My Lords, I was hesitant to join a debate to which so many noble Lords had already signed up to speak. I wondered whether to contribute the thoughts of a humble Peer in the street. I hesitated to mix it with the big beasts of the foreign policy and defence establishments, but I was scandalised into putting my name down to speak last night by David Cameron telling his MPs that they should not be walking through the Lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a “bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. Those are not the words of a statesmanlike Prime Minister seeking to lead a unified nation to war. They are a disgrace, for which he has refused to apologise. He should be ashamed of them and I hope very much that the noble Earl will disown them when he comes to reply this evening. These are complex issues about which honest people can disagree and it is quite inimical to the spirit of rational discourse—which is, after all, one of the values that we are supposed to be defending—to brand anyone who takes a different point of view as a sympathiser with terrorism. That is to adopt the mindset of ISIL, not that of the leader of a free country.
I cannot enter the debate without saying something about how the issues appear to a humble Peer in the street. They seem to come down to a few quite simple propositions. What ISIL has been doing is an unconscionable outrage and an affront to human and civilised values. Paris is only the latest and worst excess. ISIL should be completely eliminated if at all possible, but this is not straightforward. ISIL is not like a conventional army. It is a hydra. Take one head out and two more spring up somewhere else. I am not a knee-jerk opponent of military action, but we should beware of falling into the trap of saying, “Something must be done; this is something, so it should be done”.
What should be done has to be effective. The actions of the American-led coalition have been largely ineffective in degrading ISIL to date. No one believes that flying a few extra sorties over Syria will make a great deal of difference, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, who has great experience, confirmed.
The political build-up has been quite extraordinary for such a comparatively minor extension. This is just gesture politics. As several speakers have said, to mean anything there will have to be troops on the ground. The Prime Minister assures us that there are 70,000 ready and waiting, but this has attracted widespread scepticism. If there are 70,000, they are a bit like Falstaff’s army and do not always have very savoury credentials. The Iraqi army, if it can be called that, runs away whenever ISIL appears. The Kurds are the only ones who can be relied on, but they are already fighting to the limit of their ability. I am aware of the arguments about solidarity with our allies, but we can express solidarity without putting planes in the air. Canada does.
No one believes that military action against ISIL will make us safer in this country. I have never believed that that was a plausible expectation to have of foreign ventures against jihadist terrorist organisations—in fact, quite the reverse. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and intelligence and security chiefs all think that it will make us even more of a target.
This is the wrong action at the wrong time. As I was pleased to hear a moderate Syrian spokesperson confirming on the radio the other day, if we were to bomb Syria, it should have been in the first year, in support of the peaceful protests that President Assad was seeking to suppress, while they were still comparatively moderate and unified. Five years on, the situation has long since spiralled out of control and we should keep well out of it.