Ukraine, Middle East, North Africa and Security

Part of Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:02 pm on 10th September 2014.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 4:02 pm, 10th September 2014

This has been an exceptionally good debate and we have covered a lot of ground. I was particularly keen to listen to my hon. Friend Rory Stewart. When he speaks we listen to him with a mixture of shock and awe—if I can use that phrase—and his powerful description of our deficiencies in resources is familiar to any of us who have knocked around that world. He is right. I used to get gasps from any audience I spoke to when I said that the entire budget for the Foreign and Commonwealth office is less than what we spend on the winter fuel heating allowance, including for fairly well-off pensioners. We have got our balances wrong somewhere.

What my right hon. Friend Dr Fox said about values, which was echoed by Mr McFadden, was important, and in this debate we seem to have got back to some clear and definite points about the things in which we believe. The crisis in the middle east and the world that has forced it should not be lost as an opportunity to develop some of the things we have heard, and I hope that those on the Front Benches will take them forward.

Let me start with a little good news and return to the beleaguered Arab spring. I was in Tunisia yesterday and the day before for a conference on investment entitled, “Start-up Democracy”. Little Tunisia is making its way, and what it is doing should not be minimised. Not only has it been through a difficult political negotiation to get to its current position, but a political Islamist party—Ennahda—gave up power, confounding a lot of assumptions about it. There is a long way to go, but the guidance of Sheikh Ghannouchi in putting his country before his party—some in his party wished to proceed in a different direction—demonstrated an important point of principle: democracy is not only about winning; it is about sharing and losing power, and there are too few examples around the world of how that can successfully be done. In that region, Tunisia’s example is important.

We must not lose sight of what caused the Arab spring: economics, corruption, political sclerosis. Those issues remain, and the region has to tackle them, because they lie at the root of other things we have discussed. Let no one think, either, that we walked away after Libya. Nobody walked away. I spoke to our ambassador, Michael Aron, who is currently based in Tunis, having previously been in Tripoli. The UK and others have worked incredibly hard on the institution building—the democracy building that people would have wanted. Just because we were not there with boots on the ground to separate warring militias—I am not sure anyone would really have wanted that—and just because we tried to address the needs of Tripoli and Libya in a different way, please do not accuse us of walking away from Libya. We never did.

The more someone learns about the region—there is an issue about ministerial training; I have read more about the region since leaving office than I ever read while there, because of the necessities of ministerial life—the more they realise how complex and difficult it is. Almost everything screams, “Don’t touch this. Listen to people who know the region better than you.” One of the lessons of the past is that we need to listen more.

The areas in the region will develop differently. Anwar Gargash, the Deputy Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates and a great friend of the United Kingdom, said that stability was paramount and that with that came the preservation of a rich and diverse culture, but his was not just a plea for the status quo. He said that rational evolution should be the process. The whole region is changing, and will continue to do so, but it will change differently in different places.

Turning to the crunch issue, I support a policy of containing ISIS, but in the first place it is likely to involve a military response. I would support strikes on ISIS, but some things need to be done quickly. In the argument about who makes the decisions—this place or the Executive—I tend to side with the Executive. The decision has to be explained to the House, and, as my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke said, it needs to be part of a narrative we all understand, but it does not help our allies and those we need to work with if we continually have to stop and take decisions in the House. We need to think things through—my hon. Friend Mr Gray had some ideas about that—but we have to give the Government the opportunity to take things forward.

Our response should not comprise a deal with Assad, as his butchery is too immense—John Woodcock spoke movingly about that. We can do better. I was in touch with the Free Syrian Army spokesman just this afternoon, and he reminded us:

“We are the west’s partners—we share the west’s values and are protecting our children from terrorism just as you want to protect yours. We are paying in blood for the values of freedom, dignity and justice.”

The FSA is already fighting ISIS on the ground, just as the Kurds are. What is the difference between them? Why should they not get some support as well? There is a deal to be done. The extremists threaten Syria—they threaten Assad and his regime—and in return for work our air forces can do against extremists, is there not something to get negotiators back to the table? I am not talking about Assad—he is expendable to both the Russians and the Iranians—but the remnants of the Syrian regime, together with the FSA, could negotiate, provided the incentive is there, and possibly we can provide it.

Finally, the coalition must be led by those in the middle east, not the west. That offers the best prospect for the future.