Iraq and Syria are lost causes: Western intervention can’t help. Well, at least that was the motion put forward on Wednesday evening at a Spectator debate, in association with Brewin Dolphin, and chaired by Andrew Neil.
Here is the full audio of the debate:
The first person to speak for the motion was Nabila Ramdani, a French-Algerian journalist. The first rule of any war, she said, is to know your enemy. The problem with our current battle with Islamic State is that we don’t know our enemy, and we don’t understand them. One of the main reasons that the area is in such turmoil is as a direct result of meddling from the West. IS is made up of over twenty thousand insurgents, and it simply can’t be destroyed by aerial bombardment. Assad, she argued, is the key to defeating IS, along with Iran. We have to wake up to who is best qualified to defeat the enemy, and in this case the answer is not the West; the answer lies with the local people.
Next, speaking against the motion, was General the Lord Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff from 2006-2009,who began by announcing that he completely disagreed with the motion. It’s very difficult for Britain to walk away from the region when we had a fundamental hand in their construction, he argued. They are both ancient civilisations, and countries, which are of great importance, so they must not be allowed to be lost causes. But we must be very careful about who we ally ourselves with; if, for example, we had armed the Assad opposition last year, those arms would now be in IS’s hands. So what can we do? He agreed with Ramdani that intervention from the air is not going to destroy IS, and that the issue must be tackled on the ground. But will the local population be enough? His concern was that they will require support from the West. He didn’t want to see it but, unfortunately, it might have to be the last resort.
After him spoke John Redwood, who agreed that the two countries were far from lost causes, but argued that western intervention cannot bring about peace and diplomacy there. What the area lacks isn’t bombs, but democratic process, and political leadership. There is no easy remedy, but killing people is not the answer. Neither, for that matter, is sending in our forces; how can we fight an army where the target can’t be identified? There are democratic ways of sorting these issues, but we will never export democracy at the end of a gun, or by dropping a bomb from 20,000 feet. Redwood had learnt his lesson from voting for Blair’s war, and hoped that the rest of the British Establishment had learnt theirs. ‘I couldn’t cast my vote to go to war in Syria, or Iraq’, he said. Talking works; bombing doesn’t.
Ed Husain, speaking against the motion, said he would once have agreed – but that something has happened. That something being IS. He focused his argument on the historical context and IS specifically. He agreed with Nabila that there are issues here that we, in the West, don’t understand; namely religion and tribes. This is not a new war, but one that has been in our midst for 150 years. But if we think that Syria and Iraq are lost causes, we don’t understand the might of our enemy. IS have gone global; if, for example, there was a march on Mecca, how many Saudi Arabians do you think would join their forces? IS understand our mindset, and the one thing we must not do is fall into their trap. They know we can be weak. What is needed is troops on the ground, and without them, airstrikes are ineffectual.
The final speaker for the motion was the Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn. Isis is the child of war, and it flourishes in war, he said. To see the solution as purely military is to misunderstand the problem. The policy so far has been to support Syrian moderates to fight IS; the problem is that we can’t find those moderates. What we really need to do, he argues, is to ‘drain away the war’, and stop the violence temporarily. Anything beyond limited intervention would only exacerbate all of these interrelated conflicts and ensure that IS survives and flourishes. War is what it knows about, and is good at.
Last to speak was Douglas Murray, who first said that he agreed with some of Ramdani’s points – namely, that we fail to understand the problem. But it isn’t true to say that intervention never works. What about Sierra Leone? Kosovo? We need to decide what our priorities are, and what we want to achieve in the region. Defend borders? Have a humanitarian impact? Stop nuclear proliferation? So many of our aims are mutually contradictory. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t commit to doing something to defeat IS. If we do not deal with ungoverned spaces, they will come back to haunt us. There are more British Muslims fighting for IS than there are in the British Army, and this will inevitably cause problems. Should we always intervene? Of course not. But, he said, we simply cannot accept what is going on in the region, and think that it won’t be our problem. It will.
Attendees had been asked about their voting intention as they arrived; the answer was for the motion, 83; against, 64; undecided, 139. After the debate, the tables had turned: for, 123; against, 216, and undecided, 24, meaning that the motion was defeated.
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