Friday, 26 September 2014

Back to Iraq?

Today, the House of Commons debated whether or not Britain should engage in military air strikes on the terrorist group, Islamic State, in Iraq. The motion was tightly drafted - you can read the text here - to assuage fears airstrikes would lead to ground troops, or action in Iraq would spread to Syria.

I sat through the entire debate - from 10.30am until 6pm - queuing to speak. The system is that, after Ministers, Select Committee Chairs and former Ministers with relevant experience, backbenchers are listed according to how infrequently they have spoken in Parliamentary debates. In my view, this protocol is totally arbitrary. But, in any case, because I have participated in a lot of debates I didn't get an opportunity to speak. In the end I supported the government motion - albeit with reservations and something of a heavy heart.

I have pasted below the speech I would have given, so you understand my views on such an important issue ....

"Thank you Mr Speaker.
Can I start by welcoming this opportunity to debate military intervention before it happens?
This House should scrutinise matters of war and peace carefully,
Notwithstanding that they remain perogatives of the executive.
I see no legal bar to intervention in Iraq,
Given the Iraqi request for military support.
In addition, there is a more limited but well established right of self-defence against terrorist groups threatening either the UK or her citizens.

I am in no moral doubt either about the adversary we face.
Islamic State is barbaric and cruel,
A moral abomination.
And it is clearly able and willing to harm Britain,
If only by murdering those citizens it kidnaps,
Although there must also be grounds to fear it could organise some sort of domestic attack too,
Given the hundreds of Britons who have gained experience fighting in their ranks.
So, we have the right to intervene.
The question is whether and how we exercise it.

Here, like others, I have to question whether airstrikes alone are capable of affecting positive change on the ground.
Like Al-Qaeda,
Islamic State is an amorphous organisation.
It can hunker down,
Take savage losses,
And re-appear once the patience, will or attention of the West has drifted.
It will bide its time.
It can and will fill vacuums that appear across the Middle East.

The earlier lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,
Suggest a bombing campaign can only provide temporary containment of such a vicious and versatile foe.

Yet, rightly, the Prime Minister has ruled out UK ground forces.
We don’t have the will or public support for that after recent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
It should be led by forces in the region.

Equally, as many have argued, it is impossible to see the cauldron in Iraq becoming militarily manageable without a parallel political solution.
And frankly, here too, the omens remain bleak.
Mr Al-Abadi may be an improvement on Nuri al-Maliki,
But it is a modest one at best.
Drawn from the same Dawa faction,
He is politically weak, as shown by his failure to get all his senior Cabinet appointments through Parliament earlier this month.
The prospects for a broad, inclusive government, bringing together Shias, Sunnis and Kurds,
Are faint to say the least.

Iraq like much of the Middle East suffers from a dearth of leadership and the truculent refusal of too many senior figures to countenance the kind of compromises that would bring her weary people the respite of some stability.
And of course, Mr al-Maliki was very much the product of our past military and diplomatic efforts since 2003.

So, if we are to back the Iraqi government with military firepower,
To what extent will it be conditional on it taking a more inclusive approach,
Bringing together the different ethnic and religious  factions?

If we’re to provide the military muscle,
I don’t see why ongoing air support shouldn’t be contingent on the kind of benchmarks on the political track,
That would give this operation at least some chance of long-term success.
Even if we vanquish IS in Iraq,
It has a foothold in Syria,
And there is nothing to stop it morphing and re-emerging further afield.

Regrettably, the West has no credible wider regional strategy.
The reticence of Turkey and Jordan in taking on Islamic State,
The absence of Iran from the recent Paris conference,
The failure to court relatively moderate groups,
Including the Muslim Brotherhood,
All point to this strategic frailty.

There are serious questions about Saudi Arabia’s support,
Tacit or otherwise,
For Islamic State.

And, here at home, British involvement elevates the risk of blowback,
By providing a pretext for attacks by returning jihadis.

Overall, Mr Speaker, this international operation feels like it’s prodding at a hornet’s nest with a short stick.
I hope, but I’m not convinced, that we can affect positive change.
And, the more involved we get,
The more we take responsibility for the mess.
As Colin Powell used to say,
His Pottery Barn rule,
“If you break it, you own it.”

I will support the government today.
I don’t see principled objections to what we’re doing.
And I would dearly like to see Islamic State eliminated.

But, I do retain serious strategic and practical reservations about Britain, yet again, seemingly dipping her toe into the crucible of the Middle East."


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