Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): 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
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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.]
Mrs Moon: 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?
Mr Lilley: 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.
John Redwood: 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?
Mr Lilley: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have signally failed to train any forces, and is far from clear that we could achieve our aim without any.
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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.