region, it seems that their political masters have not. I make this final plea: apply the lessons from history; show us what has been learned; and please give us a proper plan for reconstruction.
Four out of four of our speakers have been brilliant. My contribution will be a little more modest.
I have two problems with the proposed intervention in Syria, but that is not to say that the Government do not care, and that nothing has been done to engage the support of Members on both sides of the House. This is the result of careful thought over a number of years, not a conclusion that we have come to over the past two or three weeks. We recognise the appalling nature of the attacks in France, just as we recognise the attacks in the Lebanon the previous day, the earlier attacks on a Russian aeroplane, and, before that, the attack on the beach in Tunisia.
The question is not how we deal with these attacks today or tomorrow, but how we solve the problems of ISIL on a long-term basis. First, we must not find ourselves using boots on the ground. This matter is not something that can be solved by Britain, the United States, Russia or France. The Prime Minister has made it clear that our boots are not to be used in Syria, nor are those of any westerners, which, for the moment, include those of Russia.
I am always extremely worried when someone makes a definitive statement that says that we will not use our armed forces to defend our interests.
I can well understand my hon. Friend fearing that, but the Prime Minister himself said that we shall not have boots on the ground.
Where are those supporters coming from? We are not speaking about one army under one general but several different factions, some of which are competing against each other. We cannot repeat what happened in Libya. It is not clear whether these factions, which the 70,000 Syrian fighters comprise, are organised and prepared to act, and whether they can move into ISIL ground quickly, because otherwise new criminals will arrive and appear as soon as the old ones are destroyed. The support needs to be reliable and sustainable. How can we be sure that these are forces to count on?
There is not one clear enemy to fight. The Russians appear to support Assad while we support rebel fighters declared as “moderate”. Russia’s support of Assad has resulted in strikes hitting the moderates. If there was an agreement with Russia, it would be much nearer what we are aiming for. If there was agreement from Syria—from the moderates and the Assadis—it would form a united front. I believe that a successful fight against ISIL is possible only when everyone on the allies’ side works together to defeat them.
It is always a pleasure to speak on these issues, and this is an important and highly topical debate. We are all aware of the terrible events in Paris in the past couple of weeks, as the problems that developed in the middle east spilled over on to the streets of Paris. We are also aware of our key role in developments in the middle east, as well as the global problems that often arise.
The key debate on the middle east at this time is about how we tackle Daesh and how we can respond in a positive fashion. I want to note the strategic interests of four countries at the fringes of Europe, on the borders of the eastern Mediterranean: Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and Israel. They all face a similar strategic predicament. Although they are located near the west and are western in many ways, they are adjacent to a region of great turmoil. Regimes in several nearby countries are supporting terror, acquiring long-range missiles and developing weapons of mass destruction, which means that these four countries cannot fully enjoy the advantages of regional stability, as their fellow western states can, as they are susceptible to threats and other forms of aggressive behaviour. Other Members have mentioned the dispersal of Christians throughout the middle east, and we are all aware of the hundreds of thousands who have been dispersed from Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
The quartet of countries that I have mentioned can best address their common problem by enhancing strategic co-operation among themselves and perhaps even forging an eastern Mediterranean alliance. Such a step would have implications for western interests as well as for the middle east, and I believe that the UK Government should promote it. The main block to such co-operation or alliance is the tense relationship between Greece and Turkey that arises primarily from the division of Cyprus, which is the issue that most needs addressing.
We need to strike the right balance, of course, as we cannot be seen to be interfering in another nation’s sovereignty, but we must work more closely alongside those eastern European nations, particularly Cyprus. We are fortunate to have the RAF, Navy and Army bases in Cyprus, which former Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers and Governments had the foresight and vision to ensure that we had, and they have a key part to play in any NATO or UK operations against Daesh in the future.
Our role in the middle east should not be confined to the already destabilised regions. We should be working more closely with all our allies in the region so that our influence there is complemented by having such strong relationships. Since the crumbling of the Berlin wall in November 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet bloc two years later, the west has enlarged and moved its influence eastward in several ways. The European Union opened its doors to several countries that were once in the Soviet orbit. NATO accepted the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary as members, and the Bosnian and Kosovar crises have encouraged it to expand its security space to the south and intervene militarily in that region. Thus have the boundaries of the west moved eastwards and south-eastwards, with the expansion to the eastern Mediterranean running parallel to expansion in eastern Europe. That could further western security, including our own security in the United Kingdom. Let us look at the bigger picture: Cyprus, Greece and Israel all have a strategic part to play.
Is there not a problem in the eastern Mediterranean, as the Greek Prime Minister has attacked his Turkish counterpart on Twitter after the downing of a Russian plane, and there are regular air incursions by each country into the other? There have even been descriptions of dog fights between the two. That is no way for anyone to behave when we are facing the likes of ISIS.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: that is not the way to behave. None the less, we have to work with westernised countries and see whether we can agree a strategy to move forward. The eastern Mediterranean is already the west’s new outer limit. It is where the European attitude towards the use of force meets a very non-European attitude. It is where two strategic cultures meet, each entertaining different notions of behaviour during conflict. The eastern Mediterranean harbours various political entities, and is perhaps the only area in the world where western democracies live side by side, if I can use this terminology, with rogue states, with rich, authoritarian oil producers, and with some of the poorest countries in the world. Such gaps in wealth increase international tensions and nourish revisionist aspirations, as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon dramatically showed.
In 2015, that wealthy region of the world is still in turmoil. We can no longer stand back, or isolate ourselves from a region that has produced truly global problems. Whether it is in a supportive or consultative role, or ultimately as the primary actor in the region, it is time for us in the United Kingdom to stand up and make sure that we take our obligations to the rest of mankind seriously, helping nations less fortunate than us to overcome the difficulties in the middle east so that they might enjoy the prosperity that we in the west too often take for granted.
The west’s long-term strategic interest lies in strengthening western-oriented states in the eastern Mediterranean whose policies have potential to pacify countries in this zone of turmoil and helping to bring their people into the west’s fold. Looking at other countries in the middle east, Jordan is an Arab country that could in effect join the west: certainly the sympathies are there. Other candidates include states of the former Soviet Union such as Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, all of which have developed rudimentary democratic institutions and naturally look towards the west. Most countries, however, would have difficulty extricating themselves from the whims of autocratic rulers.
Those are things we need to think about to create a real, long-term, sustainable and lasting solution to the plague of instability that seems to persist in the middle east. For now, we look to our allies in the region—the Mediterranean quartet of Greece, Turkey, Israel and Cyprus—as the key to unlocking influence once again. We need a positive and influential role in the region, and we need to maintain NATO’s ability to operate effectively in the region if needed. It is imperative that we learn from all too recent mistakes when it comes to how we act in the region, to influence its direction in a way that is positive for it and for the world.
In the next few days, the House will make a truly monumental and historic decision on going to battle in the middle east, whether with air strikes or soldiers on the ground. That is a big decision for the House, and we look forward to that as well.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this important debate. I agree that the United Kingdom has a peculiar responsibility for the region. Indeed, it is unique, given the high standing that our country has throughout the middle east.
I pay tribute, too, to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for his leadership on our recent visit to the region and for the way in which he has put the Committee front and centre of the debate in the run-up to the important vote that we will shortly hold.
The impression that I took away from our visit to Tehran and Riyadh was one of the mutual hostility, suspicion and antagonism that exists between the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That tension is starting to spill over, not just in Yemen, but in Bahrain and now so tragically in Syria. Many other countries, including Kuwait, are caught up in the appalling tension between those two powers. I am pleased that in the Vienna talks Iran and Saudi Arabia are around the same table for the first time in a long time. As I said to the Prime Minister last week, it is vital that the United Kingdom uses its good offices in the United Nations to encourage and facilitate dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On that point, we must fully understand that the United Kingdom still has an exceptionally good reputation in the middle east, despite the fact that we have lost so much of our military power. We are still regarded as friends.
Very much so. When one travels throughout the middle east, time and again people highlight the fact that they see us as an impartial and honourable interlocutor and as people who can facilitate dialogue to try to dissipate some of the tension in the region.
We recently saw the extraordinary strength of British diplomacy, particularly over the nuclear agreement with Iran. If we cast our minds back to the extraordinary tensions with that country—by the way, during our visit we spent time at the British embassy, which had previously been trashed by students—we can see the great accomplishment of that painstaking British diplomacy. I pay tribute to our Foreign Secretary for playing a substantial role in the agreement. It shows what British diplomacy can achieve. I therefore do not believe that it is naive or unrealistic to expect that the United Kingdom could and ought to be trying to secure better dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It is, however, essential that the Government are probed on strategy and planning in the run-up to a potential bombing of Syria. I spent quite a lot of time on that delegation to the middle east with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). He wrote an article in The Mail on Sunday yesterday outlining the case against bombing in Syria, and he is the only one among the entire Conservative parliamentary party who voted against the bombing campaign in Libya. That was an extremely courageous thing to do—to ignore the rest of the Conservative parliamentary party and go into the opposite Lobby. I pay tribute to him—he is a former soldier—for the tremendous courage that he displayed at that time.
I recall from those deliberations how the Opposition, the Liberal Democrats and the Government all rushed to support the bombing of Gaddafi. It was a highly emotional time for us. He promised to instigate a bloodbath in Benghazi and, as has been said, we wanted to do something so we sanctioned the bombing of his military capability. Getting rid of a dictator is easy. What is more challenging is the planning that has to take place in order to ensure that the country is then administered properly, and that those important seeds of a democratic society are allowed to germinate before we pass on responsibility to local politicians.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for making an exceedingly insightful point. Does he share my concern that when it comes to Syria and the bombing of ISIS within Syria, our relationship with Russia must be very carefully managed to ensure that we do not end up with a conflict that we are not looking for, particularly in the reconstruction?
I very much agree, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. I will refer to Syria later in my speech, if I have time.
The lack of planning for boots on the ground in Libya has led so tragically to the continued instability in that country and the civil war that is raging there. The Minister will know about those difficulties, particularly the fact that ISIS has managed to take root in certain parts of the country. Indeed, some reports have identified ISIS in Libya as being the most radical and cruel in the region. One question that I want to pose is this: why at this moment do we want to bomb ISIS in Syria, but not in Libya?
The bar has to be raised that much higher, given the difficulties in Libya, to ensure that, for those of us who support the Government on the issue, adequate time is spent on the Floor of the House and some of the difficult questions that Ministers might not want to hear are asked, so that the Government are better prepared in Syria than they were in Libya.
Of all the interventions I heard at that time, the one made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who now chairs the Defence Committee, was the most prescient. He challenged the figure of 70,000 moderates with whom we could work. It is extremely important that the Government listen to him and debate where that figure came from and of what those forces consist.
My hon. Friend talks about the Free Syrian Army and the figure of 70,000. It has been said that the Free Syrian Army hates Daesh, but it hates Assad even more. Our strategy is to deal with Daesh first. Therefore, by not addressing the other evil entity—Assad—can we really trust the Free Syrian Army to fight Daesh while knowing that it might get Assad?
That is a point well made, and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to build upon it in his contribution.
During our visit to the middle east, certain states in the region were unable to explain to us what resources they will be committing in Syria, either in the air or on the ground. There is the added complication of Saudi Arabia wanting the almost immediate removal of Assad and how that will play out. Of course, the regional allies, including Kuwait, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others, are involved in a complicated and difficult war in Yemen, which is stretching their resources. I very much hope that, in advance of this vote, the Government will be able to explain to us what our regional allies will be contributing. It is very positive to hear that the Germans will be contributing 1,500 troops, on which I pressed their ambassador during our discussions in Iran.
My time is running out, so I would like to say that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) that it is extremely important that the Government work with Russia on the issue. I regularly attend events at the Russian embassy and speak on RT. I am afraid that at the moment it is fashionable to be anti-Russian and to see Russia through a cold war lens. I believe that we must come together at this time, despite all our differences, set aside some of the difficulties we have had with President Putin and work constructively with him and others to bring about stability for Syria. I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell that unless there is a competent strategy, we will end up with a “bat the rat” situation: if we defeat them somewhere, they will pop up again elsewhere only too quickly.
Several hon. Members rose—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It has come to my attention, through BuzzFeed and Twitter, that the Prime Minister will make a statement on Syria after 7 pm. It seems that the statement will be on television, rather than in the House of Commons. Surely we are living in a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether anything that has gone out on social media is correct, so I have no idea whether what he says is true—although, I am quite sure that he would not have raised the point of order had he not seen something to that effect. All that I can say to him, and to the House, is that if the Prime Minister has something of importance to say to the nation about Syria, or indeed about any other vitally important issue, I have every confidence that he will come first to this House to say it. I am quite sure that he will do so in due course.
Latha naomh Anndra sona dhuibh—I wish everyone a happy St Andrew’s day. That includes the 90% who claim direct Scottish descent and the 10% who actually have it. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) for coming to the Chamber just in time to give me the correct translation.
For a number of people, tomorrow marks the first day of Advent, which is seen as a time to guzzle chocolates out of an Advent calendar. For a billion or more people around the globe, however, Advent started yesterday. It is a time of reflection and preparation, to celebrate the birth of a convicted and executed criminal, a Palestinian Jewish refugee whose message of peace and good will to all is as desperately needed today as it ever has been at any time in the 2,000 years since he walked the very lands we are speaking about this evening.
I do not pretend to be an expert in any, or indeed all, of the complexities of the middle east, and perhaps it would be better if none of us did, because I suspect that many of the problems in that troubled region have their root cause in the fact that so many experts from other countries thought that they knew what was best for someone else’s country. I approach this with the simple belief that there is right and wrong, morally defensible and morally indefensible, in foreign policy just as there is in everything else. I want to see the United Kingdom adopt a foreign policy that is morally right, rather than simply what is right in terms of political, economic or diplomatic expediency.
Against those measures, it has to be said that the United Kingdom’s record has not been particularly impressive. We have heard talk about our ally Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a ruthless and merciless abuser of the death penalty. We supply that country with weapons and then pretend not to know that those same weapons are being used to kill innocent civilians in Yemen. We honour the Israeli Prime Minister with a full state visit despite the fact that the UK Government’s position is that the Israeli Government are acting against international law by occupying Palestinian territories. We allow weapons and military hardware to be sent to Israel and then pretend not to know that they could be contributing to the deaths of hundreds of innocent women and children in Palestine. We set a cap on the number of desperate refugees we are willing to accept from Syria, but we will set no cap whatsoever on the number of missiles and bombs we are prepared to send there, and we will set no cap on how long that military bombardment will last.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Saudi Arabia. As I am sure he is aware, his hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, was with us in Saudi Arabia last week and heard extensive briefings on the campaign in Yemen. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) will spend time with his hon. Friend to find out about the Saudi perspective on this.
I have no doubt that there is a Saudi story, but that story is not the only one that deserves to be told.
My point is that if we continue to operate a policy in the middle east that is based on the interests of UK citizens, businesses and investors, to the exclusion of all else, we will continue to get it wrong.
Today is St Andrew’s day, and I note that he was another welcome middle eastern immigrant to Scotland. On the point made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I think that there are two sides to any story. Of course, if there have been any proven breaches of international humanitarian law, I am sure that all of us in this House would welcome an investigation. I think that would be best for everybody so that we have clarity.
I would certainly welcome such an investigation, although perhaps it should have taken place before we started to supply the weapons in the first place. It is a bit late to discover afterwards that they have been used for the wrong purpose.
I fear that the international arms trade may have become so entrenched as part of the UK economy that an awful lot of people in the UK, whether they know it or not, or like it or not, have, in effect, a vested financial interest in not finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts the world over. That is not a good position to be in. I accept that we have to be prepared to defend ourselves. I have a problem not with the fact that a business in my constituency is involved in the military industry, but with what that technology is being used for. The willingness sometimes to provide technology without asking too many questions and without getting assurances about what it will and will not be used for has certainly not helped to bring peace to the middle east or to a number of other troubled spots around the world. This debate is clearly primarily about Syria, although it is badged as being about the whole of the middle east.
It is quite likely that within the next few days this Parliament will be asked to take the gravest and most serious decision that any body of people can be asked to take. I am greatly troubled by the idea that a key consideration for some Members might be the impact that that may or may not have on maintaining or undermining individual politicians in this Chamber. The very fact that the media believe that it will be a factor should give us all cause to stop and think. If we genuinely believe that this Parliament is seen as a beacon of integrity and democracy around the world, what kind of message does it send out if we allow for even the possibility that a decision to go to war could be influenced by domestic political considerations back home? I desperately hope that that will not be a consideration for any one of the 650 people who will be charged with making this decision, but I have a horrible feeling that my hopes may not entirely be realised.
I will give way once more.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about whether the twists and turns of political fortune in this Chamber should affect what we decide to do about going to war. Does he agree that with the sole exception of the occasion in 2003 when Mr Blair took us illegally to war in Iraq, there has never before been a vote on the matter in the Chamber, and that he is describing a very good reason for returning to the old system, which worked extremely well with regard to Libya, for example, whereby there was no vote at all until after the action had taken place?
My comments are not about whether individual groups of MPs apply a whip or respect a whip that may be applied to them. It is up to the conscience of each and every one of us whether we follow a party whip. I take the view, although it has never been tested in 25 years in party politics, that if the whip contravened a direct instruction of my conscience I would follow my conscience. That is a decision for every Member to take. My concern is that there is a feeling throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere that for some people—and the vote could be close enough that they are a decisive element—considerations about the impact on positions taken in this Chamber will be a factor. A decision to go to war should never, ever be affected by such factors.
In looking at the justification that has been given so far for involvement in an aerial bombardment in Syria, I continue to have very serious concerns. In order for a war to be just, for those who believe that there is such a thing as a just war, one of the absolute requirements is that it must have a reasonable prospect of success. Aerial bombardment cannot achieve its aims without troops on the ground. The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) suggested that those troops will eventually have to come from the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the UK Government have said, “Not under any circumstances.” Yet if they do not come from the UK, they have no idea of where they are going to come from. This will not work without a complete ceasefire between all the different warring factions in and around Syria, and there is no indication whatsoever of any ceasefire between any combination of those factions just now.
My fundamental concern about the idea of airborne military action in Syria is simply that it will not achieve its stated objective. To me, military action that has little chance of achieving its stated objective cannot be justified.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I said that I would give way only once more, but since it is the hon. Gentleman, I will.
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. Military action can degrade, control and contain Daesh, but it cannot defeat the evil ideology that this evil organisation pushes and panders to at every level, so our strategy has to look at dealing with that ideology as well as at taking military action.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that comment. The question I asked of the Prime Minister last week was based on that very point. It is one thing to remove Daesh—
I was going to let the hon. Gentleman finish his sentence, since it is St Andrew’s day.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I finished at that point as I was expecting to be told that my time was up, but that did not seem to materialise.
It is one thing to remove Daesh; it is quite another to remove the circumstances where organisations such as Daesh, the Taliban and al-Qaeda can continue to flourish.
I intend to take a slightly different tack in not speaking, like most colleagues, about ISIL or Daesh. I want to focus my remarks on the value of our constructive relationship with Israel and the contribution that it makes to peace and stability.
The selective discrimination against Israel in UK university campuses contrasts with the huge benefits of BIRAX—the Britain Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership—which is an initiative of the British embassy in Israel and the British Council. Israel is a multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy where Arab, Druze and other minorities are guaranteed equal rights under law. Israel’s declaration of independence grants
“all Israel’s inhabitants equality of social and political rights irrespective of religion, race or gender”,
and it is currently the only functioning democracy in the middle east. In stark contrast to other middle eastern countries, there are no legal restrictions on movement, employment, or sexual or marital relations for any of Israel’s citizens. All Israeli citizens from every minority vote in elections on an equal basis.
In the past two months, there have been over 90 terror attacks that have seen the deaths of 21 Israelis and many more injuries from stabbings, shootings and car rammings. Yet Israeli hospitals have treated both victims and terrorists regardless of their nationality.
If the hon. Lady is going to quote statistics, she should perhaps do so completely. Since the beginning of October, the violence on the west bank has resulted in 85 Palestinian deaths and 11 Israeli deaths, and 9,171 Palestinian injuries and 133 Israeli injuries. That is a ratio of 69:1.
The hon. Gentleman is quoting from his speech, and I will come to those matters as I continue with mine.
In addition, Israel has participated in disaster relief efforts worldwide, most recently providing assistance to Syrian refugees arriving in Greece and elsewhere.
Violence has been fomented by repeated inflammatory and false allegations from the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas accusing Israel of planning to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque and other Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Yet Hadassah medical centre, home to Jerusalem’s largest emergency ward, treats the city’s wounded regardless of whether they are victims or attackers, and co-operation between Palestinian and Israeli doctors has helped to save 607 Palestinian children since 2005. The hospital has mixed Jewish and Arab medical staff and routinely treats both attackers and victims, often in adjacent wards.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend, like me, has been to Save a Child’s Heart in Tel Aviv and acknowledges that the work that the doctors there do in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza, is second to none in saving children’s lives.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I continue my remarks, he will find that I cover that.
Israel’s Teva Pharmaceutical Industries provides the NHS with one in six of its prescription medicines, making it the NHS’s largest supplier of generic drugs. It is leading the world in the development of drugs to combat Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Scientists have developed methods for producing human growth hormone and interferon, a group of proteins effective against viral infections. Copaxone, a medicine effective in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, was developed in Israel by Teva Pharmaceuticals from basic research to industrial production. It has also developed early diagnosis for mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob genetic disease in humans, with a urine test instead of a brain biopsy, and identified the gene that causes muscular dystrophy and the gene linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.
In July 2015 the British embassy announced three new water research programmes between UK and Israeli scientists. The work of Israeli research institutions, such as Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, improves the lives of people in water-poor countries by sharing Israel’s expertise in waste water treatment, purification and water reuse. The programmes will enable scientists from Britain, Israel and the region to work together to tackle water shortages.
Israel is one of the founding members of Digital 5, a group of leading digital Governments who met for the first time in London in December 2014. In March 2015 it was announced that three UK-Israel academic collaboration projects will receive £1.2 million of cyber-research funding from the UK Government.
The total value of trade and services between the UK and Israel is now more than £4.5 billion a year, and the UK is Israel’s second biggest export market. British businesses such as HSBC, GlaxoSmithKline, Barclays and Rolls-Royce have invested more than £1 billion in Israel. The UK and Israel work closely together in technological and scientific research, including cyber-security.
In short, Israel is a tolerant, fair society. Creative and innovative, it produces and develops, and it advances knowledge. Britain’s close relationship with Israel is a force for good in the middle east, and it is essential that we build and maintain that strong relationship.
After much reflection and research, and after listening to the views of many people, including constituents, fellow Members on both sides of the House and the Government, I have decided that I cannot support British military action in Syria at present and I will vote against any motion in this House that sanctions it this week. It is my view that the eradication of Daesh from Syria, Iraq and around the world is a necessary process and one in which the UK should be engaged, including through effective military action. I am not currently persuaded that it would be lawful for the Royal Air Force to bomb Syria, but I agree that that is arguable and it is not the principal reason for my opposing the proposed military action. I wish I had more time to talk about the legality of it, but I highly recommend the excellent House of Commons Library briefing, which was published last Thursday.
There are three tests that I do not believe the Government have passed and that the Prime Minister failed to satisfy in his statement to the Commons last week. First, there is no tactical plan for taking control of the areas currently occupied by Daesh, should bombing be successful in dislodging them, which itself is questionable, given that the bombing of those areas by 11 other countries has continued over 15 months. There are insufficient numbers of competent, relevant or motivated ground troops who are sufficient to the task at present.
The Prime Minister has said that the head of the serpent is in Raqqa and that therefore we must attack Raqqa. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not a serpent but a hydra, and that if we chop off one head, more heads will grow and they will do so in other areas of the middle east?
With all due respect to the Prime Minister, my hon. Friend is quite right: his was a rather simplistic analogy.
Secondly, there is no functioning international alliance that can turn short-term military games into a programme for the peaceful governance of Syria. The Vienna talks are a start to such a process, but at present the aims of Turkey, Russia, Iran and the NATO countries are so disparate as to be chaotic.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to build an international alliance in order to take action against ISIL/Daesh in many ways other than air strikes? That includes stopping the flow of weapons into Syria and, above all, blocking the revenue, particularly the oil revenue, that is flowing in at a rate of $1.5 million a day. We need to demonstrate that there is international co-operation on those things, alongside any measures that the Government may propose.
I agree, and I will come in a moment to what I think we should be doing.
In addition to the lack of tactical and strategic bases, my third test is that the permanent defeat of Daesh in Syria requires the end of conflict, which is what allows it to thrive. Any short-term retrenchment will likely benefit the Assad regime, which is itself responsible for seven times as many civilian deaths as Daesh this year. That may mean a shift in the balance of forces, but it will bring us no nearer to resolution.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not.
I want Britain to engage in a concerted diplomatic effort to wean Russia and Iran away from their support for Assad, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia away from giving comfort, if not actual support, to Islamist extremism. I want a peace process that allows non-extremist opposition to talk to the acceptable parts of the Syrian Arab Army and Kurdish forces, and a concerted attempt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) has just said, to cut off the funds to, and other international support for, Daesh. That is a very difficult, perhaps impossible, agenda, but to engage in bombing missions on the basis of, “Something must be done”, or even on the basis of solidarity, and without clear objectives, does not show sound judgment.
There are other arguments for and against intervention, including that our contribution would be small, especially given the lack of military targets without the risk of civilian casualties; that we should support allies, whether they be the Iraqi or French Governments; and that we remain at risk from Daesh attacks on the UK, whether we take further military action against them or not. However, the three points I have mentioned are my red lines. They are also, I am pleased to say, reflected by a ratio of 100:1 in the letters and emails I have received from my constituents in the past few days and weeks. I will, of course, review my decision in the light of changing events, but given the UK’s poor record of intervention in the middle east over the past decade, I think that further military incursion should be approved only if a high burden of proof can be established.
Having dealt with that matter, may I turn, albeit necessarily briefly, to two other issues in the middle east? The first is the current situation in Israel-Palestine. I am sorry that a few moments ago we listened to a speech that gave a very one-sided view of that situation, which is at its most serious for many years. The issues are not new—we are familiar with them, including the growth of Israeli settlements, which now account for almost 600,000 people in the occupied territories; settler violence; a shoot-to-kill policy and increased use of live fire; increased use of home demolitions; child detention and administrative detention; pass laws, checkpoints and barriers; and restrictions of access to the Noble Sanctuary and other holy places. None of those things is new, but the intensification of their use by the occupying power is much more significant, and that is going on partly because of the extremism of the Israeli Government and partly because tragic events elsewhere in the middle east, including in Syria, give cover for it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but I will not, because of the time.
There are often distractions. Because the European Union has suddenly decided belatedly to impose labelling restrictions, Netanyahu said this morning that he was not going to talk to the EU. It is important that we do not import settlement goods, but, in the great scheme of the occupations, those are details. I can only quote from a recent article in The Guardian by Marwan Barghouti, who is a prisoner in Israel who wrote that
“the last day of occupation will be the first day of peace.”
That is what we should keep our eyes on—the fact that this is a country that has been occupied for many decades, and justice will never be achieved in Palestine until Israeli forces withdraw.
Finally, the Gulf is another issue that needs a whole debate in itself. The Government’s policy on it is just wrong. We support Saudi Arabia, where many barbaric things occur within the regime, and, indeed, Bahrain, where we are building a naval base, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have appalling human rights records. Such matters cannot be airbrushed and they ought to be reviewed. Nowhere is that clearer than in what is currently happening in Yemen.
I believe that the Foreign Secretary is on the record as saying that the UK will support the Saudi-led coalition
“in every practical way short of engaging in combat.”
As Amnesty International has reported, that has meant a British-made Cruise missile being used in the coalition’s destruction of a ceramics factory, a civilian object, on 23 September in an apparent violation of international humanitarian law. The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, has said:
“Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years.”
Yemen’s is a forgotten war. It is a war in which the Saudi-led forces are creating havoc and committing humanitarian outrages daily. That is not to defend the Houthi and other forces, who are equally guilty of atrocities, but it is wrong that—for strategic, tactical or other reasons—the British Government are giving their unqualified support to what the coalition is doing. It is wrong that they are supporting a regime, such as the Bahraini regime in the Gulf, which oppresses the majority of its population and carries out torture and human rights abuses. While the Government are prepared to condemn such abuses in other countries, it appears they are not prepared to do so in the case of Gulf countries for historical or, indeed, diplomatic reasons, but I believe they should do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this important and timely debate. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I want to take this debate in a slightly different direction. Our role in the middle east must be to support countries that provide full rights to Christians and protect the rights of all minorities. We must challenge those who seek to persecute minorities for their religious beliefs and practices.
A century ago, Christians made up 20% of the population of the middle east, but this figure has dramatically fallen to 4%. Christians face prison sentences and executions for practising their religion in many countries across the middle east, where hatred of Christians is ignored or encouraged. Daesh is carrying out a campaign of persecution against minorities in the middle east. At least 5,000 Yazidis have been murdered in Iraq since August 2014, with the advance of Daesh forces who have declared Yazidis to be devil worshippers.
The rise of Daesh has intensified the persecution of Christians in the middle east. Countless Syrian and Iraqi Christians have been murdered with methods including crucifixions and beheadings. Daesh has evicted thousands of Chaldean and Assyrian Christians from their homes in Mosul, and in other areas they have demanded that Christians either convert or pay a tax for non-Muslims. They have destroyed countless churches and Christian shrines, and have carried out ethno-religious cleansing of Christian minorities.
Any Muslim who converts to Christianity is considered to have performed apostasy—the conscious abandonment of Islam. In certain parts of the middle east, this is a crime punishable by death. Christians live in a threatening atmosphere in many countries in the middle east, including Iran, where there were hopes that the treatment of minorities would improve under President Rouhani. Christians in Iran continue to be arbitrarily arrested and they face abuse in police custody.
Elsewhere in the middle east, Coptic churches have been burnt in Egypt in recent years. Hundreds of Christian Coptic girls have been kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam, as well as being victims of rape and forced marriage to Muslim men. There are no churches left in Afghanistan. In 2012, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia proclaimed that
“it is necessary to destroy all the churches of the region”.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s comments on the state of Christianity in the region. It is, after all, the crucible of Christianity, and where Jesus Christ himself emerged from the Aramaic communities of Syria, which have tragically been destroyed. There is, however, one glimmer of light—the United Arab Emirates, whose sheikhs have recently been building Christian churches. Is she planning to come on to that point?
My hon. Friend has made the point superbly well already.
During its visit to Iraq, the Defence Committee also went to Jordan. One of the things we were extremely pleased to hear from the King is that he has opened the Jordanian borders to all Christians. A large number of Christian refugees have been accepted there. That has caused him problems, but he is determined to accept them.
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her intervention. Perhaps I should not call it a highlight of my first term in Parliament, but I had the great honour of meeting the King during my first five years in the House. He is the most amazing gentleman I have ever met, and I wish him God speed.
In stark contrast to such countries, the state of Israel remains committed to its declaration of independence pledge to
“ensure the complete equality of all its citizens irrespective of religion.”
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its Christian population has increased a thousand-fold. Today, Christianity is practised by more than 160,000 Israeli citizens, and it is the largest religious community in Israel after those of the Jews and the Muslims. Israel is home to the holiest sites in Christianity, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected; the Room of the Last Supper and the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem; and the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, where Jesus practised his ministry. Though Christians are exempt from military service, thousands have volunteered and have been sworn in on special New Testaments printed in Hebrew.
The level of freedom in Israel is remarkable when one considers the oppression and persecution faced by citizens in neighbouring countries, including those under the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and under the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza. In 1950, 15% of the population in the west bank was Christian; now, it is less than 2%. A generation ago, as many as 80% of Bethlehem’s population were Christian. This figure has now decreased to 10% owing, it is said, to land theft, intimidation and beatings.
We must continue to work with Israel, a country that upholds the rights of minorities in this turbulent region and the only country in the middle east that shares our democratic values. I call on the Government to draw attention to the devastating decline in the Christian population in the middle east and to dissociate themselves from any countries that sanction minorities for their religious beliefs or ethnic origin.
I wish you an excellent St Andrew’s day, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am aware of your very strong Gaelic connection.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting this important debate, and the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for his very comprehensive speech and for encouraging us to hold the debate. I declare an interest in that my husband previously served as a member of the UK armed forces.
Due to recent events, there has been much debate about the issues in the middle east and about what the UK’s role and approach should be, particularly in relation to extending air strikes to Syria. That was discussed at length on Thursday, when the Prime Minister delivered his statement. Although he is not pushing for a vote at this stage, he has indicated that he will do so and such a vote appears to be imminent. There is therefore an imperative need for continued debate, and this debate is extremely timeous. This is a serious and sensitive issue with significant and wide-ranging implications for our armed forces and their families, and for our response to the middle east. I do not want, during this serious debate or following its conclusion, to create more families, such as the Gentle family, who have gone through trauma.
There are concerns that extending air strikes to Syria may be ineffective, cost further human suffering and help to increase Daesh’s recruiting appeal. There appears to be consensus among many military experts of the area that there is likely to be little benefit from such action. It is recognised that a significant number of nations have already launched bombing campaigns in Syria, with the US’s campaign having gone on for approximately one year, so the suggestion that additional air strikes by the UK will make any significant difference appears unlikely.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on her invitation to host an international women’s summit for peace in Syria? Does she agree that it is such peace negotiations that world leaders should be engaged in, rather than further bombing, which only stokes the fires of war?
I do congratulate the First Minister and emphasise that diplomacy is important.
Nick Witney, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has highlighted the fact that:
“The year-long US air campaign against Islamic State…in Syria is now widely acknowledged to have had remarkably little impact—beyond strengthening that organisation’s narrative of oppression by ‘crusaders’, and therefore its recruiting appeal.”
That view is endorsed by Scottish Muslim groups, which highlight the fact that:
“As more innocent people die from the air strikes, the appeal of Daesh will strengthen.”
It is important to remember that many of the recent terrorist attacks that have triggered the consideration of air strikes have been carried out by individuals who were already living in the countries affected. Therefore, the domestic threat is unlikely to be addressed by air strikes.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report emphasised a number of key issues that required further explanation before the House was asked to approve a motion authorising military action. It highlighted important matters such as legality, ground troops and long-term strategies and consequences as being crucial to the success of any military action. The answers that have been provided by the Government to date have not been adequate in addressing those concerns.
The hon. Lady is making a very interesting point, but was she not here when the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee said that the seven points he had raised had been answered adequately by the Prime Minister in his statement and that he intended to support the Government’s call for strikes against Syria?
I was here for the statement and I heard the Chairman of the Select Committee state those views. However, I do not believe that his views are held commensurately by all members of the Committee.
Ordinary citizens do not live apart from ISIS terrorists. Youths of over 14 years of age are reportedly conscribed. Those who are unable to flee are, in effect, human shields. They are not able to hide in the tunnels that are dug by ISIS to shelter its commanders.
Bombing is generally a prelude to the use of ground forces. We do not intend to send ground forces, but are relying on about 70,000 local fighters from the Free Syrian Army. Where do the Russian forces stand? Is this an effective ground forces strategy?
Will we be hitting Syria for political reasons, such as to show our strength as part of a coalition? It may be a fallacy that bombing will hasten a political settlement and prevent terrorist attacks here.
There are few Members in this House, if any, who do not want to see action that would swiftly degrade Daesh, but widespread concern remains on a number of fronts. The danger to civilian casualties may inflame anti-western feelings. What is the overall strategic aim of such action? How much bombing will be enough? What is our position on the longer-term outcome in Syria? Will engaging in air strikes reduce the risks here in the short or long term?
Although much of the focus has been on Syria, I briefly want to highlight other areas in the middle east, such as Yemen, where civilians are suffering the effects of civil war. It is important that the people there receive appropriate attention and assistance. Oxfam highlights the fact that, prior to the conflict in Yemen, millions of people were already experiencing poverty and hunger. Since the escalation of the war in March 2015, those issues have intensified. There have been more than 32,000 casualties and 5,700 fatalities. It is reported that approximately 82% of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. Although some of the support that the UK has provided appears to have had a positive impact, much more aid is needed for the civilians who have been affected and more diplomatic pressure needs to be exerted by our Government.
In conclusion, the UK needs to take a coherent approach across the middle east that links humanitarian, economic and diplomatic means. That appears to be lacking, as does a strategic long-term approach to the difficulties faced by the middle east to encourage stability at this time. We hope to work constructively across the House to ensure that the UK takes a progressive role in the middle east by engaging civic society, developing progressive policy and ensuring the survival of society in Syria and beyond. Questions remain to be answered and the solutions will be complex. A clear, long-term military strategy must be developed and presented fully to this House.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber. I also commend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). I have just returned from a trip to Iraq and Turkey as part of my work on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the teams in both places told me how engaged he was. I believe that he will be making his fourth visit to Iraq very soon. I want to put it on the record that our ambassadors in those places are doing a tremendous job. I hope to describe in detail some of the solutions in Iraq and Syria. I, too, highlight to the House my declarations in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Britain has been deeply involved in the middle east for centuries. The region has occupied our diplomatic and cultural attention for decades. Those close links are the reason I stand here today. Britain was the haven of choice for my family when we fled Saddam in the 1970s.
Today, ISIL captures the news headlines, our nightmares and our imaginations, but it is just a symptom—a potentially fatal symptom—of a deep rift at the heart of the Muslim world. The rift has several parts at different layers and they all matter. For decades, a stricter, puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam has proliferated across the region. Traditional and more enlightened forms have been rejected, leading to more aggression and intolerance. It has led to the spread of extremism when that interpretation has mixed with other social problems, such as unemployment, corruption and poverty, which are all too common in these countries.
The regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran are at a stand-off and undermine each other at every turn, their relationship poisoned by suspicion and fear. They risk tearing apart their neighbours by proxy. Syria and Iraq are vulnerable to that because of their origins as Ottoman provinces fitted together into new kingdoms by the victorious empires of the first world war.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that this is not the first time in the history of the middle east that countries have fought the genuine curse of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s interpretation of Islam, and that when the Ismaili dynasty of Egypt launched one of its great attacks on the Nejd province of Saudi Arabia in the 1800s, it was very much part of that evolution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is a great scholar and I look forward to his contribution to this debate and, I hope, to the debate on Wednesday.
In Iraq, a Sunni king who was installed to allow the British to dominate was replaced by a Sunni dictator. In Syria, a Shi’a ruling class was created to enable the French to rule. In both instances, it resulted in bitter divisions, as political oppression added to sectarian divide. That settlement, which was maintained only by fear and force, has completely collapsed in the wars.
As we have watched Syria torn apart by the civil war and Iraq stuck in political deadlock and threatened by ISIL’s invasion, it has become clear to us that a new settlement is needed. The one that the US began in 2003 is completely gone. The Iraqi Government that the coalition set up and the army it trained are hollowed out and militias provide much of the manpower against ISIL. Iran dominates politics in Iraq today. I commend the Foreign Secretary for the work that he has done to bring Iran in from the cold.
As we fight to end the war and restore peace, we must recognise that real peace—a peace that lasts and allows people to feel safe and get on with their lives—can only come from self-government, federalism and political reform. That is the aim and it is a noble one, but challenges stand in the way. Syrians and Iraqis may want strong representative Governments, but that may not be what Iran or Saudi Arabia want. That is not what all Shi’a, or indeed all Sunni, in Iraq want, and it is not what Assad and the Shi’a minority in Syria may want. Why? Because all they have ever known is rule by the strongest. Those who are not on top are under the thumb of whoever is on top. People see a protracted fight as preferable to letting down their guard in a compromise that they might not survive. That lesson has been scarred into the region by systematic killing right from the death throes of the Ottoman empire to the murderous regimes of Saddam Hussein and Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. However, we are not passive on this matter, and it was made clear to me in Iraq last week that we can influence Baghdad—indeed, those who agree with us are crying out for more influence in Baghdad.
My hon. Friend talks about influence in Baghdad, but does he agree that one of our failures was in supporting the Maliki Government who persecuted Sunnis and massacred Members of Parliament in Anbar province? That led to the creation of this monster—Daesh—which is now out of control.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I am coming on to that point. He is right to point out the shortcomings of the Maliki Government. As I said, we are not passive, and right now the only game in town is Iran, whose Government may not want a strong Sunni region in Iraq, or a Sunni-dominated Syria. Prime Minister Abadi is an ally, and we must make it clear to him that if he can push back and convince Iran that there is a different way, and begin the project of rebuilding Iraq after the disastrous Maliki Government, we will be with him all the way. We can make it clear that we want devolution to Sunni regions of Iraq, and inclusion so that the Iraqi political project can become the vehicle for Sunni hope that it ought to be. If we give people that, ISIL is finished and none shall follow in its place; if we fail them, we have not seen the last of extremism and violence.
Syria is not different in needing that kind of settlement. Assad inherited a doomed regime from his father. He could have chosen dialogue in 2011, but instead he chose the cudgel. Rather than admit that he was finished, he lashed out at the protests, and bludgeoned his country into civil war. Assad’s barrel bombs, torture chambers and nerve gas mean that he and his family cannot continue to rule in Syria, and they cannot be given a part in any future Government. To do so would guarantee that this is a war without end.
However, there is a difference between Assad and the regime, and a distinction between Assad and the Alawites. It is not a binary choice between Assad’s regime and the terror of ISIL. The moderate rebels are vital to the future of the country, and any future Government with whom we can work. Russia will see that too, because President Putin does not want ISIL to control vast swathes of the country any more than we do. Russia’s Caucasus has a large Muslim population that is vulnerable to radicalisation and terrorism. Putin wishes to keep his bases and a presence in Syria, and he worries about the transition between Assad and the next Government. On that, his views are legitimate, and we have no wish to dismantle Syrian Government apparatus. We desperately want a secular Government in Damascus, and for minorities to be protected, and we do not wish to threaten Russia’s interests, presence or bases in western Syria. There is very real room for agreement. The political settlement that we eventually reach can include all things, and Russia can become our partner in influencing such a deal.
The rift between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims has existed for almost as long as the religion of Islam and it is not going away. However, we do not need it to go away to achieve peace; we are not trying to achieve agreement on everything, and we do not need to. People will always disagree about what is important in their life and how society should be governed—that is pluralism. What is important is resolving and compromising on matters within democratic and legal apparatus. That is the real aim and it can achieve a new political system in time. There are also partners for us to work with in those countries, and I met the American, German and Dutch teams. Our Prime Minister is right to say that we must extend our campaign to Syria to fight Daesh, and I will be supporting him on that.
It is some years since I worked in the middle east, so what I am about to say is fashioned mainly from recent research that I have done, and that from the Commons Library. My short speech is not the one that I thought I would give. I had intended my speech to cover the broad sweep of the middle east, but given our debate thus far, perhaps it is better to leave that to another time and concentrate on the matter in hand, which is Syria.
For a long time I have had an interest—both professionally and in other ways—in the issue of capacity building in countries that have suffered from conflict, or that in some way need to rebuild their societies. I was particularly concerned the other day when I read this rather depressing comment from Manish Rai, who is editor of the geopolitical news agency, Viewsaround:
“Only time will tell who will win or lose this war. However, one thing is certain: Syria as a country has already lost the struggle for its survival. Perhaps in the future, coming generations will know through stories that a country once called Syria existed on the planet.”
Let us hope that his concerns and fears do not come to pass and that something can be done. The challenge facing any reconstruction is huge, and at times speakers in this debate have been rather glib in their expectations about what can readily and easily be done.
Let me recite a few of the facts that we know from United Nations agencies and others. The UN estimates that 8 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, in addition to the 4 million who have fled their country—that is more than half of Syria’s entire pre-war population. According to the UN, 250,000 people have been killed, and half of those were civilians.
Given those numbers, does my hon. Friend agree that we should pay tribute to the people of Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere in the region who are taking in so many refugees, and that the UK needs to help those countries by taking in more refugees?
I agree entirely, and in a Westminster Hall debate some weeks ago I argued that we must do more for the thousands upon thousands of orphaned children. It is estimated that 300 to 400 children have been captured by Daesh and put in camps to be trained as suicide bombers. Surely compassion compels us to do more for the most vulnerable in Syria at this time.
If ISIL is to remain in the middle east, and more and more people are purged from that putative state, surely by removing those people from the middle east whom ISIL does not want we will be serving its purposes.
My concern is about the most innocent and vulnerable people. Of course we want an end to terrorism in the middle east, and this House will have to address—perhaps in a couple of days—the best means of accomplishing that. I suspect that I will disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but in my short speech I hope to set out the scale of the challenge of rebuilding Syria, whenever that can start.
In defeating this evil organisation, we must defeat its ideology, appeal and self-proclaimed legitimacy. We must join our ally France in using the correct terminology, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and his party for doing that and for not linking this evil organisation to Islam, which has nothing to do with it. This organisation are evil scum and we must describe them as that.
They are indeed evil scum. I pay tribute to the many Members who call this scum by their proper name of Daesh. A few weeks ago, Members who did so were few in number, but now there are many more. All those who use the correct terminology in this debate deserve credit. The hon. Gentleman is correct: there are huge ideological and cultural challenges to overcome. I would like to say a few words, however, on the practical challenge relating to infrastructure.
It was estimated recently that the productive capacity of Syria has been so degraded that it is 80% less than it was before the war broke out four years ago. Some 37% of all hospitals in Syria have been completely destroyed and a further 20% are so degraded they are unable to provide anything like the kind of service they provided in the past. There has been a significant destruction of health, education, transport, water, sanitation and energy infrastructure. Indeed, it has reached the stage where some commentators estimate that if the war were to end today and Syria embarked immediately on 5% economic growth—that is highly unlikely—it would take 30 years to return to the economic situation it was in in 2010.
In addition to the destruction of infrastructure, there is the difficulty we will have in entering the area to start to rebuild it. I am the chairman of the all-party group on explosive weapons and I have carried out some investigations into that situation in Syria. As well as the degradation of infrastructure, the Syrian Government have been using both anti-personnel mines, manufactured in Russia, and cluster munitions. Both are deemed illegal under the Ottawa convention. Daesh uses both cluster munitions and improvised explosive devices as landmines. This build-up of the huge detritus of war will have to be cleared before any real development can take place. There is currently no mine action programme in Syria to remove any of it. This is understandable, given that the conflict is still under way. In fact, the situation is so unusual that non-state parties—terrorist groups—have been known to dig up landmines from Israeli minefields along the Golan Heights and attempt to reuse them for their own purposes. The number of victims of explosive weapons, predominantly civilians, is already huge. The conflict in the Falklands 33 years ago was relatively small, yet the UK has still not fully cleared all the landmines from the Falkland Islands. I say that not to condemn the United Kingdom, but to think about the challenge facing Syria given the state of destruction that has already taken place.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I have visited the Falkland Islands many times. The problem the Falkland islanders have is that the mines have sunk into peat. It would be more difficult and destructive to remove the mines than to leave them there.
I accept that that is true in some regards. However, a UK Government programme is still under way and money is still being spent to encourage further clearance, so it seems the UK Government do not accept that that is the situation in every case. In any case, I make the point to highlight the fact that we will face a huge challenge in Syria. It is one that this House would do well to address.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) for securing this timely debate on the middle east and north Africa. It is my usual manner to try to respond to those who have spoken. I am aware, however, of the time constraints and the desire to have further Back-Bench contributions. If I may, I will write to colleagues on the questions they have raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell invited us to recognise Britain’s historical relationship with this complex part of the world. That is wise advice. Seeking solutions to today’s challenges must be done through the prism of understanding the peoples and their history. It is fair to say that the fertile lands found between the Nile, the Jordan and the Tigris-Euphrates rivers formed the umbilical cords of the area we now call the cradle of civilisation. Many of the foundation stones of modern humanity come from this part of the world: basic laws, agricultural techniques, the alphabet, the wheel, and, of course, the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
An impressive number of tribes, religious groupings and communities huddled around those sparse water resources and coastlines, subject to the waxing and waning of a series of empires and dynasties: the Sumerian empire and the Hittite, Assyrian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Phoenician and Persian dynasties. The region experienced 8,000 years of societal development, wars, culture and governance before the first stitch of the Bayeux tapestry was made.
The Minister is making some excellent points. We talk very often about cyber-terrorism. Al-Khwarizmi wrote his book on algebra, explaining the correlation of numbers, before the Bayeux tapestry even existed. Indeed, he wrote it before there was a King of England: Ethelbert was the King of Kent, and there was no Duncan and no kingdom of Scotland.
My hon. Friend underlines my point about the history.
This is a proud and fragmented part of the world. Through the eventual expansion of our own empire, we have come to know it so well. It was through our treaties, alliances and, yes, our wars that we were able to trade and to develop an intricate knowledge of, and relationship with, much of the middle east, which is still evident today. From the 1820 Trucial States treaty with the Gulf kingdoms, the so-called veiled protectorate rule of Egypt, the San Remo conference and the Balfour declaration, Britain’s history, for better or worse, is deeply intertwined and inextricably linked with the security, economy, governance and, in some cases, the very creation of states across the region.
Forgive the history lesson, but it is only through this backdrop that we can fully appreciate the complexity of the region and the expectation that, as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the world’s leading soft power and with such strong ties to the region, we should be at the forefront of efforts to increase security and safeguard prosperity.
I know how diligent the Minister has been in getting to understand the region, and in visiting and talking to the people there. Does he not recognise, however, that one of the major problems our country faces is the hollowing out of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Increasingly, there is a lack of understanding of the history, culture, politics, alliances, aspirations and personalities in the region.
One week ago, the hon. Lady could have made a powerful case for that, but I am pleased to say that the spending review confirmed Britain’s and the Government’s commitment to making sure that we have the money to continue our diplomatic contacts.
Our desire to be at the forefront in the middle east was reflected in last week’s strategic defence and security review, where the commitment to building a more secure, stable and prosperous middle east and north Africa region was underlined. In an increasingly globalised world, and as a country open to international business, we understand that our economic security goes hand in hand with our national security. We therefore invest in protecting and projecting our influence and values.
Today, UK trade with the middle east and north Africa is worth £35 billion a year. For example, 4,000 UK companies are based in the Emirates; Britain is the largest direct foreign investor in Egypt; Qatar invests £30 billion of its sovereign wealth funds in the UK; in Oman, BP is building the largest onshore gas project in the world; our exports to Kuwait are up 12% on last year; and in Israel, the Prime Minister has launched a thriving bilateral active technology community hub. Such strong relationships create the trust that allows us to raise issues such as human rights, the rule of law and other aspects of justice, and to have these frank conversations.
I know that my hon. Friend is familiar with the case of my constituent’s father, Mr Kamal Foroughi, who is imprisoned in Iran. Does he think that our improving relationship with Iran will allow us better to make the humanitarian case for his release?
I think we are having a meeting about this next week. The fact that we now have a dialogue with Iran makes it easier for us to deal with these consular matters, and I look forward to doing my best to assist my hon. Friend and his constituent.
Sadly, although there are reasons to be positive, many countries in the region remain afflicted by violence and instability. Yemen was labelled as the forgotten war by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter). In that country, the Houthi advance against President Hadi’s legitimate Government has had catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Some 80% of the population are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, and so far the UK has pledged £75 million of support. We welcome the crucial role that the Saudi Arabian-led coalition is playing, but these military gains must be translated into progress on a political track and a ceasefire agreement.
I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning Yemen, which should not be forgotten when discussing the middle east. What success has he had in persuading the Saudis to ease the bombing campaign, which is causing so many problems for local Yemenis?
First, may I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment to the country as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen? We are aware of reports of breaches of international humanitarian law. We have raised them with the Saudi Government and received repeated assurances of compliance, but we will continue to engage on this issue.
In Libya, delays on both sides in confirming a government of national accord are allowing extremist groups to take advantage of the vacuum and to gain traction, as has been mentioned by hon. Members, but progress has been made. I recently met Prime Minister-designate Sarraj in Tunis, and we very much support UN envoy Martin Kobler as he calls on Libyan delegations to confirm their commitment to the implementation of the political agreement.
My hon. Friend will share my tremendous frustration that a government of national unity in Libya has proved so allusive. In the interregnum, until we have secured that government, do we recognise the Tobruk government as the official government of that country?
I was involved in speaking to members of delegations on both sides at the UN General Assembly, and we remain focused on securing that government of national accord. We are working hard with the UN envoy, and Jonathan Powell is also involved.
On the middle east peace process, we all know that there is an urgent need to create the conditions for a resumption of talks leading to a long-term peace agreement and a two-state solution. I condemn the appalling murders of innocent people in recent weeks, and the Foreign Secretary and I have called on all sides to restore calm and improve the situation on the ground.
The signing of the nuclear deal with Iran is welcome, but I share others’ concerns about Iran’s destabilising activity in the middle east. Many of our partners in the region share this view. There remain numerous issues on which we disagree with Iran, such as its support for the Assad regime, but none the less it has influence in the region so we need to engage with it on these difficult issues.
Can the Minister update us on when we might expect a vote on air strikes being extended to Syria and when we might see a copy of the motion, as called for by my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson)?
I hear the words of the hon. Gentleman, who places his concerns on the record, but I seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to take interventions, but I am conscious that I am eating up not only my time but that of Back Benchers. If I may, therefore, I will try to make some important progress.
I turn now to the substance of the debate: the Government’s strategy to defeat ISIL. Last Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comprehensively outlined the threat posed by ISIL—or Daesh, as it is known in the region—and what more Britain could do following UN Security Council resolution 2249, which calls on member states to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress the terrorist acts of Daesh and other designated terrorist groups.
As colleagues make their own assessments, I thought it would be helpful to outline the strategy adopted by the 65-strong coalition against Daesh in Iraq. First, there is the military component. In September 2014, swift action by the coalition, in conjunction with the Iraqi forces, contained Daesh’s advance and prevented the fall of Baghdad, Irbil and Kirkuk, and to date 30% of the territory Daesh once controlled in Iraq has been retaken, including the cities of Kirkuk, Baiji and, most recently, Sinjar. It is critical that indigenous forces liberate their own territory, so that they can take ownership of its long-term security. Training these forces will take time, but the cities of Mosul and Ramadi will eventually be liberated, which will be a significant milestone towards ridding Iraq of Daesh.
The second strand is humanitarian and stabilisation support. The coalition works closely with international organisations and Iraqi security forces to ensure that liberated communities are given the services they need as rapidly as possible. We also support the Iraqi Government on important developments, such as the long-awaited but sadly delayed de-Ba’athification and national guard laws, which will give the Sunni population a greater stake in their country.
The third strand is stemming the flow of foreign fighters. As we degrade Daesh on the battlefield, we must cut off the flow of new recruits, including foreign fighters. The fourth strand is cutting the financial support to Daesh. The coalition is working hard to squeeze Daesh’s finances, and a counter-financing action plan has been put in place to identify and freeze donors’ accounts, deny Daesh access to international financial systems and, through UN resolutions, prohibit the sale of oil and antiquities.
The final pillar of the coalition’s strategy is strategic communications. We must debunk the ideology of Daesh and work in partnership with our allies and civil society in the region to counter the extremist doctrine. Critical to this is defeating the laptop terrorists by denying this poisonous ideology a global audience via social media and the dark net. Here, too, Britain is playing a leading role in co-chairing the strategic communications working group.
As the Prime Minister said on Thursday, military action and the extension of UK air strikes to Syria should be seen not in isolation but as part of a coherent strategy that includes our counter-extremism strategy, the diplomatic and political process under way, and a comprehensive humanitarian and stabilisation package for post-conflict reconstruction. I am delighted to tell the House that in February the UK will be hosting a senior-level summit to discuss how the international community can best assist the people of Syria in humanitarian support and stabilisation.
Extending UK air strikes will have a qualitative and quantitative impact on ISIL/Daesh. On a tactical level, they will allow full targeting of an adversary across a border that they themselves do not honour or recognise. Operationally, we will bring exceptional capability to the table in the form of the Brimstone missile system, which can accurately take out targets travelling at speed with low collateral damage. Strategically, it will make a material contribution to Daesh’s defeat in Iraq by impeding supply lines and thereby hastening the fall of Mosul and Ramadi. It will also apply greater kinetic pressure to the headquarters from which Daesh co-ordinates its activities. It will give hope to the majority of people living in Raqqa who live under duress and constant fear, who want to be liberated but not by Assad. As the Prime Minister said, while air strikes will impede the ability of Daesh to operate freely in the short term, it will be destroyed only through the political process and the ability of all Syrians to have a say in their future.
The recent meetings of the international Syria support group in Vienna brought together for the first time the key international stakeholders, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, France and Turkey. There is now a common vision of what is needed to end the war, stabilise the region and help the Syrian people. Military chiefs, politicians and the public rightly ask what success looks like in order to avoid lengthy and costly campaigns. That is why the Prime Minister has articulated a wider strategy in which military action is just one element.
Let me make it clear that I am just as concerned by the mission creep of Daesh itself. No longer is it focused on its so-called caliphate, as it is extending its poisonous ideology in other ungoverned and fragile spaces such as Libya, the Sinai and north-eastern Nigeria. Its mission creep inspires extremists further afield, including those in Tunisia, who killed 30 innocent British holidaymakers on the beach.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, I am afraid.
That mission creep is the changing of tactics directly to attack western targets, as we saw in the recent tragedy in Paris and beyond with the bombing of the Russian holidaymakers flying home from Egypt. This cannot go unchecked. That is why Britain must act.
In conclusion, all MPs have a duty fully to scrutinise the merits of the Prime Minister’s proposal. We must learn from the previous decisions taken by this House and place them in context, but I ask that we not be paralysed by them. We are dealing with an implacable enemy, with whom we cannot negotiate. We have already taken the decision to fight Daesh in Iraq, and it has extended the fight well beyond the so-called caliphate. The dangers this poses, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Paris, Sharm el-Sheikh, Tunis, Kuwait City and Ankara, is understood by all members of the United Nations Security Council, who have called on all member states who are able to do so to tackle the scourge and eradicate its safe haven.
Let us be clear that the liberation of Raqqa is not just around the corner. It will take time, and progress on all strands of our strategy will be required, but degrading and placing pressure on Daesh alongside progress on the political track is the key. This strategy includes the 70,000 non-extremist opposition, who are already fighting both Daesh and Assad. Hon. Members have said a number of times, “Who are these people?”, so let me clarify. These are the hundreds of factions that, since the Arab spring, have defended their local communities against the tyranny of Assad, but want no truck with terrorism or indeed extremism. They have successfully kept supply routes to Aleppo open and defeated Jabhat al-Nusra in the south. As such, they are the ones that we need to support, and they are the ones who will play an important role in Syria’s future. They will be part of the political transition in the country, and they will shortly come together in the region to form a common position.
I ask colleagues to ensure that we continue to do all we can, as a leading P5 nation, to support our allies, with our soft and hard-power capabilities, to help advance an end to the Syrian civil war and to defeat Daesh for good.
On behalf of my party, I applaud the Back Benchers who have secured today’s debate. We now know from one of the Conservative contributions earlier that we will be asked on Wednesday to vote on whether or not to go to war in Syria. It is timely and appropriate that in a week in which such a proposition is being put, we should consider the wider historical and political perspectives in the region.
It was less than 100 years ago when the then colonial powers carved up the lands that were once controlled by the Ottoman empire and created the map of the middle east and the territories that we see today. I have to say, on reflection, that some of those decisions were arbitrary and that some did not take into account the territorial and ethnic identifications of the people who lived there. Most importantly, those powers certainly did not consult the people who were to be governed by these arrangements and nor did they have at their heart the democratic and secular principles to which I think we all aspire.
Those arrangements have not served us well in the last century. They have been the source, I believe, of much of the insecurity in that region. If we are to have a wider debate and a wider strategy, this country needs to be concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to ensure that it sees a future in which people will be consulted on their own government. There is probably widespread agreement in this Chamber on the type of political arrangements we would like to see in that part of the world. We believe that they should be democratic and that people should be allowed to elect those who govern them. We would also agree that we want them to be secular or, if not entirely secular, at least to be states that will tolerate religious freedom and allow religious expression.
In pursuing those objectives, I believe that we have to be both consistent and coherent in our foreign policy. It is fair to say that that consistency and coherence have been absent from the foreign policies of this country under successive Governments. I want to pick up on three examples in respect of which more work is required.
The first is the situation with the Kurds. Many have applauded the peshmerga, and we and other western countries are coming to their assistance and providing them with the resources they need in the current war that they are waging. We will need to consider and support demands for Kurdish autonomy in the north of Syria, and we will also need to consider, I think, whether the time has come to recognise that there should be a national state of Kurdistan, which would not just bring confidence to the Kurdish people but might end up providing more security in the region in the longer term.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about the very policies that Her Majesty’s Government and our allies have pursued in the region. On the possibility of a Kurdistan, the hon. Gentleman has elucidated some interesting arguments. The only narrow point I would make is that the creation of a Kurdish state, if that were to happen, would cause such unrest in the region that it might be something best considered in due course rather than at a time when the region is already inflamed.
My point is that it must be on the agenda, and that we cannot have a situation whereby we appear to be allying with the Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, using them in many ways as a proxy, yet at the same time denying their aspirations.
That brings us, I am afraid, to the situation with Turkey. I regard the recent Turkish elections, in which President Erdogan strengthened his position in the country, to be a retrograde step. This country needs, I think, to have a serious dialogue with the Turkish Government and to bring our other allies into that dialogue as well—and we need to say that the way in which they regard the Kurds is not acceptable and will not lead to the longer-term peace we want to see in the region.
The second aspect of Saudi Arabia has been mentioned already. It is a state that, frankly, is barely beyond the medieval in how it treats many of its people. I, for one, am dumbfounded at the continuing closeness of the Foreign Office with the Government of Saudi Arabia and our continuing desire to arm them, even in a situation where there is now credible evidence that the Saudi royal air force is using British-supplied weapons against the civilian population in neighbouring Yemen—contrary to this country’s rules relating to arms supply. I think we have seriously to question what our attitude should be to the Saudi Government and what their role would be in preparing a lasting settlement in the area.
My third and final point, relating to the need for consistency and coherence, is the Israel-Palestine question, which has in many ways been overlooked in the last few years. The situation there is getting worse than it has ever been before. The violence is reaching very intense levels, and, as was pointed out earlier by, I think, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the disparity in that violence is really quite marked. The number of casualties on the two sides is entirely unequal, and many aspects of the reaction of the Israeli defence forces are disproportionate and, indeed, could be considered unlawful. We cannot continue to ignore the situation in Palestine, in the occupied territories and the green zone.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am not sure whether I will be given extra time, but I will take the intervention anyway.
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I make a very short comment on the Israel-Palestine question? He has raised some excellent points, and is advancing an extremely fluent argument encompassing most of the middle east. What has struck me over the past four or five years—and I wonder whether it has struck him as well—is that since the so-called Arab spring, the question of Israel has not been mentioned on the Arab streets. The question is not whether or not Israel is legitimate or illegitimate; it relates to the governance of the Arab countries themselves. Is it not incumbent on us to focus on that question of governance—of which the hon. Gentleman himself has just spoken so fluently—rather than sending ourselves down a rabbit hole and talking about the Israel-Palestine question, which is, let’s face it, distinct from the question of governance in the region?
It is distinct, but it is not possible to consider a lasting peace in the middle east without addressing the situation there, which I think is being brushed under the carpet at the moment.
In the occupied territories, the Israeli Government are sponsoring and supporting both the development of new settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes and properties, which is creating a situation that is close to the annexation of those occupied territories by the state of Israel. That may be Israel’s intention, but if it pursues the same path, the viability of a separate Palestinian state will not be there, and hence the two-state solution will not be there. If the Israeli Government intend to continue their present policies, the Israeli Government should be challenged to say what they consider to be the longer-term conditions for a settlement of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in that part of the world. Meanwhile, millions of Palestinian refugees are still being held in the refugee camps in neighbouring countries, in a sort of holding pattern, and are being denied any hope or any prospect of a place that they can call home.
I must say in all seriousness that one of the things that this country could do—acting in concert with other western countries—is try to take a fresh initiative on the question of Israel-Palestine, and be seen to try to advocate the human rights of Palestinians and the requirement for a lasting and balanced peace in the area. I think that that would, single-handedly, do a great deal to undermine and counter much of the mythology that is being put about on the issue of Daesh, and the suggestion that this is a conflict between the west and Islam. We should be seen to take new action on Palestine, but at present no one is talking, and no talks are planned for the future. I know from correspondence with the Minister that he is sympathetic to much of what I have just said, but this seems to be the policy that dare not speak its name. The United Kingdom cannot continue to be silent on what is happening in that part of the world.
Let me now say something about Syria, which is the main event that we are discussing. I must make it clear that the Scottish National party understands the threat that Daesh poses to our way of life, and that we sympathise absolutely with the requirement for international action to undermine and eradicate that organisation. We are, however, anxious not to do something in the short term that would make things worse in the medium and the long term. That is why we remain unconvinced about the need for air strikes, which, it is proposed, should take place not with a ground strategy to follow, but in isolation.
Aerial bombardment in isolation means rearranging the piles of rubble, and it invariably results in some innocent casualties as collateral damage. It creates more refugees, and, above all, it plays into the narrative of Daesh that the crusaders are coming to deny the Muslim people their way of life. Unless there are forces on the ground, all that air strikes do is destroy territory rather than controlling it. Unless the air strikes are linked with a proper ground campaign, we think it irrelevant to make the Royal Air Force the 13th air force in the skies over Syria. For 15 months the Americans have been bombing these positions almost daily, yet the situation on the ground in Syria has not changed by one inch, and, if anything, Daesh is stronger than it was 15 months ago.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Again, I am not sure whether I have time, but I will take the intervention.
The hon. Gentleman will know, in relation to numbers on the ground, that at the Vienna conference Jordan was tasked with identifying moderate groups that could work with the international community. I have not seen a list of moderate groups from Jordan. Has the hon. Gentleman seen such a list, and are those groups part of the 70,000 that we are told will come from the Free Syrian Army?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s scepticism in this regard. Last Thursday I asked the Prime Minister whether he envisaged circumstances in which the Free Syrian Army and the Kurds would launch a successful ground offensive against Daesh, ignoring the presence of the Syrian army or pretending that it was not actually there. I did not receive a satisfactory answer.
It seems to me that a four-way civil war is taking place in Syria, and that some of those four sides are themselves quite complicated coalitions. If we are to develop a Daesh-first strategy, we shall need to persuade the other three sides to agree to co-ordinated action against Daesh. That is where the focus of diplomatic and political effort should be directed. I realise how difficult it will be. I realise that many of the groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army, for example, would see Assad as more of an enemy than Daesh, and it will take a great deal of negotiation to bring all that together. It does not mean that all those groups must share a command structure, and it does not mean that they must share zones of operation—those can be separate—but any action must be co-ordinated. We cannot allow a situation in which some of them are simply trying to do what would be our bidding in a completely irrelevant and ineffective manner. That strikes me as a recipe for disaster.
The one hope in all this is the Vienna process, and the fact that a dialogue is under way. We believe that the time now should be spent in boosting that process, and in trying to secure the political and diplomatic agreements that we need for co-ordinated action that will be successful not just in bombing places into the stone age, but in taking control of land, starting with a military administration and then passing it over to civilian administrations month by month, year by year. Unless that framework is in place—and, unlike the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for whom I have a great deal of respect, I remain to be convinced that it is—when the opportunity comes on Wednesday, the Scottish National party will not vote to go to war with Syria.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Further to the point of order that was raised earlier in the debate about the Prime Minister making a statement to the media without coming to the House, it appears from social media that the media have already been informed that we will be having a debate and vote on the issue of Syria in the House on Wednesday, immediately after Prime Minister’s Question Time. I wonder whether any Minister has had the courtesy to approach you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and explain that he or she would like to make an announcement to the House before briefing the press about when votes would take place.
I have not received any confirmation or otherwise from a Minister, but I have been in the Chair for the whole of this time. I think that the usual procedure would be for a Minister, or the Leader of the House, to make a supplementary business statement. We must wait to see whether that happens, but so far nothing has been confirmed or otherwise.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this important and timely debate. I must begin by declaring an interest, as a former member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding.
I greatly enjoyed and appreciated the contribution of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), which was thoughtful and with a great deal of which I agreed. The middle east has, of course, been a source of enormous tension for many years, as has been mentioned by many Members today, and Britain has an important role to play. Next year will mark the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which shaped much of the middle east as we know it now, and modern Syria dates back to that accord.
British middle east policy combines a number of approaches and positions. Some are influenced by direct national interest, some by the position of the European Union, and some by the United States and other regional powers. Given all the crises in the region, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Palestine, these policy positions might at times appear contradictory. I therefore believe that it is important for us to have this debate today.
Many hon. Members have focused on Syria today, for what are very clear reasons, and there will no doubt be further contributions on that subject in the next 48 hours. I, however, would like to focus on what is for many the kernel of the middle eastern problem—namely, the issue of Israel and Palestine. As the hon. Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, that issue seems to have been overlooked in recent years, but it is now bursting on to the international consciousness as a result of the increasingly violent tension in that country.
Since the beginning of October, the violence in Israel and the west bank has resulted in the deaths of 85 Palestinians and 11 Israelis, and more than 9,000 Palestinians and 133 Israelis have been injured. There is talk of this being the third intifada. The latest surge in violence began after a Palestinian stabbed two Israelis to death in the old city of Jerusalem, which all hon. Members would of course condemn. We have to wonder, however, whether the Israelis acted proportionately in their response. They have erected more walls to surround the west bank, and added to the 750 km of security fences that are rapidly caging in the west bank. They have fired at protesters on the Gaza border, and early in October, nine Palestinians were killed in what Israel claimed was an attempt to bridge the fence.
The causes of the conflict are many and various. They go back to the 1967 six-day war and beyond. However, it seems that the recent escalation was sparked, at least in part, by the Israelis placing restrictions on access to the al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem’s old city. The French Government have called for an international observer force to be deployed at the holy sites, and I strongly urge the Government to give consideration to that proposal. The al-Aqsa compound has been a source of tension for many, and if Britain could play a part in defusing that tension, it would be doing a wonderful thing.
Many people in this country—and, indeed, in this House—fully understand that Israel’s history renders it unique and that it is concerned about its borders, but it has to remember that it is a democracy. Many of its actions in the region do it a huge disservice, particularly the increase in the number of settlements on the west bank. In fact, the settlement programme continues unabated. On 8 October, Israel’s Defence Minister said that settlement building
“was not frozen for even a minute”,
and pledged that Israel would continue to “build in the future”. If Israel continues to deny the Palestinians any prospect of constituting themselves as a state and of living with the kind of dignity that they are entitled to, it will continue to experience the sort of violence that it is facing at the moment.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, Israel has a great deal to commend it. Like her, I have visited the Hadassah hospital in East Jerusalem, which treats patients of Israeli and Palestinian extraction equally. However, continuing to deny the Palestinians a homeland of their own will result only in the continued escalation of the violence. It will, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East put it, render the prospect of a two-state solution almost impossible.
In the climate talks in Paris today, the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, shared a handshake. That could possibly be the start of a dialogue between the two sides, and it is dialogue that is needed, rather than what the Secretary-General of the United Nations has referred to as the continued enclosure of the Palestinians behind walls. We have to find our way towards a solution, and I believe that this country, with its long history in the middle east, could play its part in that. With goodwill on both sides, we may yet see a resolution of that most persistent of conflicts.
I know that the focus of the House has mainly been on Syria today, but now that we know we will be debating that subject on Wednesday, I hope that Members will forgive me for talking about another country in the middle east—namely, Yemen. It has already been mentioned by the Minister and one or two others.
The situation in Yemen has reached crisis point. Aid organisations believe that more than 21 million Yemenis—that is 80% of the population—are in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. This is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. The Danish Refugee Council estimates that more than 4,628 people have died and that 28,598 people have been injured as a result of the fighting and bombing campaigns, and that 573 of those killed were children. On average, 30 people have been killed and 185 injured every day in Yemen since the end of March.
The damage to the country’s already limited infrastructure makes aid delivery very challenging. This will also make post-conflict reconstruction extremely difficult. As a direct result of this damage, at least 160 healthcare facilities have been closed down completely across the country. To add to the problems, a lack of fuel has restricted the use of water pumps, which has left 13 million Yemenis—50% of the population—struggling to find an adequate amount of clean water to drink or to use to grow crops.
A report on the crisis published by the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, which I have the privilege of chairing, has not yet received a response from the Under- Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), but I know that, as Minister with responsibility for the middle east, he has many pieces of paper to read and many visits to make. I hope, however, that he will respond to that report as soon as he can. I want to commend the efforts of the Prime Minister’s envoy to Yemen, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who works very hard on this matter and is always in dialogue with members of the local community.
The crisis is affecting people not only in or near Yemen but in Greece. There is evidence that a number of Yemenis seeking to come to the EU are making their way to Greece, because there are no visa restrictions between Yemen and Turkey. Over 1.4 million people in Yemen have also been internally displaced, raising the prospect of an unprecedented refugee crisis.
The situation in Yemen does not seem to have captured the imagination of the House or of the British people, despite the efforts of the vice-chair of the all-party group, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and others. This could be because we are always talking about the situation between Palestinian and Israel, as the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) suggested, or because we are now talking about Syria and we were previously talking about Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the Yemeni people are suffering terribly.
I pay tribute to the work that the right hon. Gentleman has done on this subject. I spoke to President Hadi last week and underlined Britain’s commitment to seeking a solution in Yemen. Both sides are meeting in Switzerland in the near future, and we certainly wish the United Nations envoy, Ismail Ahmed, every success. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the situation is dire, and to make matters worse the port city of al-Mukalla on the south coast, with which he will be familiar, is now run by al-Qaeda. That illustrates the seriousness of the situation and we should not allow other concerns about what is happening in the middle east to overshadow what is happening in Yemen.
The Minister is right to say that we should not allow ourselves to be diverted from this. I welcome the news he has given the House today, but it would be helpful if President Hadi was able to come to the United Kingdom to address Members of this House and tell us about the situation in Yemen. We are grateful for the support of the Saudis, without which President Hadi would not have had safe haven, but I gently say to colleagues and allies, which is what the Saudis are, that it is time to stop the bombing, as the all-party group said, to allow humanitarian aid to come in and to help this country be reconstructed. There were reports that President Hadi had returned to Aden, and clearly he is there. That is good news and it will help us to re-establish him as the legitimate President of Yemen in Sana’a, whatever is left of that great world heritage site. I cannot bear to think of what has happened. When I left Yemen I was only nine and my sister was a different age—I cannot disclose her age, because she gets very upset—and I cannot bear to think of what has happened to it.
Finally, I wish to mention Tunisia, another country of interest. It is not quite the middle east, but we would include it as being part of the Arab world. I know that the Minister has been there recently and is very focused on its situation. We needed to take urgent action and the travel ban was necessary at that time, but it is now playing into the hands of those who wish to destabilise the Tunisian Government. When I went to Sousse recently —I do not know whether the Minister went there on his visit—I found that 90% of the hotels had closed down since the travel ban was brought into effect. That has meant thousands of Tunisians are now unemployed, as we Brits made up the largest number of tourists to Tunisia. With that unemployment goes poverty and the possibility of people being susceptible to the appeals of those who wish to destabilise the Tunisian Government, who are democratically elected. We have given huge support to Tunisia, doubling the number of people working at the Tunis embassy, but we need to do more.
I understand that a number of people have dropped out of this debate because there is apparently to be a debate on Wednesday, which gives more time for me to intervene, which I will do cautiously. I can confirm that during my visit to Tunisia we went through a detailed plan of what is required to get Britons back there. Britons want to go back to holidaying in that country, but the first responsibility of any Prime Minister of any Government is the safety of those citizens. We are working very closely, progress is being made and I hope that we will be able to lift that travel ban very soon.
That is very good news. Every time the Minister gets to that Dispatch Box, he gives the House some good news—I hope he will jump up constantly to make these interventions. That move will help the Tunisian Government enormously. Of course the safety of British people is the paramount consideration, but when I went there the security had increased. We have a role to play; British policing is regarded abroad as the best in the world. Sometimes we do not say that here, because they are our police and we do not tend to praise them as much as we should. When we go abroad, people talk about the skills of the police and the security services, and we need to provide the Tunisians with that help. If that is the news he brings to the House about Tunisia, I am very pleased to hear it. The Tunisian Government should work with us to provide the greater security that is necessary.
In conclusion, I know that the Minister is focused on Yemen and that if he could get there, he would be there —I know he cannot go there because it is so dangerous. I ask him please to make sure that Yemen is in his thoughts and those of the British Government, because this is a crucial country and we should not let it fail.
I have been sitting here racking my brains trying to remember which of Philip Larkin’s poems contained the following lines:
“We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.”
That applies so very well to what occurs in this Chamber so often: we are so blinded by day-to-day events—by the proximity of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya—that we find it far harder to take a step back and look at the long duration of our involvement in the region. That is why I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on granting this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is no longer in his place, on framing such a wide motion, which allows us to engage in a wider sense on the longer-term issues.
If we were to look back over the past century of our engagement with the middle east, we would see that every time there has been a major issue there have probably been those arguing for greater intervention, those arguing for less intervention and those arguing for no intervention at all, but the common point of all those debates has been one of diminishing engagement on the part of the United Kingdom. It is right to take a step back and ask why that might be and whether it is the right thing for the future. We should not blind ourselves by the decisions we will certainly have to take in the next day or two, but instead look at why we are there in the long term and how it has an impact on our national interest.
The hon. Members for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) were urging us to learn the lessons of history, look at individual events and draw a conclusion from them. I always find that the most frustrating aspect of debate in this Chamber, because history can be a fickle lover. Whatever our argument, we can find that event that will buttress our argument and somehow disprove our opponent’s, and it is very dangerous indeed because history can mislead. It is far better not to focus on individual events but to try to look at some of the more thematic issues that underpin our engagement with this region. Of course foreign policy will be affected on a day-to-day basis by what occurs in the news. When Turkey shoots down a Russian jet it will, of course, have geopolitical consequences to which Ministers must respond, but what really affects the region is not the day-to-day power struggles of those in authority, but what is occurring to ordinary people on the ground.
Across the middle east, we see a number of themes. We see great demographic change. We see a growing population of young people, without the economic growth to give them the jobs they need. That means they become discontented, and that social grievance can lead to changes in Government. Probably, with the benefit of hindsight, we would say that it is what underpinned the Arab spring, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell said, nobody really predicted. In addition, we are seeing changes to the economic structure of these countries: agriculture is changing, food security is diminishing, food prices are rising in the cities and desertification is taking place, possibly as a result of climate change—who is to say? I am not expert enough to call it. That is certainly leading to greater urbanisation, which is accelerating some of those changes to the employment of young people and the social structures that lie within it.
All those things together are a common element in many of the countries we are focusing on, yet we often sit in this Chamber thinking that we in the UK have the sole answer to all these international problems and that only the UK can solve them. That of course is not the case, as the Minister will well know. These problems will be solved only by international coalitions, and the importance of our role will be diminished within these coalitions. What we tend to fall back on in any debate on foreign affairs are some of the more simple clichés, and they can be very dangerous. It is as though there is a binary alternative between intervention and no intervention, and there is no middle ground where we can start to say, “What sort of intervention is most helpful? What do we need to do to build a wider coalition of support in the UK?” The Prime Minister has been admirable in how he has tried to engage courteously with all Members from all parts of the House, whatever their views, to explain why this is not just a simple matter where the whole situation will be transformed if we bomb ISIS in Raqqa. It is far from that, and he has been candid in setting that out.
The other dangerous cliché beginning to circulate is a slightly isolationist one. It is that in some ways this is a religious war that we have no real part of, that we cannot decide between Shi’a or Sunni, and that it is not for Britain or any other western nation to get involved. It is an interesting and seductive argument, but it is also a dangerous one. Let me draw on a lesson from history with which others may disagree. If we go back to the Reformation in the late 16th and early 17th century, the destruction of Christendom and the wars of religion, we may think that that was all about religious differences and divisions, yet, it was not. It was the use of religion as a cloak to reinforce existing divisions of power structures, existing contests between states and between those who were governed and those who did not want to be governed in the way that they were being governed, all of which came to be sheltered under the identity of the person to whom the people owed their allegiance—whether it was a Calvinist, a Lutheran or a Pope.
When we look at the middle east, we need to be very careful that we do not repeat the same mistake of thinking that the various tensions that are there on the ground are all about religion. Often it is the control of religious observance that is the best way of exerting political control in a society where religious observance is one of the few communal activities that occur on a day-to-day basis, so I would very cautious about saying that this is a religious conflict in which we have no part.
The other point I wish to make in the 26 seconds that I have left is that, I hope in his protection of the Foreign Office Library, the Minister can find some scholarly works on the French mandate of Syria between 1922 and 1945, because it has an awful lot to teach us about the potential solution in Syria, particularly in the establishment of a cantonal system that included a homeland for the Alawites, which the French set up after 1922.
I have not been able to sit through all of this debate, but it has been a pleasure none the less to hear so many Members speak up so strongly on both sides of the Chamber. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). We all take his warnings about the dangers of being glib in our historical references, and about how we must go easier on some of the clichés. He also warned us against allowing a false dichotomy into this debate, by saying that there is only either a military intervention or no intervention at all. Some of us on the Opposition Benches feel that the argument increasingly coming from the Government is that, unless we are prepared to endorse the course that they seem to be on, we are somehow insensitive to the need to fight Daesh and all the evil that it represents and does, and that we are unsympathetic to the suffering of the people in Paris, Beirut, Ankara and elsewhere. But we are not; we know that terrorism must be confronted in all its evils, all its arguments and all its rationales, and that we have to do that in a way that is sustainable and credible.
Before I touch more deeply on the issue of Syria, I wish to welcome the fact that this wide-ranging debate, which was initiated by the Backbench Business Committee, has also allowed us, rightly, to touch on other situations as well, including that in Yemen. Last week, I, along with other hon. Members, heard from CAFOD about how it is treating that as one of the most serious humanitarian situations in the world. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) touched on some of the graphic statistics, but we need to understand what all that means.
We cannot go on talking about humanitarian crises—there is a queue of humanitarian crises not just in the greater middle east, but more widely as well—just as though they were some new statistical phenomenon. We need to remember the real pressures that they are causing and the real demands. When we respond to a situation, people will want to know why we are not responding meaningfully at all levels in other situations as well. If we send the level of aid that needs to go to Syria and surrounding countries to help in that humanitarian crisis, people suffering other humanitarian pressures will want to know why there is not the same urgency there. They will wonder whether there is more urgency when there is military intervention. If no military intervention is contemplated, does that crisis go down the league table for consideration and humanitarian concern?
It has also been important to hear about what many would regard as the most enduring middle east conflict—the situation in Israel and Palestine. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) spoke compellingly about why that situation should not be losing attention as it appears to be relative to what is going on in Syria and elsewhere. Let us remember that that situation is one of the factors that is used in the wider radicalisation agenda that too many people seek to promote. If we are to confront the evil logic and the cynical rationale that are used by Daesh and others who come up with a perverted extremist Islamist view of the world, we need to remember that they cite the west’s ineffectual position on Palestine as one of their main bits of evidence for our unsuited interest in the region. Let us remember that that conflict, which is being pursued with yet more demolitions and more settlements, has had a pretty ineffectual diplomatic response from the west—the same west that is talking about marshalling our best diplomatic efforts, military action and humanitarian aid into a comprehensive strategy in Syria.
Then people will ask, “What quality will this huge diplomatic effort have? Where do we see this huge diplomatic effort elsewhere? Do we see it in the middle east and Palestine?” Frankly, people do not see it there. People see the EU and its member states adopting essentially a screensaver approach to what is happening to the Palestinians. Shapes are thrown, images are projected and impressions are created, but nothing real is going on. When was the last time that the Israeli Government took seriously any strong diplomatic message from EU Governments or the UK Government about any of those ongoing violations?
On Syria itself, I listened to the Prime Minister’s statement last week and to all of the other arguments since, and I know that he thinks that he has covered the basis of a comprehensive strategy, and has touched on a number of issues. Some of us do not believe that the elements are complete, or that they add up to the coherent, comprehensive strategy that will succeed in the way the Prime Minister claims they will. We do not pretend that the situation and the choice are exactly the same as those faced by this Parliament over Iraq, but that does not mean that there are no similarities and no questions that we have to ask of ourselves again. The Prime Minister has said that we should not outsource our defence to others, but nor should we outsource our judgment. Just because other people are engaging in military intervention does not mean that we should sign up to support it as well. We should not be doing something just because others are doing it.
The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys talked about history being fickle. We should remember that we have a fairly fickle proposed alliance arrangement for this intervention. We have a somewhat shifting alliance, which includes some fairly shifty allies, and that is just when it comes to the other states. When we then look at forces, such as the Free Syrian Army, which are meant to be the ground forces, we have to recognise that the question of how many of them are truly reliably and sustainably moderate into the future could come to haunt some Members given the glib way in which they have talked about 70,000 forces being available.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that quite a large number of Members who have withdrawn their names from the Speaker’s list, so I will raise the time limit to 10 minutes per Back-Bench contribution and we will see how we get on. I may have to drop the time again, but at the moment, I will leave it at 10 minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to fill the 10 minutes that you have now made available to me, although I have prepared a speech to last for seven minutes. We will see how it goes.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who is no longer in his place, on securing this debate. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In recent years, we have witnessed the ascent of a brutal and destructive form of Islamic fundamentalism across the region. Mosul’s nearly 2,000-year-old Christian population has been purged, the Yazidis have endured what is arguably a genocide, ancient cultural heritage has been destroyed and once stable countries have descended into chaos.
It is without question that the terrorist attacks in Paris were a direct assault on our way of life, just like, in their own way, the attacks on British citizens in Tunisia. Political leaders and the public alike are now coming to the realisation that this is not a problem in some far-flung region of the world that we can simply will away. Sadly, it has taken the tragedy of Paris to open our eyes to the fact that this is a problem that we cannot afford to ignore any longer. If ISIL is allowed to fester, we will see a continuation of the ethnic cleansing, the indoctrination of future generations in ISIL-held territory and thousands more displaced Syrians and Iraqis. I therefore welcome the fact that the Government will, I hope, put the question of British intervention in Syria to the vote in the House this week.
Let us note also that ISIL is but one manifestation of the evil of radical Islam. It would be unwise now to cast similarly reprehensible groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Hamas and others in a different or, indeed, a better light. They have all actively participated in Islamist-driven violence, destroying lives across many communities in the middle east and beyond. It is important to recognise that there are democratic forces in many countries in the region and Britain should take the lead in supporting them wherever possible. The majority of citizens in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere want to live their lives in normality without the daily interruption of car bombs and gun attacks. The Arab spring surely demonstrated a desire for change and for democracy.
In this conflict, we have the advantage of military superiority, but this alone is not enough to win and it is not what is being proposed. When ISIL is eventually defeated, unless we are careful and can also target the cause, which is the ideology, and not only the effect, which can be seen in the actions of ISIL, another group will re-emerge under a different name. Some, such as the Foreign Minister of Sweden, have relayed the misguided notion that the prolonged Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of the current turmoil in the middle east and that once it is resolved the blight of Islamist radicalism will end. That is simply not the case. In fact, part of the reason we are in this current state is that too much focus rather than too little has been placed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of other conflicts in the region.
I was at a dinner last week at which a somewhat left-wing Canadian journalist made a speech with which I happened completely to agree. He said that when he first went to Israel, he pointed out that in his news office there were a huge number of journalists concentrating on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the expense of the whole of the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at best a minor sideshow. The wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere have raged on, yet just last week the UN decided to pass six resolutions against Israel, the only stable democracy in the region.
To suggest that the existence of Israel is at the root of the entire middle east’s turbulence today is to overlook the sectarian divisions in the region that have existed for centuries. It also ignores the large part played by certain countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, that have spent billions to fund the toxic and destructive spread of Wahabist ideology across Muslim communities worldwide. It is imperative that Britain and the whole civilised world does whatever is necessary to combat that ideology and stop its spread.
I understand from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the UK has eight planes in Iraq, of which two are active. If the UK is going to intervene in Syria, is it going to lessen its efforts against ISIS in Iraq or is it not? Or is it not bombing ISIS in Iraq intensely enough? We are only talking about one or two planes that will go in to Syria.
That is a debate we can have on Wednesday, I am not going to answer that question now.
We need to put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop exporting its radical ideology worldwide, despite our geopolitical alliances. I ask the Minister perhaps to write to me in reply to the question of what steps the Government will take to ensure that the Wahabist ideology does not spread further across the middle east.
Before I finish, I want to highlight another important country in the region that has been consumed by a less violent but equally destructive Islamist threat. The AKP Government in Turkey have increasingly eroded democracy by arresting dozens of prominent journalists, turning to authoritarianism and reigniting the conflict with the Kurdish PKK to seal their power. The same Government are a vocal supporter of the terrorist group Hamas, which has masterminded deadly attacks against Israelis from its Istanbul headquarters. In our approach to Turkey, as is too often the case, realpolitik has taken precedence over human values, ignoring the fact that democracy is not only about having an election.
In addition, despite their latent arrests of ISIL suspects, the AKP Government in Turkey have turned a blind eye to ISIL terrorists, instead prioritising fighting Kurdish forces in Syria, the very people making the largest territorial gains from ISIL. The erratic actions of Turkey, especially taking into consideration last week’s developments with Russia, give us increasing cause for concern. I ask the Secretary of State to join me in condemning the Turkish Government’s undermining of the freedom of press in the country and to explain how we can expect ISIL and other jihadists to be dislodged from their territory in Syria when Turkey is bombing the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey is still talking to the European Union about accession, so when the Government take such actions, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, what signals does that send out about potential entry to the EU?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. At best, it sends a very confused signal and, at worst, it sends a signal that we do not care what Turkey does in the middle east. That is a signal that we do not wish to send to Turkey and we should not send it. We should say that we do not agree with what Turkey is doing and that it is supporting a form of Islamic fundamentalism in its actions.
I am not sure that I have fully used my extra allotted minutes, but let me conclude by going back to what I said at the beginning of my speech. The situation in the middle east is very confused, but it is not surprising, in my view, that the western press ignored totally the rise of ISIL, because they were not looking. All their action was focused on what was happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not in the wider middle east.
Does my hon. Friend agree that sadly the same is true of the press’s attention to the conflict in Yemen in recent months and years? Again, they just were not looking.
To a certain extent, the press are still not looking at Yemen. We have heard excellent contributions from Opposition Members about the situation in Yemen and I am very concerned about it. I know that my hon. Friend is, too. We all need to concentrate on that and to ensure that the press do not just focus on the one thing that it is easy for them to get a grip on, which is made easy by the openness of Israel in allowing the press in and allowing access to everything that there is to talk about in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the media? Too often, many of us looking on events in the middle east have done too much wishful thinking. Now is the time to take pragmatic action grounded in a much wider strategy to solve the challenges that we face.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is time to look at the bigger picture, and I am sure that the Foreign Office is doing so. We need to encourage the press and the general population, as well as Members of Parliament, to take into account the fact that there are many conflicts in the region. Some of them are more serious than others. I would put the Yemen conflict in that category. In my book, it is probably the No. 1 conflict. My hon. Friend makes a good point about encouraging people to take a larger view of what is happening in the region. With that, I have almost taken my 10 minutes. It is kind of you to make that available, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am delighted to use up the last minute of my hon. Friend’s time by responding to the two points that he made. He is right to be concerned about the growth of Islamic extremism in Syria. We are focused on working with the 100 or so factions that have proved themselves by saying that they do not want to be part of Assad’s regime. They want to look after their own communities, but they do not want to be part of terrorism.
Turkey is now part of the international coalition. It was struck by ISIL in a terrorist attack in Ankara not long ago, and it is participating in the Vienna talks, which is welcome news.
I thank the Minister for that. We will probably have further discussions about Turkey.
I, too, will not take up my allotted time. Nevertheless, thank you for your generosity, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who began the debate, set an excellent tone, which has continued, and I hope will continue further when we come to deal with the substantive issue of Syria in the coming days. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) gave an excellent analysis, which went to the heart of the issue and was pertinent and incisive.
There are 12 million displaced people, and 250,000 people have died in the nation of Syria—possibly more. That is the context of our debate. We must take the issue deeply seriously, and we must respect everyone’s views. I have had a great deal of contact with people in my constituency and beyond who have expressed their views about the situation in Syria in general and the question of military intervention in particular. I therefore want to set out my position, having written to people in my constituency on the matter. It is the responsibility of every Member of Parliament to have their say and express their view in this important debate.
First, I acknowledge—and no doubt many will—that this matter is remarkably complex. In that regard, any decision made, whether to intervene militarily or not, must be made on the basis of as much relevant and pertinent information and evidence as possible. Moreover, it must stand up to scrutiny in the forum that will ultimately make the decision to authorise the bombing of ISIS—or ISIL, or Daesh; whatever it is called—which is here in the House. No one person or group reaching any decision on this sensitive issue has the right to claim the moral high ground or unassailable certainty. I definitely do not, especially in the context of the suffering inflicted on the innocent in Syria.
Secondly, in his recent statement to Parliament, the Prime Minister very reasonably and articulately set out his “four pillars” strategy in relation to the Syrian crisis: the counter-extremism strategy; the diplomatic and political process; military action to degrade and destroy ISIS; and immediate humanitarian aid and longer-term stabilisation.
Thirdly, I acknowledge that that is a reasonable framework for the debate and for making a decision. However, that must be done on the basis of four pillars with a comprehensive strategy, not by putting into effect just one or two pillars in isolation with the intention of the other pillars being constructed at some unspecified date. In effect, the current position and proposed action do not, in my view, constitute the required comprehensive approach. It is a partial approach, which is a real concern.
Fourthly, in my estimation the key pillar set out by the Prime Minister is the political and diplomatic process. However, it is not so much the aim itself that concerns me—who could disagree with that aim—as its practical implementation and outcomes. What would that entail? What is the timetable for implementation of any agreements arising from the process? What is the likely success of the process, given the multitude of interested and competing—and in certain cases, diametrically opposed—parties in what is widely recognised as a volatile mix? For example, at present there is no clear plan at all as to who will end up governing Syria, nor how we are going to involve neighbouring Arab states and countries.
The hon. Gentleman said that there is no plan on who will govern Syria after any intervention. Surely, with a political settlement, that is in the hands of the Syrian people.
That is a fair point. At the end of the day, that is where we are. We have absolutely no idea: there is no road map whatsoever. Yes, it seems like jam tomorrow—eventually, we will get there—but now we have to set out the path in earnest. I accept the point that the hon. Lady is making, but we have to try to focus on the issue a bit more.
My concern is not about practical implementation. As I said, it is about what that would entail, the timetable, and the success issues.
Fifthly, I fear that other pillars of the strategy, while genuinely laudable—for example, the humanitarian aid and stabilisation plan—are unclear in their aims, extent and, crucially, the mechanisms for their delivery. In addition, it goes without saying that a systematic counter-extremism approach is crucial in any strategy, but that prompts the question of whether or not such a strategy depends on military intervention per se. The two things are not, so to speak, symbiotically linked or mutually dependent.
Sixthly, taking all those factors into account, to activate just one pillar—military action, evidently in the form of bombing—is inappropriate at this point, notwithstanding the interventions being undertaken by other nations.
Perhaps I can clarify for the House the fact that bombing is already under way in Syria. Britain is participating by providing intelligence and reconnaissance for that bombing. We are already in that arena.
As for what is happening on the political front, the Vienna talks have made progress. For the first time, they have brought these groups together, including Iran and Russia, and people have spoken of a transitional period, and of a ceasefire and eventual elections. Those words are part of a lexicon that I have not heard in the past four years. These are incremental, small steps, but they are very, very important steps.
Finally, the opposition groups that I spoke about—the factions—will be brought together. Those are groups that have defended their communities. They do not want to work under Assad, but they do not want to be part of the terrorist organisation of ISIL either.
I welcome the Minister’s clarification, but it does not go far enough. The process is incremental and we need to move further. One, two or three increments are not sufficient; we need more. I do not want to misinterpret the Prime Minister’s arguments for intervention, but they seem to be significantly, if not primarily, based on a flawed notion—that other nations are fighting our battles for us and protecting our national security by bombing ISIS, and that we should fight our own battles, albeit in alliance with others, otherwise it reflects on our national integrity. This argument appeals predominantly to pride rather than to reason, and we know that pride comes before a fall.
Seventhly, let me make it clear that I am in no position to criticise the decisions of others in this matter, nor would I. I can only speak for myself. Making challenges and assertions and asking questions is not criticism. Rather, it is the bread and butter of the parliamentary and democratic process, and that is why I was sent here.
I hope that I have set out my position as clearly and succinctly as possible, given the complexity of the issues facing us all and in the context of the long-term suffering of the people of Syria.
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on calling for it and the Backbench Business Committee on letting it happen.
The title of the debate on the Order Paper is the “UK’s role in the middle east”, which is a wide-ranging subject. My position is simple, which on a complicated subject may give the impression that I am being boring and arrogant. Let me explain. On the UK’s role in the middle east, my answer is that we keep out militarily unless our way of life or the existence of our nation, or that of an ally, is directly threatened. If we had pursued that line, we would not have invaded Iraq or got involved in Libya, for example.
Hindsight is an invaluable ally when judging past actions, but it is history that we should use to guide us in deciding future actions. We react, sometimes violently, when others try to impose their will on us, so why do we keep trying to impose ours on them? If we learn nothing else, we must recognise that many countries in the middle east will always be run by unsavoury regimes. Iraq was a prime example. Under Saddam Hussein Iraq was stable and fairly secular. He pushed his luck in Kuwait and was rightly sent packing. Sensibly, in 1991 we did not pursue Saddam into Iraq, knowing that to do so would destabilise the region. Unfortunately, Mr Bush junior did not quite understand that simple philosophy and was determined to outperform his father. The consequent chaos is there for all to see.
ISIL, or Daesh—call it what you will—is a different matter altogether. How wonderful it would be if a political solution were possible. All options must be explored, but I doubt that jaw-jaw will win through on this occasion. ISIL is a repugnant organisation which now runs significant territory in both Iraq and Syria, imposing its twisted and hateful fundamentalism on innocent people, who have in effect been enslaved. The threat to us here in the UK is very real and, although the terrorist might be home-grown, he or she is likely to have been encouraged and radicalised by the evil spouted by so-called Islamic State, or to have fought there and returned to the UK.
As the saying goes—I love this saying, which I will paraphrase—if good men do nothing, evil thrives. That is so powerful. It is such a powerful moral guide for me personally, and I have no doubt that evil will thrive if we turn a blind eye to this most recent challenge to our security and way of life.
To take our country to war is always the most serious decision that any of us here have to make, but we are already at war. We are bombing ISIL in Iraq. I pay tribute to our brave pilots, crew and all those who service our aircraft for the fantastic and brave job that they are doing, as they always do. The moment those terrorist thugs cross an invisible line in the sand, they are safe from our aircraft. They are safe to kill, maim and torture for another day—unless our allies do the dirty work for us. Can that be right, when we all face a common enemy? Can that be right when citizens of one of our closest allies are butchered in their capital city? Can that be right when those same allies call for our help? Can that be right when an organisation as hateful as ISIL is allowed to operate unimpeded, enslaving, raping and killing perfectly innocent people in their own country for the sake of some twisted form of Islam? I do not think so.
There is no doubt in my view—and I am a former soldier—that bombing alone will not solve the problem, nor will it end fundamentalist Islam, but it will degrade ISIL’s capabilities, kill and dispirit its operatives, and bring hope and relief to those fighting these terrorists on the ground. I am not as well briefed as the Prime Minister, unfortunately, but from what I have read and heard about the 70,000 members of the Free Syrian Army, they are not in a position to prosecute a meticulously planned ground campaign against Assad or ISIL; neither are they as moderate as we are led to believe. All sides in this horrific war behave as badly as one another, but that is not a reason for sitting on our hands.
Left to its own devices, ISIL will flourish and its apocalyptic vision of a new caliphate will only grow in the twisted minds of those who seek it. Following the Prime Minister’s excellent statement last Thursday, I asked him how many further atrocities on the scale of those in New York, London and Paris the west could tolerate before the clamour—indeed, demand—for boots on the ground forced him and other western leaders to put them there. Ultimately, this is the only way that we can deal effectively with this scourge. I am not banging the drums for war. I do not want to see our men and women on the frontline again, but if we follow the logic of the process, that is probably the only solution. I believe that, working with the Russians, a large multinational force could sweep ISIL from Syria and Iraq.
From a military perspective, one destroys an enemy by taking and holding ground; one cannot do it just from the air. Understandably, there is no stomach for a ground war at the moment. We are told that that will be prosecuted by disparate groups already on the ground—an optimistic notion at best. Therefore, the question we need to ask is this: what happens if bombing does not succeed? The only logical answer is to send in ground troops of sufficient size and capability to crush ISIL once and for all. Yes, there is a risk that this fanged head could rear itself elsewhere but, again, that is not a reason to sit on our hands.
Even as I say this, I shudder with anticipation, not at the task in hand, but at whether voters would ever support another venture into that troubled part of the world. They were duped over Iraq, led with all good intentions into Libya, and by revenge into Afghanistan. I wonder whether the will to fight has been knocked out of us, and what it will take to regain it. I pray and hope that it will not take another attack on the scale of that which brought down the twin towers finally to convince us that if we are truly to protect our way of life, we need to put our armed forces and those of our allies in harm’s way one more time.
As I have said, I hope that does not occur, and I hope that all the diplomatic efforts being made will work, but let us face it: we are dealing with an organisation that does not do talk very well—it kills, tortures and crucifies extremely well. I doubt whether talk will solve the problem. I hope that our armed forces are not called, with those of our allies, to be put on the ground. However, if we follow this through logically and do some form of appreciation, as we were taught to do in the armed forces, we must conclude that the only solution, regrettably, is to put a massive armed force on the ground, to take ground and to crush ISIL once and for all.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this timely and important debate and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing it. The middle east is the crucible in which were forged three of the world’s great religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—and it can credibly claim to be the cradle of ancient civilisations and empires, such as those of Babylon or Sasanian Persia, which rose and fell while our own country was still in its infancy. I say that because, as the Minister has already suggested, although it is a region whose past and present have been scarred by war and strife, we should never forget that proud and complex history when we reflect on today’s middle east.
After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, crystallised in the treaty of Sèvres, the UK and other powers played a role in the creation of the modern middle east, but they did so in a way that sought to create nation states on the Westphalian model, which paid too little heed to tribal, religious and historical realities on the ground. Similarly, during the cold war, as geopolitical power play was played out in the region, the overriding desire was for stable nation states, which often took the form of government by nationalist, military strongmen, who governed and maintained their hold on power by seeing all diversity or civil society as dissent and by seeking to crush it. That has all meant the non-development, or at least the very slow development, in many countries of the institutions required for the functioning of a pluralistic and democratic state.
The middle east is a region I know well, having spent time in Yemen, Oman, Syria, Lebanon and Israel and Palestine, and for which I have a great deal of affection, both for the land and for its people. Although I hope to cover the UK’s relationship with Yemen and Oman, I feel that I must touch on Syria, albeit briefly, as so many hon. Members have spoken about it so eloquently and at length, mostly recently my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax).
I fully appreciate and understand the concerns expressed by hon. Members and by our constituents, and I respect what are clearly sincerely held views. The evident care evinced by many of them for the people of Syria resonates with me. My knowledge of and affection for that country and its people makes it all the more saddening to see what has become of it through a brutal civil war and the evil that is ISIL—or Daesh, as it is perhaps more properly termed. The case for using that term has been compellingly made in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).
What is clear to me is that to do nothing in the face of the threat to ordinary Syrians, to the wider region and to our own country posed by Daesh is the wrong approach. We must of course ensure that any action taken is proportionate and focused, as the Prime Minister has intimated it would be. I support extending the bombing of Daesh from Iraq to Syria and will vote in favour of that when the vote comes forward. The Iraq-Syria border in the desert is not respected by these terrorists, who move freely across it, so it makes no practical sense for us to be able to act to degrade their capability on one side of the border but not when they cross over to the other.
Such action should not stand alone. It requires a parallel, comprehensive strategy to tackle Daesh, and the setting out of a broader, long-term vision and plan to stabilise and bring peace to Syria and the wider region. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment on this. Of course, alongside that there must be care and consideration for the humanitarian needs of the country, and moves to choke off Daesh’s resources and funding.
A key part of that wider context is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which has long been a running sore, with its origins in the days of more direct British involvement in the region. While I have huge respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), with whom I agree on many things, I cannot agree with him that this is but a sideshow. For too long, the leaders of both sides have let down their people by not making greater progress in delivering peace, and it is the ordinary people on both sides who have suffered. It is more important than ever that we join with others who desire peace to work to achieve a long-term solution to the conflict, however distant that may appear at times.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the main external actor in the Israel-Palestine situation is the United States, and that Britain can play a very important role in assisting the United States in understanding the regional dispute in Israel-Palestine and, we hope, bringing it to the two-state solution that we all desire?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The United Kingdom, with its historical links and understanding of the region, has the potential to play a positive role in helping to move us towards peace not only between Israel and Palestine but in the wider region more generally.
The basic ingredient of a long-term settlement must include an Israel secure within her borders, recognised fully by her neighbours, freed from all acts of aggression and threats of terrorism, and living peacefully alongside a viable, independent Palestine. Alongside these key elements, sharing Jerusalem must be part of any agreement, as would be compromise from the Palestinians on their claim to a right of return and the recognition by Israel that settlements on Palestinian land are illegal and wrong and must be given up. Too often in this debate, people say that they are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. I believe that in order to be pro-peace, one must be pro-both. While the urgency of finding a solution can at times appear to be lesser, the importance of doing so has never been greater, and we must play our role in restarting stalled peace talks.
Reassuringly, I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), but on this occasion I did when he referred to Yemen’s as the unseen or hidden war: the “forgotten war”, in his words. He is absolutely right. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has spoken similarly eloquently about it.
Does my hon. Friend think that the media have a responsibility to highlight what is going on in Yemen far more than they are doing, and that in so doing they will show the British people more clearly the wider problems in the middle east?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Not only do the media have a responsibility to cover conflicts such as that in Yemen, but all of us in this House must take the opportunity to highlight the issue. I know that in the Minister we have an hon. Member of this House who cares passionately about that country.
I have visited Yemen on a number of occasions, though sadly not recently, and have grown to understand, just a little, this proud and complex country, of which I am also proud to declare myself a friend. The former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, described governing the country as being like
“dancing on the heads of snakes”,
so complex is its recent history and mix of tribal, religious, sectional, economic and political differences. It is currently in the throes of a war bringing untold humanitarian suffering to millions of people, and it faces many daunting challenges. It has a population of about 30 million with incredibly low incomes and a burgeoning young male population with limited economic prospects. It is a dangerous cocktail. This is coupled with genuine security threats from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and across the country a fractured polity and religious and tribal differences. Underpinning that are basic infrastructure challenges such as the dwindling supplies of water. And, of course, for many decades—possibly centuries—Yemen has often been used as the geopolitical playground of other powers playing out their own internal politics.
In the immediate term, we must do what we can to alleviate humanitarian suffering. I pay tribute to the UK Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development for their focus, and, of course, to non-governmental organisations such as UNICEF, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières, which do so much in extremely challenging circumstances.
We must urgently find ways to reopen the shuttered Hodeidah port to deliveries of aid and, crucially, fuel, upon which so much of the country’s economic prospects and life depend, and ensure that the security situation is such that the means are found to distribute it beyond those entry points. Central to that, of course, is a meaningful and real ceasefire. I welcome the peace talks in prospect, which offer the best chance for a lasting settlement between President Hardi and the Houthi rebels. The UK has the potential to play a very important role in facilitating such peace talks, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister in that regard, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his work both as a DFID Minister and, to this day, as an envoy. We have done much, but there is much more to do.
Whatever emerges from those peace talks must emerge from the Yemenis themselves and not be imposed from outside. There is an old Arabian saying that goes, “Me and my brother against my cousin, but me and my cousin against a stranger.” We must be very conscious of the fact that, if it is going to stick, anything potentially successful that emerges must reflect not only the needs of the Yemeni people, but the diversity of opinion and interests across the whole of Yemeni society.
In the long term, we must invest in rebuilding Yemen, including modernising its creaking water infrastructure and, in particular, helping to give economic hope to millions. Yemen’s water infrastructure has been struggling for many years, with 60% of water that goes through its pipes lost to leaks. A large proportion of its water is used to grow khat, rather than other crops, and wells are being dug for industrial purposes, even though the law says they should be used only for domestic water purposes. All those issues need to be addressed. In the rebuilding of the country, I hope the Government will support desalination plants, which would genuinely give Yemen the long-term prospect of a secure water future.
Finally, in the context of regional players—Iran and Saudi Arabia included—everyone in the region needs to play their part in bringing peace. I want briefly to highlight one great success story in the region, in a country that has been a true and close friend of the UK, namely Oman. Our relationship with the Sultanate of Oman goes back decades, even centuries, and is based on mutual trust, respect and understanding. Under His Majesty Sultan Qaboos, Oman has trodden a measured and steady path to modernisation and change, while retaining all that makes Oman and its culture what it is. Regionally, Oman continues to play a vital role in advancing peace and acting as a bridge, particularly in the context of Yemen, between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the broader region. Oman has developed, grown and diversified its economy and brought representative democracy in a measured way, allowing each step forward to settle.
We must always remember that change that sticks must emerge from within and go with the grain of a country, not simply be imposed from outside. The democracy and civil society we enjoy took centuries to establish and we must beware of any quick fixes. I will conclude by highlighting that, with our unparalleled links and understanding in the region, the UK has a great role to play.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Last Thursday I warmly commended the Prime Minister for the way in which he had treated the House in relation to the matter of Syria. He was forthright in coming to this House and giving a lengthy statement and then answering questions for two hours. I also said last Thursday that it would be a big mistake for the Prime Minister to attempt to bounce this House into a decision early and without proper debate.
I understand that the Prime Minister has just announced on television—not to this House—that the debate and vote on Syria are to take place this Wednesday. First, can you confirm, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there could perfectly easily be a business statement at 10 o’clock tonight—that would be perfectly in order—so that that could be made clear for the convenience of the whole House? Secondly, will you confirm that if the Government do not table their motion until tomorrow, which I understand will be the case, the only amendments that can be considered on Wednesday—if the debate is still on Wednesday—are manuscript amendments? In 2013, we could only consider manuscript amendments, but that was because the House had been summoned back from recess. In these circumstances, there is no excuse for us to be proceeding in this way when making such important decisions.
Will you also confirm, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there is no reason why the debate should not be a two-day debate, as we have been requesting for the past two weeks, so that we do not have two-minute, three-minute or four-minute limits to speeches, but can properly consider the very serious issues that many Members on both sides of the House want to raise with the Government?
Finally, I hope you can confirm that if the debate is to end at 10 pm on Wednesday, rather than at the moment of interruption at 7 pm, another motion also needs to be tabled. It would surely be for the convenience of the House if it was tabled today, again so that Members can table amendments to it that do not have to be manuscript amendments.
I just say to the Government that there are many Members on both sides of the House who want to listen to proper debate on a matter that is not straightforward and simple, and any shenanigans or attempts to bounce the House into a decision would be wholly regrettable.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. To run through his questions, he is absolutely right that the motion could be tabled tonight. He is correct that if it is tabled later any amendments would have to be manuscript amendments. It would also take a business of the House motion in order to change the hours of the sitting on Wednesday to take us through to 10 pm. As ever, the shadow Leader of the House is absolutely correct on everything he asked—because he knew the answers before he asked—but I confirm that he is correct. Of course, that is now on the record. Obviously, it is not for the Chair, but for the Government to decide the business of the House. I am sure the usual channels will be in discussions to try to come to an early agreement that will benefit all Members of the House.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this debate on Britain’s role in the middle east.
Many questions have been asked and many concerns raised in this debate. I very much appreciate the concerns about Yemen and the views on Oman expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar). He gave a really interesting insight into what was not covered in much detail earlier in this debate. Tonight, the focus has been on Syria, particularly whether the UK should participate further in the coalition to defeat ISIL. We have to consider the risk of inaction, and whether that outweighs the risks of action. Ultimately, however, any action—any intervention in Syria—must be decided on the basis of the British national interest.
Last year, ISIL declared itself an Islamic caliphate, which acts as a continuing draw to many radical Muslims. ISIL has dissolved the border between Iraq and Syria to create its so-called state. Although that is not a direct threat, the fact that it happened at all is an indication that ISIL has become a permanent presence in the middle east. Determining the national boundaries in the middle east is a clear indication of ISIL’s strength and enduring ability to draw radical Muslims to its cause. That creates a permanent threat to many countries when nationals return home, no matter how well funded the security services are.
In 2014, there was a clear legal basis to join the international coalition of countries in air strikes in Iraq, acting in response to a direct appeal from the sovereign Government of Iraq to help them to deal with the terrorist threat and to join a coalition of countries against ISIL. But Syria is not Iraq. Syria has been engaged in a civil war since 2011, with tens of competing armed groups engaged in conflict, including Islamist groups such as ISIL and al-Nusra. Syria does not have the ground troops of Iraq. The Iraqi security forces, as inadequate as they have often demonstrated themselves to be, are better than nothing. Syria does not have an organisation as strong as the Kurdish peshmerga. When we consider any action in Syria, we must be aware that we do not know the strength of the forces that are available.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. He is right to speak about the Iraqi forces. We have permission to be in that country. It is taking time to build that capability and they must be indigenous forces. Syria is a different case. The liberation of Raqqa will not happen overnight, as I made clear. It will take months, if not longer. We are still waiting for Mosul and Ramadi to be liberated, even though they are in Iraq and we have forces available. I hope he will concur that there is a political direction of travel that needs to be concluded. That will facilitate a number of opportunities for indigenous ground forces to liberate a city that the majority of people want to be liberated.
I agree with the Minister. He makes a strong point. The more united our front is, the more that ground troops will be able to gather behind reasonable leadership. That will bode increasingly well for the future of Syria.
Raqqa is being used as the headquarters of ISIL, which regards it as the capital of its state. That is where many of its military and terror schemes are made or inspired. We must ask ourselves whether the decision on action or inaction in Syria should be influenced by the now meaningless Syria-Iraq border. Although a difficult military decision needs to be made on Syria, we must remember that military strategy is only a fraction of the comprehensive solution.
A long-term solution in the middle east will be achieved only through political and democratic means when the Syrian Government represent all the Syrian people. The Minister spoke about a unifying force in the international community—from Russia to the United States and including all players in between—that can create a space on which just government and democracy can be built. Our diplomatic efforts and humanitarian support must continue. Getting the politics right in both Iraq and Syria is the immediate and overriding priority.
Britain is committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on international development and has already given more than £1.1 billion in aid for those affected by the Syrian conflict—the highest amount of any European country and second only to the United States of America. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has committed to further support following any intervention. We must be clear that this is being done because it is in Britain’s national interest. It is in our national interest to have peace in the middle east and for refugees to have a home to return to with functioning infrastructure, employment and education.
A point was made earlier about the United Kingdom and other countries taking refugees from the region. I believe that the Government’s response is right. It is right to take 20,000 of the most needy and vulnerable from the region. We should not encourage the mass migration of people from the region to Europe, risking their lives as they come up against criminal gangs, the high seas and the terrible weather conditions in the deserts.
It is important to recognise ISIL’s objectives. ISIL wants to purge what it regards as its state of Yazidis, Christians and what it regards as the wrong sort of Muslims. It wants those people out of the way. It will be far easier for ISIL to establish its state if there is no internal opposition. Once it has a more stable state, it will seek to expand from that position and to exploit regional problems and attack Saudi Arabia and further into Iraq. What if ISIL starts focusing more on Lebanon or Turkey? Israel has been mentioned a few times, but it has not yet become involved in this conflict. If ISIL becomes established in the middle east, at what point will it turn its eyes towards Israel? That is inevitable if we allow ISIL to continue.
Our thoughts remain with Paris and all those who are suffering after what happened at the hands of terrorists during that awful, recent attack. Some of the suicidal attackers in Paris had travelled to the region, and all had been inspired by ISIL. ISIL continues to use social media for its propaganda—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) raised concerns about the wider media implications of that, because we need the media to be responsible when reporting what is going on regarding ISIL’s activities.
We also need more coverage and a better understanding of what is going on in the wider middle east, by considering what is happening in Yemen. The media have a huge part to play in ensuring that tensions are not increased within Britain, and in fostering that better understanding with the British population. If people understand Britain as a nation, and all the circumstances in the region, perhaps fewer people will be inclined to join ISIL.
I pay tribute to our police and security services who have disrupted many terrorist plots to attack the United Kingdom. Like many, I was pleased that the Chancellor’s autumn statement restated this Government’s commitment to protect our national security at a time of increasing global instability, and to spend a minimum of 2% of GDP on defence. The protection and defence of their people—both abroad and domestically—is the first priority of any Government.
That reminds us not only of the role played by our security services in protecting us, but also of the direct threat that ISIL poses to our lives in the UK and Europe, as well as in the middle east. The decision about whether or not to use military force is one of the most significant that Parliament will make this Session, and I hope that questions and concerns that are raised in this House will be taken into account before any decision is made.
It is a huge pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) after such a powerful speech. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on initiating this debate, and I join him in thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. It was a huge honour to be asked to support my hon. Friend in his efforts, and I was pleased to do so.
For perfectly understandable reasons, the majority of contributions across the House have focused on the current situation in Syria, and on whether this country should extend to Syria those operations that are currently being conducted over the skies of Iraq. However, the motion before the House is more general and focuses on the middle east as a whole. There was a time when general debates on the middle east were more frequent and occurred in Government time—indeed, I made my maiden speech in such a debate. Issues that concern all countries across the middle east should be ventilated frequently, given the threats that this country faces. I therefore voice a plea—I know the Minister will hear and support it, but it should go to others who command the business in this House—for us to return frequently to these issues in debates of this sort, if necessary in Government time. It should not be necessary for me, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell and others to go to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this time.
The reason for that is today, more than ever, the problems that the middle east faces and creates for us in this House are of such incredible complexity that a coherent strategy on the part of the United Kingdom too often appears beyond the wit of man to devise. A solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is no nearer than it was when I entered the House. Indeed, it seems to me clear that the two-state solution is effectively dead. The Arab spring has failed to deliver the security on the promise we all believed it showed, both to the people of the region and for peace more generally. The emergence of power vacuums across the middle east has led to the rise of extremism and terrorism that affects us all. The situation in the entire region is beyond a mess and no immediate or clear solution to remedy it is apparent.
It is almost impossible to know where to begin. We believe that we all know a great deal more about Syria than we did before the terrible events in Paris, but in truth the situation is fluid and unclear. No one is really clear as to how the horror of ISIL/Daesh is to be addressed. In neighbouring Iraq, the rise of this appalling threat has been fuelled by the post-Saddam Governments awash with corruption, who have pushed out moderate Sunni Muslims and given a voice to the extremists, particularly in areas that the Government cannot and do not control. Jordan is under huge pressure from the refugees created by the instability in the region, but even the Hashemite dynasty’s claim to descend from the Prophet has not isolated King Abdullah from criticism in declaring war on Islamic extremism in a country where nine in 10 of the population are Sunni.
In Iran, President Rouhani, having reached an agreement with the west with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme, has suffered a backlash that the Revolutionary Guard, which controls much of the economy, has sought to take full advantage. His country may well wish to sustain a moderate political leadership, but the Guardian Council may well block his allies from the forthcoming elections to the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts.
My hon. and learned Friend is making a powerful speech. I thank him again for securing the debate and heed his words on having more opportunities to speak about the middle east and north Africa. He touches on the Iranian elections in February. Does he agree that that will be the first indication, after the signing of the nuclear deal, of Iran’s direction of travel and whether it will engage with the region and take more responsibility, particularly with its proxy influence on neighbouring countries?
I agree with the Minister on that. The difficulty will be which candidates are permitted by the Guardian Council to stand and which are not. We will see the results in due course.
Turning to Saudi Arabia, the succession of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to the throne has been accompanied by a welcome questioning in some areas, given the rise of ISIL/Daesh, of the ultra-conservative Wahabi ideology. However, an increased recognition of the benefits of avoiding too literal an adherence to a fiery Salafist doctrine cannot detract from a proxy war being fought between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran in Yemen, where a humanitarian crisis of such enormity is now apparent that Yemenis are fleeing to Somalia, of all places, in an attempt to reach safety. This is an issue to which my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) both drew attention.
The other Gulf states are not immune. ISIL/Daesh bombed the Imam al-Sadeq mosque in Kuwait in June, killing 27 Shi’a worshippers, something which failed to attract the attention of the world’s press. The aftermath, a series of new laws and a string of arrests, has failed to calm tensions and rendered one of the region’s most tolerant states one in which the social fabric shows evidence of fraying. In Oman, where Sultan Qaboos has held the reins for 45 years, there is, so far as we are aware, no heir. Quite what is to happen next to this most stable of allies when the reins of power are assumed by others, no one knows.
And so too, the Maghreb. Peace and stability has not emerged in Libya following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi; quite the contrary in fact, with conditions now emerging in which we know ISIL/Daesh flourishes. That, in turn, threatens Tunisia, possibly the only thing close to a success story following the Arab spring, but where a nascent democracy is fighting Islamist militants on the Algerian border, as well as those attacking its territory from Libya. Algeria remains a police state, but with more than 95% of its budget delivered by oil revenues, how long Abdelaziz Bouteflika can keep the lid on the local ISIL/Daesh franchise remains to be seen, particularly in the south, which remains a combustible mixture of violent Islamists and gangs of smugglers. Even in Morocco, the conditions are ripe for the enemies of peace: a lack of opportunity for the young, sluggish economic growth, persistent inequality between the cities and the countryside, and a muzzled press, something we find too frequently across the middle east.
As ever, my hon. and learned Friend is as erudite as he is eloquent. Does he agree that, although lower oil prices are very welcome to many of us in this country, they pose a risk to the stability of countries such as Algeria, given their reliance on a particular oil price in their budgets?
I do agree, and in fact it affects stability not just in the middle east but across other oil-producing regions of the world. We now have two Foreign Ministers on the Front Bench, although not the Minister with responsibility for South America, but he will know of the risk in Venezuela.
I have only touched the tip of the iceberg—I could go on and on, and would be quite willing to do so were the time limit a little longer—but the point is that the world is sitting on a powder keg, much of which borders Europe, and all the fuses across the region seem to have been lit. If ever there was a time for a coherent strategy and foreign policy designed to defuse tensions—from this country, the United States and all our other allies—frankly this is it.
Where though, I tentatively asked the Minister, is that foreign policy? Where is the 30-year strategy that both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell think is necessary? The crisis of confidence caused by an ill-advised and unjustifiable adventure in Iraq in the last decade has led to what the London School of Economics diplomacy commission—possibly the most distinguished body of former diplomats in existence—has termed a crisis of confidence on the part of the United Kingdom. Nowhere is that more apparent than in relation to the middle east, where we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) made clear, an historic role. Of course, there remains a great deal of respect and affection for this country, our values and our ability to help ensure stability in the region.
Three themes need to underpin British foreign policy. First, we and our allies need to speak with one voice. The United States is in a presidential election year, but the initial isolationism that characterised the early years of the Obama White House, even if not the State Department, has caused lasting damage to the security of the entire region. Today, we heard from the middle east Minister, but his colleagues in the Foreign Office have a broader remit, and the responsibility of the Government, bilaterally and within the United Nations, must be to ensure that we act in concert with our allies and that our message on all issues is clear. Without that clarity from the west—on Israel/Palestine, the rise of ISIL/Daesh and the issue of pervasive sectarianism—we risk creating divides that can be exploited by extremists.
Secondly, we need to make it clear to every regime in the middle east that minorities are to be respected and properly included as part of a political settlement. Excluding minorities from the political process serves only to create a breeding ground for extremist ideology of whatever nature, from the rise of ISIL/Daesh to the type of Shi’a militancy represented by Hezbollah or the various militias operating in the south of Iraq.
Thirdly, we need to be real and recognise realistic approaches and solutions, rather than merely mouthing platitudes about a perfection that cannot be achieved. In the immediate term, we might well have to recognise, if not embrace, the fact that the Vienna peace talks might recognise some of the more moderate Islamist parties as part of the immediate solution in Syria. We might not desire it, we might not like it, but we might have to live with it. The priority, at present, is dealing with ISIL/Daesh, and that cannot come without some compromise on what happens after its eventual defeat.
In the longer term, we might need to abjure our own misconceived notion that we can plant western-style democracies in a region with no history of secular democracy in the way we recognise it. What we want does not matter. The new imperialism of the past two decades has in part fuelled the situation we now face. It is time to recognise that and the fact that we do not know best what the peoples of the middle east want. That is a question for them, not for us.
No one would have foretold the chaos and threat posed by the situation in the middle east even two or three years ago, but that chaos is real, as is the threat it poses to us in this country. Strength in our beliefs and values is part of the answer, but the policy of this country and our allies must recognise that we are currently failing our own citizens as well as the peoples of the region. It is time for a change—a change that makes it clear that we are invested in a realistic future for the middle east. It is that message, which I know he recognises, that the Minister has to take away tonight and which needs to go out loud and clear from this House.
I, too, commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing this important debate, and I was pleased to hear what the Minister said, particularly concerning funding for diplomatic contacts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) spoke about the UK’s role in the middle east over many centuries. I wish to focus particularly on the role that is nearly 100 years old—a role that started with a declaration from the UK Government that said:
“Her Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The same declaration also said that it was
“clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
My point is that our role then decreased in 1948, and many people in that area—Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians —would say that the UK Government walked away and
“left the key under the mat”.
Today, we have been involved in action in Libya and Iraq and we may have more action coming up in Syria. My plea is that our role and responsibility must be future-proofed—it must be long term. What this means is that our role involves what some people talk of as jaw-jaw and not war-war—and I say that it is jaw-jaw that is continuous. I believe that the UK’s role has been lacking in the Palestine-Israel area, and that the UK must continue to negotiate and have diplomacy. We must still be talking about the borders of Palestine-Israel. We must still be talking about the settlements. We must still be talking about security for Palestine and Israel.
We must talk about refugees’ rights to return, which I have raised with the Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees. I particularly asked what was happening for the Palestinian refugees who are in the Syrian camps. Can they go home; will there be homes built for them in Palestine? We must, of course, also still talk about Jerusalem. The UK’s role and responsibility in the middle east must be long term and ongoing. Contrary to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), this is not a sideshow. There can be no long-term peace and stability in the region until there is peace and stability for Palestine and Israel.
I begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing this important debate, and by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it to take place.
We meet a time when Britain’s role in the middle east is on the front pages for the reason of war, but the same could be said of almost any day in the last 100 years. If we want to have an effective role in the middle east, which I believe we can have, we need to learn from the past, consider the present and look to the future.
The majority of right hon. and hon. Members have understandably touched on Syria and our role in the coming days and months, but I would like to consider a broader theme. I want to speak directly to those in this place and outside it who say that we should insulate ourselves, turn away and “leave them to it.” To them, I would say quite simply that the links between Britain—or, as it then was, England and Scotland—did not begin with the invasion of Iraq, with Sykes-Picot or the crusades. The Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of our nation were born between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and the fact that Indo-European languages are spoken as far east as Afghanistan shows our common and shared history. That is something we cannot ignore.
The debate is often framed in terms of trade, and how we can benefit from it, and war, but the links are deeper and more complex, to do with culture, religion and family. I am not the only Member of this place, or indeed of the other House, to have family links with the region.
Britain has centuries of diplomatic and scholarly understanding of the middle east. It needs to use that understanding to support stability, with the aim of eventually building a region in which democracy will thrive, and to help our most important ally, the United States, to understand the whole area. I would caution, however, that this will not be the work of one Parliament or of two. It will be the work of centuries.
The immediate threat, which is on all our minds this week, comes from the sadistic cult known as ISIL/Daesh. The origins of ISIL, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab are complex, but I believe that one reason for the fact that they have survived and thrived is the existence of dysfunctional economies in most of the middle east. Where there is corruption, where there are monopolies and raging youth unemployment, there is an ideal recruiting ground for jihadi fighters. I want to elaborate on that a little, particularly in relation to Iran, which is the country in the region that I know best.
After the war, the Ba’athist, socialist command economies of Syria and Iraq, much of the Levant, and north Africa were unable to compete with the far east, which had much nimbler markets, and growth and per capita income declined in relative terms. The petroleum-rich nations of the region are only now reaching the conclusion that they must diversify their economies in order to become more resilient, and to build a wider base for employment.
People often forget that the 1979 revolution in Iran was as much socialist as it was Islamic. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) referred to central control by the conservative leadership, and, indeed, many of the cronies of the conservative leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps now hold much of the country’s economic power. In 1979, there were 105 rials to the dollar. Now there are 30,000. In 1976, Iran’s growth rate was 16.9%, but, according to the International Monetary Fund, it is likely to fall to 0.6%. I am not suggesting that the picture was uniformly rosy under the Shah, because by the end he had definitely become too dependent on oil revenues, but at least there was a thriving private sector.
During the revolution, 80% of all industry was nationalised, including the spinning mill that my father built from scratch and ran between 1971 and 1980. During that period, 380 men worked at the mill, and every day they produced 14.5 tonnes of top-quality yarn. It was sequestered by the Islamic regime in 1980, after which it employed twice as many people and produced half as much yarn, which was of such low quality that it could not be sold on the domestic market, let alone exported. The mill closed in 1992, and every single job was lost.
As we know, unemployment in Iran and, indeed, all over the region is sky-high, particularly among young people. Ahmadinejad propped up the companies of his cronies with $26 billion of cheap debts, which will never be paid off because they were given to flabby, uncompetitive firms. It was the youth of Iran who took to the streets in 1999 and 2009. Rouhani was elected on a mandate of providing sound finances, but the IMF estimates that it will take $10 billion of investment to achieve the 10% growth that is needed to lower the country’s chronic unemployment.
I think that we may be betting a little bit too much on the success of the nuclear deal, and on its inevitably improving the economy. The picture is not so simple. Countries throughout the middle east need fundamental internal economic reform.
We often hear about modernisation in Iran. Does my hon. Friend believe that it is making good progress in that regard, or does she think that that is more of a front, and that the Supreme Leader is not quite the moderniser that people would hope?
I do not think anyone would say that the Supreme Leader was a moderniser. The President is, but the problem is that, under the constitution of Iran, there are different pools of influence and they are pulling at each other all the time.
The role for Britain is to nurture these nations and to encourage them to build competitive economies in which pluralism can thrive and in which Islamism will naturally fade away. We need to look at our own history, in which the free market and, eventually, freedom and democracy prospered. The primary building block in this edifice is property rights. Nations prosper when private property rights are well defined and enforced. Britain has an important role to play through its international aid budget, and I am glad to see the renewed focus on supporting fragile states to build strong property institutions.
Touching briefly on our interaction with the US—I have made this point in interventions—we need to use our knowledge to influence the date and to push it forward. Our role is to support our ally and to foster in the middle east the evolution that has led to freedom and democracy in the UK. It is a job of work that will continue into the lives of our children and grandchildren, but it is a job of work that is worth doing.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I suggest that hon. Members now speak for six minutes, as I want to bring the shadow Minister in at quarter to 10.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). She made a good speech on Iran and the circumstances from which she originally came. She knows the subject extremely well. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for securing this debate. I well remember when he presented his proposal for it to the Backbench Business Committee. His key point was that we should be looking for a strategy for the middle east, and that we should debate the role of the British Government internationally rather than concentrating only on one area in the region. I believe that many Members share my concern that for far too long we have made interventions in individual countries rather than looking at a broad range of strategic views across the region and deciding what the British role should be.
We are on the cusp of a decision on whether we should intervene in Syria. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for setting out a clear strategy and explaining what we want to achieve from an intervention against ISIL. However, the question remains: what would happen after ISIL was defeated? Where would the replacement Government come from? Where is the alternative view? For far too long, we have looked at countries right across the middle east simply as lines on a map that were drawn after the great war and the second world war, instead of seeing them as groups of tribes and villages that have come together in some form of amalgam or through being dominated by a dictator and his or her forces who required the people to follow a particular line.
Let us look at what we did during the 1980s. At that time, Britain had a settled policy. We balanced Iraq and Iran in the region. We should remember that more people died in the war between those two countries than in the entire great war. Under that policy, we armed Iraq in order to combat Iran. Then, however, we intervened in Iraq, took away its Government and unbalanced the region. We are now experiencing the consequences of that intervention, in Iraq, in Iran and across the wider middle east.
Then we had the Arab spring, which had a great swath of democracy at its heart. Everyone dreamed that it would be the beginning of a great movement for change. Sadly, wherever we got democracy, we have now seen dictatorship, war, civil war and further interventions right across the region, and we need to look at that. We have seen the refugee crisis that has erupted as a result of the civil war in Syria, but that is as nothing to the refugee crisis that will be generated unless we address climate change. The region will become uninhabitable, water will be non-existent and food will be impossible to obtain, and we will then bear enormous consequences as a result. It is therefore appropriate to examine that as a particular issue.
Other Members have alluded to the ongoing problems between Israel and Palestine, the area that has failed to be addressed. I speak as someone who has been on visits to Israel and the west bank with both the Conservative Friends of Israel and the Palestinian Return Centre to see both sides of the argument. One depressing thing about the Palestinian representation is how badly they have been let down by their leadership and by their legal advisers, and how they have failed to see any progress towards achieving what they all want to achieve, which is an outright country—a state that is independent and secure.
Israel has to take steps to maintain security. In 2014, Israel, whose territory was subjected to more than 5,000 rockets and bombs sent from Gaza, had to take action against Hamas and the Hamas dictatorship that is misleading Gaza. The reality is that even now Hamas is diverting the international aid that Britain and other countries are putting in to rebuild the terror tunnels it began. Hamas is also utilising the money to fuel hate-filled lessons in ideology in that region, and is preventing the international aid from coming in. It has even prevented the setting up of a water desalination plant that would enable all the people of Gaza to enjoy clean drinking water at first hand. That is extremely regrettable.
I agree that the rebuilding in Gaza is crucial. Will my hon. Friend join me in asking the Minister whether there is a way we can monitor it, through our staff or UN staff on the ground?
It is key that we monitor what is done. Clearly, Hamas is still using its power to divert aid and prevent ordinary Palestinians from receiving the aid that they so desperately need. It is a scandal that, more than a year after the conflict, people who were made homeless as a result of that conflict are still homeless in Gaza. Hamas and its distorted ideology prevent progress from happening.
We see a series of other potential conflicts to come. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has reinforced its forces as a result of being a proxy for Iran, and many hundreds of thousands of rockets are now aimed at Israel, in order to destabilise the region. In Syria, Assad’s regime directly assists Hamas and Hezbollah in rearming. We cannot deal with these countries in isolation.
I end as I began by saying that what we need in our country is a clear strategy for our policy in the middle east. I congratulate our Government on bringing forward additional resources to target that strategy, on creating a Foreign and Commonwealth Office with more Ministers in it than was the case under the last Government and on putting in place a proper strategy.
It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who, as always, gave a passionate and knowledgeable speech. I also warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this debate, with the support of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), with both giving insightful speeches at a particularly important time. This was always going to be a timely debate, but it is even more so now, given the events of not only recent weeks, but today. Recent events in, and relating to, Syria can only be described as shocking. The civil war and the emergence of so-called Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq have produced sickening scenes that simply beggar belief. The sheer scale of the movement in mass migration that we have seen in recent months has been staggering.
Like many, I have been impressed by the words of Antoine Leiris after the tragic events in Paris. In response to the loss of his wife, Hélène, he courageously said of ISIS:
“I will not give you the gift of hating you.”
Like many in this House, I agree with that view. Clearly, that is the right moral response. Today, and over the days ahead, our focus must be on the pragmatic action that needs to be taken to address the two greatest challenges in the middle east: ISIL and the Assad regime.
The attacks in Paris underlined the fact that action must be taken. I am talking about not a knee-jerk response, but a considered, comprehensive approach. The Prime Minister made further important steps in setting out that case last Thursday.
The Syrian civil war and ISIL’s atrocities as it seeks to expand its hoped for caliphate are clearly root causes in driving hundreds of thousands of civilians away from their country and displacing millions from their homes. They are linked and we need to address both, but there is now no doubt that the clear and present danger for us in the UK is from ISIL, which is why tackling ISIL must be at the heart of our comprehensive strategy.
The Syrian civil war has created a power vacuum in the east. The lessons from Iraq, Eritrea and Yemen are that such vacuums need to be filled positively to create a safe environment for citizens and stability in a vital region in the global community.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that over the past decade or more, wishful thinking has been too prevalent in foreign policy, not just our own but that of the west. The Arab spring seemed to point to great promise. Despite advances in Tunisia, our hopes have fallen far short of reality. Our world view hoped for more than the weight of history was ever likely to deliver. Now we have to contend with ISIL and its deep hatred of everything we are and everything that we stand for.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, we hoped that western boots on the ground would win the war and we wished that the inconvenience of winning the peace would go away. Not enough was done to engage Arab states in the battle, and, sadly, the post-conflict reconstruction plans did not stand up to scrutiny. Wishful thinking and idealistic hoping are not enough. We need a pragmatic approach, one that is grounded in the geopolitical realities and the terrorist threats that we face today. We will need to draw on traditional diplomatic skills, that put the UK’s national interest as our central objective. The Minister, who has made many strong contributions, has set out the comprehensive approach that we are taking and, with the Prime Minister, has taken a lead on this matter, and I am grateful to him for that.
Our response must be well grounded. Paris reminds us that ISIL’s response not only is grounded in its hoped for caliphate but extends far too close to home. If ever there was a time to act, it is now, and we should not forget that indecision and inaction both have consequences as well. This is not like the summer of 2013 and this is not about entering the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the Prime Minister has ruled out that course of action. Instead our approach needs to be about containing and defeating the menace that ISIL represents because it is in our national interests to do so, and that requires a fully worked-up strategy.
Time does not permit me to talk at length about that strategy, but it is clear that we have certain key elements in place to improve not only our intelligence services and counter-terrorism capabilities but our approach to humanitarian aid as well. That is well documented, because we have given more than £1.1 billion to provide aid to millions of Syrian refugees. We are also taking forward important work to achieve a political settlement. Discussions in Vienna, as the Minister has said, have brought the relevant parties around the table. This is an unprecedented moment in time and, despite the gaps in our interests with Russia, it is the moment when we need to build on that momentum and secure a political resolution in Syria that the many residents in Macclesfield and across the country want to see. Of course, we have also put forward another £1 billion to help with post-conflict reconstruction, and that is another important part of that plan.
It is because those elements of the comprehensive approach are being taken forward in parallel that I feel that I can give my support to the Prime Minister’s military plans. Given the circumstances we face, for the other elements of the strategy to gain traction we need to defeat ISIL. To do that, I have, with a heavy heart, come to the conclusion, along with many in this House, that we must add our weight to the coalition’s air strikes in Syria. It is for that reason that I support the Prime Minister’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report and will support the Government in the vote on Wednesday.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on securing this important and timely debate.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the change in America’s foreign policy was rapid. The first page of the Bush Administration’s 2002 national security strategy said:
“America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.”
Weak and failing states have arguably become the single biggest global threat to international order, and a disproportionate number are located in and around the middle east. In the wake of the horrific attacks on Paris—Friday 13 November will be a date that lives in infamy for the French people—and the destruction of the Russian passenger airliner in Egypt, Islamic State now universally threatens former cold war enemies, Russia and NATO countries alike.
It might sound surprising now, but before the Arab spring uprising in 2011, neither Syria nor Yemen were areas of concern on the Fund for Peace’s fragile state index. That illustrates both how rapidly states can deteriorate and the extent to which brutal insurgency can embed itself in the power vacuum that remains when states such as Syria fail, as we have seen with the rise of ISIL. Terror groups such as ISIL and al-Qaeda thrive in areas where weak or failed states lack either the will or the ability to confront and defeat them.
The Government have rightly chosen to focus more work on helping fragile and failing states, tackling instability and helping people affected by conflict. That is not just the right thing to do for those people in their countries, but is a way of keeping our country safe, secure and prosperous. That is why our commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid is so vital. It is directly in the international community’s interest and in our own interest to prevent these states from failing and to prevent the breeding grounds for such terror groups from forming in the first instance. If achievable, prevention is better, easier and cheaper than cure.
Equally, it would be entirely wrong and short-sighted to assume that established states in the middle east and conventional warfare are now in some way irrelevant and must be dismissed in the face of combating ISIL. About a fifth of the world’s petroleum supply passes through the strait of Hormuz, a 34-mile wide naval choke point between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Few locations in the world rivalled the strait’s strategic importance for international trade and prosperity or its tactical vulnerability. As recently as 2011, Iran threatened to close the strait, embarking on military exercises in international waters in the region. It was only through the timely joint intervention of the Royal Navy, the US navy and the French navy, as well as the sheer amount of naval hardware in the area, that the situation was prevented from escalating further, preventing a global oil crisis.
This year, and in clear violation of a United Nations Security Council ban on ballistic missile tests, Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile. Such missiles are inherently capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Iran and the P5+1 have been participating in intensive talks about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme for the past few years to reach a negotiated and permanent nuclear agreement. The joint comprehensive plan of action, signed in Vienna on 14 July, was built on a foundation of verification. For that foundation of verification to be successful, access for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors monitoring nuclear and military sites in Iran must be automatic. Iran cannot be allowed to stonewall requests for access to suspect sites.
The world we face today is inherently more dangerous and uncertain than even five years ago. To combat the growing level and number of threats, as a country we must utilise and leverage our extensive network of soft power to prevent fragile states from failing. The UK is second only to the United States in the amount of money provided to international development and we should at every opportunity encourage our international allies to meet their commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international development. I have no doubt that that will make the world a safer place.
Ultimately, the potency of soft power is contingent on the existence, ability and will to deploy hard power when necessary. Had we not intervened in Iraq or taken action against ISIL’s advance at the request of the democratically elected Government of Iraq, it is possible that the Iraqi Government would have failed in their efforts to push back ISIL, and the situation in the region would now be significantly worse, with more people subject to ISIL’s brutality.
Let us not forget that ISIL burns prisoners of war alive, pushes gay people off buildings, and makes sexual slaves of 12-year-old girls. It beheads aid workers, and publicly tortures religious prisoners and journalists. It is ideologically committed to religious and ethnic genocide, and glories in death, violence and barbarity. If we who can do not stand up to them for those who cannot, what do we stand for?
I want to concentrate on the possible effectiveness of air strikes against Daesh in Syria.
Let me begin by looking at Daesh as a military force. The current Daesh order of battle was set up by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who established the so-called worldwide caliphate on 29 June 2014. I understand from my friends that Daesh terrorists are extremely well trained. My contacts say that training courses are sophisticated and last at least three months. Weapons training ranges from pistols to anti-aircraft weapons, and some people can drive tanks and fire them. Daesh has further strengthened its military capability by capturing large quantities and varieties of weapons in places such as Mosul. It has improved its capacity to carry out subsequent operations and obtain even more equipment. Its weaponry includes T-54 tanks—I know how potent they are because I was struck by one in my own armoured vehicle—T-72s and M1 Abrams. It includes armoured cars and Humvees, surface-to-air missiles, BM-21s, which used to be called Stalin’s organ, howitzers and guns, as well as anti-tank missiles such as Stinger.
Daesh is no pushover, which explains why some of the ground forces ranged against it have not made better progress. We are about to consider extending Royal Air Force combat operations to include Syria as well as Iraq. To me, that makes military sense. From Daesh’s point of view, there is no Sykes-Picot line between Iraq and Syria.
Military orthodoxy states that wars cannot be won from the air, and that the enemy must be beaten on the ground. I agree, but let me ponder that for a moment. We won the air campaign in the battle of Britain in 1940, and saved our country from invasion by Nazi Germany. We should remember that Churchill then made a pact with Stalin against Hitler. Today, should we not consider opening a dialogue with President Assad’s regime to defeat the huge threat of Daesh, which is enemy to Syria, the United Kingdom and, indeed, the whole world?
In 1999, in the Kosovo campaign, air power was crucial, but we needed ground troops too. Air power won it. In 2011, colleagues will remember that it was from the air that the inhabitants of Benghazi in Libya were saved from having their throats cut, as promised by Colonel Gaddafi. Obviously, it went wrong from there. In 2014, Daesh forces were prevented from advancing and taking Baghdad in Iraq, mainly by US air power. Troops were needed then. And today Daesh is severely constrained within its territory because any force that it concentrates could easily be identified and destroyed by our air power. Remember, the Royal Air Force now contributes 30% of the intelligence above Syria.
Military campaigns are fought in phases. I accept that the first military phase in beating Daesh may well be to destroy or severely restrict its activities from the air, then soldiers with rifles need to exploit that advantage. I hope that such forces come from middle east countries, but I would not bet on it. Finally, I believe that to destroy Daesh in Syria and in Iraq, we need to work with the Governments of Syria and Iraq. We may also, at some stage, need to use our own armed forces too, because they may be needed to protect our country by operating in the middle east yet again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) and other Members who secured this timely debate. We know that we will be facing decisions on extending airstrikes into Syria in the coming days. At the start of our debate, the hon. Gentleman set out eloquently the complexities of the region and the many factors and issues that need to be considered when discussing the middle east. He also made a compelling case for the Government to draw up a comprehensive strategy on the middle east.
We have had a good debate and a long one, with 29 contributions and many more interventions, all of them making important points. I shall try to do justice to a few of those points in the short time available to me. Before I do so, I want to mention an hon. Member who is not here tonight—my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), an esteemed former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who was unfortunately taken ill in the past few days and is in hospital. I am sure all of us want to send our best wishes to him. I know he would very much like to have been here, taking part in the debate.
Understandably, the focus of the debate today has been mainly on Syria and the prospect of military action. I shall return to the subject of Syria, but first I want to mention the other important issues raised in the debate, which, as we recall, is on the “UK’s role in the Middle East”. It is unusual to have a debate on the middle east where Israel and Palestine are not the main focus, but we have had important contributions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) who all talked about how important Israel and Palestine are to the region.
We all know that there are no peace talks at present and there seems to be little prospect of a return to negotiations in the short term. I agree with the view expressed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who speaks for the SNP: the Government need to do all they can to urge a return to the negotiating table. It falls on all politicians in all parts of the House to reach out to the leaders in both Israel and Palestine and ask them not to take steps that will make a return to negotiations harder to achieve. This means an end to blockade and occupation, and an end to rocket and terror attacks.
Yemen was mentioned in the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen. He reminded the House that Syria is not the only ongoing civil war in the region, nor is it the only conflict with an enormous humanitarian cost. The situation in Yemen is desperate, the death toll is rising and hundreds of thousands of people rely on humanitarian aid, which, as we heard, is becoming increasingly hard to get to those in need. I reiterate the Opposition’s call for an immediate return to the negotiations and for the UK Government to do all they can to encourage both sides to participate in the peace talks in Oman in good faith. It is also important that we have a full and impartial investigation into allegations that coalition forces broke international law during their operations in Yemen. The Secretary of State originally supported that proposal, but the Government appear to have U-turned, and I am still seeking an explanation for why.
We also heard contributions on Saudi Arabia from the hon. Members for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). They all pointed out that Saudi Arabia is a key player in the region and highlighted the important role it is playing in Yemen and Syria. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has repeatedly and rightly raised the issue of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. It is of great concern to us all that there have already been 153 executions this year. We also need to work with the Saudis to ensure that we stop the flow of funding and support to ISIL/Daesh. Closing down the funding stream can be as important as military action, and we need the co-operation of the Saudis in that.
Iran was mentioned as another crucial regional player, particularly in the speeches of the hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy). As a key backer of Assad, Iran will be crucial in enabling a political solution to the civil war in Syria, which is a prerequisite for any defeat of ISIL/Daesh. It was notable last week that the Prime Minister highlighted improved relations with Iran as a key reason for optimism on the prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough at the Vienna talks. Of course, that follows the vital nuclear deal agreed last year. Last week the House discussed the deal and the plans to lift sanctions. I would like to reiterate the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the shadow Europe Minister, in welcoming that agreement and congratulating all those who have strived to make it possible, including Baroness Ashton and Jack Straw, the former Member of this House.
We also heard an important contribution from the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) about the persecution of Christians and other minorities in the region.
In the few minutes I have left I will turn to Syria. We heard many excellent contributions on the topic, and they all showed how Members of this House are reflecting on the very difficult and complex situation in Syria. We started with the great expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who speaks with great knowledge as a member of the Defence Committee and as chair of the all-party group on the Royal Air Force. I do not have time to acknowledge all the important points that have been made, but it is clear that many Members on both sides of the House are still actively considering the Government’s case for extending bombing. It is also clear that Members are doing this in good faith and that we have the right to expect more information from the Government before being asked to vote on action.
I know that the Minister was limited in time when he spoke earlier, but he did respond to several of the points that were made. Unfortunately, he spoke half-way through the debate and other issues arose in the second half, and I know that he had to make many interventions to deal with those points. The Prime Minister waited several months to bring his case for extending action against ISIL/Daesh to the House, and I welcome the statement that he made last week, and the excellent Foreign Affairs Committee report that he responded to. However, I do not think that this is the end of the debate. There are several areas where the Government need to provide more detail, and a number of those points were raised again tonight.
For example, let us take the issue of ground troops, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and the hon. Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and for Bolton West (Chris Green). Last week the Prime Minister gave a figure of 70,000 moderate opposition fighters, but he did not elaborate in detail on which groups those fighters represented, where they were located and what contact, if any, had been made with them. A Syria expert at the Brookings Institute, Charles Lister, supported the Government’s estimate of 70,000 fighters but disputed how moderate some of those groups really are. He also argued that to reach 70,000 fighters we would need to combine at least 10 groups that currently have different agendas and are dispersed across the country. Many are currently focusing their efforts on the battle with Assad. The Government need to explain in much greater detail how these forces are going to be used to defeat ISIL/Daesh and how their efforts will be co-ordinated with air strikes.
If the Prime Minister is serious about gaining consensus, as he has said repeatedly, he needs to ensure that there is an opportunity for a proper debate where all these points can be addressed. As now seems to have been announced on the BBC, we are likely to have a debate after Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday and to be asked to vote on that day, despite the Leader of the Opposition having asked for two days so that everyone who wants to contribute and ask questions can be accommodated. As the Minister said, there is a duty to scrutinise, but there is also a duty on the Government to allow that scrutiny to take place. If they are serious about allowing a proper debate on a serious strategy to beat ISIL/Daesh in order to promote our own security and a peaceful future for the middle east, then we need that full and thorough scrutiny in this House before we vote. On that question, I hope that the Minister and the Prime Minister might think again and allow the extended debate that we need.
We have heard many outstanding speeches from Members in all parts of the House. I particularly thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their contributions. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) made a very thoughtful speech. My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), who referred to the need to protect all the minorities in the middle east, also made some telling remarks. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) made an important contribution on the need to think about all the challenges that we face: all the ongoing civil wars and all the difficulties and complexities that I alluded to in my opening speech. He made a powerful speech, and I hope that the Government were listening.
I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that this debate has been timely. I do not know whether you have this power, or where else it resides, but I think that a minimum of a monthly debate on a foreign policy issue would be welcomed by the great majority of people in this Chamber. It is long overdue that we have addressed the question of our approach to the middle east, and one could argue that the same could be said for our approaches to China, to India, or to South America: the list goes on. I encourage the people who hold the power to make a decision to allocate one day per month for us to discuss these things and to bring that about as soon as possible.
If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I want to close this debate somewhat differently. I do not have enough time to pass comment on every single speech—I think there have been upwards of 30—so I hope that colleagues will forgive me for not mentioning them individually.
Over the weekend, a friend of mine sent me a photograph of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” superimposed, rather impressively, on a devastated, bullet-ridden building somewhere in Syria. The man behind it, a Syrian-born artist called Tammam Hazzam, said that his intention had been to draw a parallel between
“the greatest achievements of humanity with the destruction it is also capable of inflicting.”
I encourage all hon. Members to find that picture online.
If we are looking for a goal at the end of the difficult foreign policy path that we now appear to be walking down, I think it should be this: in future, art galleries should be open across the middle east, in all places and all cities, in which the original Klimt can hang beside equivalent middle-eastern art, with everyone in the region, men and women, visiting, admiring and enjoying those works of art. If we could achieve that, it would demonstrate success on so many levels. It is a welcome coincidence that a copy of an Austrian artist’s work evocatively reproduced in a war-torn location within Syria helps to demonstrate what the Vienna process should ultimately be about.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the UK’s role in the Middle East.