Intervention will succeed only if it is part of a coherent military strategy and a coherent political strategy. Both are needed. I have yet to hear them in the statements from Ministers, although I very much want to hear them.
First, on the military strategy, degrading ISIL’s capacity from the air will achieve little unless it is followed by effective use of ground forces. But President Obama has ruled out committing ground troops, as has the Prime Minister, so the question of where those troops are going to come from is paramount. The Prime Minister appears to be insisting that Assad, who still has significant forces in theatre, has no part in the future of Syria. In that case, the ground war rests largely with the Kurds, who are less well organised than they are in Iraq, and on the reported 70,000 non-extremist fighters, but the reality of those seems to have faded somewhat in recent days.
Secondly, and even more important, there is the political strategy. Before military action can be justified, we need to have arrived at the point where the main intervening powers are agreed at least about the broad outlines of a settlement. But that is not evident either. In fact, the military action that has recently been taking place in Syria vividly illustrates the absence of a strategy. A handful of outside powers are attacking or assisting a patchwork of different opponents, some of whom are fighting each other. The political objectives of the western powers and current military action to further them and the political objectives of the Russians are contradictory. The Russians have attacked the groups that the west sees as the potential salvation of Syria. The US and France want to remove the regime that the Russians have been seeking to entrench.
For military action to have a reasonable prospect of succeeding, we will need agreement among the major powers about the use and objectives of air power, about whom we are and are not targeting, about how the boots on the ground will get there, and about whose boots they will be.
My right hon. Friend refers to the objectives of air power. For those of us who have been listening to the debate, there is a feeling that those arguing against the motion have failed to answer the question of whether they support the action in Iraq, where since last September air power has been deployed very effectively in restricting ISIL’s progress and defending Baghdad against terrorists.
I agree with that. There is a fundamental difference between Iraq and Syria. Iraq is a democracy, at least of sorts, and it has invited us in and is sharing with us the enduring responsibility for what goes on there. If we engage in Syria, we will be picking up the enduring responsibility for a failed state.
A political plan is absolutely essential. That will require at least a measure of agreement on a policy for regional stability. That can be achieved only in collaboration with the Russians, and probably the Iranians. There are some grounds for cautious optimism in that regard. I have very little time to talk about it but, in a nutshell, I do not think that there is enough.
In the absence of both a military and a political strategy, the west might only succeed in supressing ISIL temporarily. In time, an equally virulent Islamist-inspired, anti-western militancy may well return.
The ruling out of western ground forces is very significant. It tells us that, after Iraq and Afghanistan, the west appears to lack the will, and perhaps the military strength, to commit the resources that might be needed to construct a new order from the shaken kaleidoscope of Syria. As in Libya, it would be relatively easy to remove a brutal dictator from the air, and perhaps also to suppress ISIL, but it would be extremely difficult to construct a regime more favourable to our long-term interests.
We do not need to look into a crystal ball to see that; we can read the book. The result of over a decade of intervention in the middle east has been not the creation of a regional order more attuned to western values and interests, but the destruction of an existing order of dictatorships that, however odious, was at least effective in supressing the sectarian conflicts and resulting terrorism that have taken root in the middle east. Regime change in Iraq brought anarchy and terrible suffering. It has also made us less safe.
Above all, it has created the conditions for the growth of militant extremism. We should be under no illusions: today’s vote is not a small step. Once we have deployed military forces in Syria, we will be militarily, politically and morally deeply engaged in that country, and probably for many years to come. That is why the Government’s description of the extension of bombing to Syria as merely an extension of what we were already doing in Iraq is misplaced. We simply have not heard enough from the Government about exactly what the reconstruction will mean.
The timing of this vote has everything to do with the opportunity to secure a majority provided by the shocking attacks in Paris. Everybody feels a bond with the French, but an emotional reflex is not enough. Military action might be effective at some point, but military action without a political strategy is folly. We have yet to hear that strategy, so I cannot support the Government’s motion tonight.