Yesterday in the Commons we debated defence matters. The Secretary of State explained the actions UK aircraft are taking in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi government. He raised the issue of whether the new Parliament would reconsider the position in Syria, and allow air strikes by UK aircraft there as well. Several of us advised against.
I share his revulsion at the actions of extreme groups in various parts of the Middle East. We all feel we want to take action to make an attack like that in Tunisia last week less likely. However, a mature well armed state needs to think carefully before committing to military action. It should always ask Is this a war we can win? If we win this war will there be a satisfactory peace that is better than the current situation? Can we win the war without doing unacceptable levels of damage to the place concerned, and without excessive loss of life, especially for non combatants?
The UK has had to counter domestic terrorist threats. The UK always sought to respond to terrorism at home under the rule of law. The authorities tried to locate terrorists, assemble evidence and prosecute them as criminals. This remains our approach to terrorists in the UK linked to Middle Eastern fanatical groups. In the Irish troubles the terrorists sought special political status. There were endless arguments about the use of force for self defence by the UK authorities and about the legal processes and the detention of prisoners.
To end the terrorist troubles in Northern Ireland successive UK governments, both Conservative and Labour, came to the conclusion that they needed to undertake a political process, engaging terrorist organisations in talks and finding a democratic answer to the conflicts within a troubled community. No political party in the UK ever advocated pursuing a war on terrorist organisations,authorising shooting or bombing by the state.
I raised the question of how the UK can contribute to a negotiated settlement in Iraq or Syria, and drew attention to the contrast between treating terrorism as a serious policing matter, and treating it as a war to be fought despite the terrorists being embedded in civilian communities of people who are not themselves killing others. The Minister reminded me that in the case of Iraq we have the request of the civilian authority and operate under that legal cover. In Syria we do not wish to be friends of the Assad regime, so there is no similar legal base for intervening in Syrian territory. The Minister implied that any intervention would be as a result of extending the remit from Iraq, chasing terrorists over the border who have been operating in Iraq itself.
I understand the frustration of many that we have not so far been able to stop some of the advances of terrorists in Iraq and Syria, though nor have we in Nigeria and other Middle Eastern countries where there is no UK wish to take military action.There are many other well armed powers in the region that can and do take action and know the local religion, culture and languages better than us.
The questions the government needs to ask are the ones in this piece. I do not see a way for the UK military to improve the situation in Syria by bombing. The UK should be neither on the side of the Sunni nor the Shia forces in this religious war. We should remember just how difficult it has proved to create a stable peace in Libya after taking military action. We should also remember our soldiers and air crews. Their tasks should be both feasible and legal.