Yesterday parliament was recalled at very short notice from the long recess to debate the prospect of air-strikes in Iraq. I led for the Liberal Democrats in the debate in the House of Lords, indeed because of the timing of the interventions I was the first Liberal Democrat to speak in either House. Fifty-nine members of the House spoke during the five hour debate and I did not find it easy to put into words (much less in the four minutes available) all my feelings, concerns and apprehensions about the necessary decision; not least given my oft-repeated anxieties over the last few years about the way the wider Middle East is dissolving into chaos.
Here is the Hansard Report of what I said –
“My Lords, I wish to identify myself with the appreciation expressed to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, the noble Baroness the Lord Speaker and our staff in facilitating this important debate today.
The question that is being put to our colleagues in the other place is a very specific one about air strikes and military intervention in Iraq. Given the engagement that we have had in Iraq and the very specific request from the new Prime Minister of Iraq for assistance in defending his country against a brutal insurgency whose stated intention is the destruction of his country and other countries in the region, we have little alternative but to join the others in rendering such assistance as we can reasonably provide.
While it is the duty of Members of another place to vote on that specific question, it is the responsibility of your Lordships’ House to consider the wider questions and to proffer such constructive advice to Her Majesty’s Government as we can. The proposal being put to the House of Commons does not include engagement on Syrian territory, for obvious political and legal reasons, but this leaves a major lacuna in the military strategy, at least so far as the United Kingdom is concerned. Military means in Iraq—and indeed if extended to Syria, as our colleagues in the United States have done—may be able to contain ISIS’s rapid advance, and it would be a mistake to underestimate their importance. However, they will not be able to destroy or defeat ISIS, which President Obama appeared to claim in one of his earlier speeches. The defeat of ISIS will come about only when local Sunni populations, tribes and allied groups in ISIS-occupied territories turn against ISIS. That could be made more difficult if heavy air strikes alienate populations and create a common enemy. We must reflect on the enormous effort that was made against al-Qaeda, which did indeed reduce its capacity, but has created many other even more brutal organisations right across the region and much more widely.
As we think on these questions it seems to me that they point to wider questions about the strategy being adopted to the growing tragedy of the region and, indeed the wider region. I want my noble friend the Minister to give an assurance and a commitment to a much more thorough-going examination of our national strategy, which must involve not only the wider Middle East, but the implications in north Africa, where already there are groups identifying with the caliphate and, of course, in respect of Russia, whose influence in Syria and more widely, is critical. Our relationship with Iran is also part of the changing character of our engagement. In that regard, I understand that for political reasons the Prime Minister and other colleagues speak passionately in terms of good and evil. Very wicked things are happening and there are people of evil intent and acts.
We must beware of thinking about the conflict in entirely Manichean terms of good and evil. Everyone on our side on this does not share our democratic values and our commitment to human rights. That fact in itself has contributed to the tragedy of the region. Let us add to our understanding from the excellent academic work being done at places such as the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London. I declare an interest as a patron and as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.
We are in a very dangerous place. The whole of that region—and countries much more widely—are dissolving into chaos. This is not simply a war like in the past. It comes close to home because it affects many people here. It is inevitable that there will be those who will want to conduct atrocities in this country to prosecute the aims of ISIS and others. There is also the possibility—indeed, almost the inevitability—of a whole new generation of young people being drawn into the jihadist orbit, just like the Arab Afghans going to Afghanistan in the 1980s. This will preoccupy us for a long time.
Pope Francis indicated a fear on his part that we were falling piecemeal into a World War III. He is not a man who speaks lightly about these things. While there is a grave decision to be taken by our colleagues at the other end, it is made all the graver because we are slipping, at least in some parts of our world, into something of a dark age. We must pray that it does not last as long as the religious wars in our own continent some centuries ago.”