Syria: UK Military Action — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:39 pm on 2nd December 2015.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:39 pm, 2nd December 2015

My Lords, this has been a very powerful, moderate and constructive debate. We are all attempting to judge a very difficult situation, and the balance in all our parties is one that we come to with great difficulty. I stress all our parties because we know that when it comes to it this evening, all parties will divide to some extent, except for the rather Stalinist SNP. Certainly in my party over the last few days we have had some extensive and intensive conversations about the costs and benefits, the judgments that one has to make and the deep uncertainties as to where we might end up if we take either course this evening.

I was very glad to see the Prime Minister in the speech he made earlier today in the other place moderate his language of last night and say:

“There is honour in voting for; there is honour in voting against”.

I say that to my own party, as well as to others.

The Liberal Democrats are an internationalist party, not an isolationist one. We believe very strongly in working with our neighbours in facing common threats. We believe in an open society and a well-integrated international society. We take full account of France’s appeal for support and of the Dutch, Danish and now German commitment to the long-term struggle against Daesh. We welcome the UN resolution authorising “all necessary measures” to contain this common threat. We are instinctively reluctant to use force, but sadly recognise that we have to play our part in what will be a long-term conflict, which cannot be won by military means alone.

However, we offer only conditional support for the Conservative Government in the policy that they have set out so far. We warn the Prime Minister to carry the country with him, not to give way, as he did last night, to inflammatory language or to play partisan politics over fundamental issues of national security. Supporters of all parties and none are hesitant about further bombing in the Middle East. They need to be persuaded that the Government will at last prioritise diplomatic efforts to end the civil war in Syria and to promote reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as pushing Daesh out of the territory that it controls.

Many British Muslims are desperately unhappy about the dangers of civilian casualties. They need reassurance that Muslim states are working with us to contain the terrorist threat and to rebuild stable government across Syria and Iraq. This is a global conflict in which Daesh attracts its fighters from across the world, including from within the UK. The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, made a powerful point that how we treat our marginalised communities—the second-generation and third-generation children of immigrants uncertain of their acceptance within western society—matters in preventing the recruitment of new fighters to Daesh, al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the rest. Our Government need to take that argument on board as they cut local government spending across the Midlands or the north of England and cut spending for schools and further education. I spend my weekends on the outskirts of Bradford. The cuts in our local authority’s budget will weaken local efforts to integrate our substantial Muslim minority, to offer young Muslims training, jobs, self-respect and a sense of British citizenship within our national community.

Last week, we set out five conditions before we were willing to support the Government’s proposal to extend our military commitment over Syria. We are grateful that the Government have engaged with these conditions, including the need to look into external funding for radical perversions of Islam within the UK. The UN resolution satisfies our concerns about the legality of further military action, but the Vienna talks are only just beginning and the broad coalition that the Prime Minister talks about remains, at best, fragile. We want to witness, and to be regularly briefed about, the active British diplomatic engagement in strengthening this coalition, working closely with our European partners. We also want to hear from a Conservative Party that has been far too uncritical in its relations with the Sunni Gulf monarchies that the Government are working with the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation—which at present are almost uninvolved in the situation—pressing the Sunni states of the region to play active and constructive roles.

Many noble Lords raised the question of forces on the ground and demanded that we and other western states be willing to commit ground troops to defeat Daesh and stabilise the region. I suggest that they have forgotten the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq: that the commitment of western troops, which do not understand local languages or local cultures, risks strengthening our enemies, not creating stability. The Prime Minister was right to quote in the other place today what the Iraqi Government have clearly told him—that,

“the presence of western ground troops can be a radicalising force and can be counterproductive”.

So we have to look to the states in the region to step up to their responsibilities and contribute to stabilising these ungoverned areas. Several noble Lords have rightly criticised the Saudis and the Gulf states for standing by as Daesh perverts the message of Sunni Islam, disastrously embarking instead on a military campaign in Yemen, imposing the model of the Sunni/Shia conflict on a far more messy local civil war.

The traditional leaders of Sunni Islam came from Al-Azhar in Cairo and from Mecca. The legitimacy of the Saudi royal family rests upon this claim. So we are entitled to ask the Saudis to accept their political responsibilities and to stop promoting Wahhabi Salafism against other interpretations of Sunnism across the Muslim world, which now stretches into communities within Britain. The Saudi ambassador’s article in the Times today was an inadequate answer to this demand.

In the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, when many British nationalists saw Roman Catholicism as the enemy as much as French imperialism, the Whig Government responded to the Irish rebellion of 1798-99 by setting up a Catholic seminary within the UK. In spite of persistent Tory attacks over the following years, Maynooth successfully trained generations of Catholic priests who were willing to seek a reconciliation between Catholicism and English values, until the collapse of home rule and the approach of the First World War. Our Conservative Government would now be wise to invest, through our universities, in strengthening the centres of Islamic studies, which have now been established, to train future generations of British imams here.

Daesh promotes the narrative that it is defending Islam against the West. We have to work with Muslim states to promote an alternative narrative of reconciliation and moderation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, in particular, said. That will need to include working with Iran, pushing back intolerance between Sunni and Shia and between Islam and other faiths. I am an Anglican and I welcome what the Anglican Church is doing in this regard. Over the last 12 months I have attended services in Westminster Abbey that have been Christian and Jewish—I recall that the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was present—and Christian and Muslim. That is absolutely the way that we have to go, and I know that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury also feels that strongly. I look forward to further work in that direction to promote better understanding between the people of the Book and their three faiths.

Extending Britain’s military operations over Syria is not in itself a game-changer, and we should not pretend that it is. This is in some ways a symbolic issue. Deepening our diplomatic engagement in order both to push back Daesh and to resolve the Syrian civil war is as least as essential. So long as the war in Syria continues, more refugees will struggle to reach safety in Europe. Tim Farron, my party leader, has asked the Government to take in some thousands of the unaccompanied children who have reached Italy in order to offer them security and hope, and to show that we are sharing the responsibility at our end.

Bombing is not enough, as my noble friend Lord Ashdown and many others have said. We look to the Government to develop a far broader strategy together with our allies and partners and to work for reconciliation across the Middle East, for the reconstruction of Syria and Iraq, and for humanitarian assistance for those suffering from the interconnected conflicts across the region.