Brooks calls for dual approach on Syria: lifting the arms embargo and engaging with Iran

21st May 2013

Speaking during a debate on Syria and EU sanctions, Brooks Newmark calls on the Foreign Secretary to make use of the forthcoming UK presidency of the UN Security Council and election in Iran to embark on a strategy of radical diplomatic engagement with all parties and also lift the arms embargo and threaten support for the Free Syria army.

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Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Although this debate is somewhat retrospective, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) pointed out, it raises important questions about our current and prospective roles in the conflict in Syria.

I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter). I have spent seven years travelling to Syria and have had the opportunity to meet Bashar Assad and other members of the regime several times. The tragedy that is unfolding for the silent middle in Syria is terrible to behold. It is a beautiful country that is being dismembered day by day. We must think very carefully about our next steps.

What is the situation today? On one side is the Assad regime, which is responsible, as we have heard, for more than 80,000 deaths, more than 1 million refugees and more than 4 million internally displaced people. The regime has 300,000 soldiers plus the dreaded Shabiha, 16,000 pieces of heavy artillery and an air force. It has the Russians on its side, who are providing hardware such as S300s, Yakhont surface-to-ship missiles and the most robust air defence system in the middle east other than Israel’s, as well as military advisers who are increasing in number day by day. It also has the Iranians on its side, who are providing the Revolutionary Guard and strategic advice, and it has Hezbollah on its side. It has electronic intelligence, money and arms provided by the Iranians, and it even has the Shabiha being formed into a national defence brigade by the Iranians, who are giving direction.

What does the opposition side have? Simply, it has two groups that are highly fragmented—the FSA, which has about 30,000 people, led by General Idris, who essentially have just small arms at their disposal; and on the other side, as many colleagues have said, the Salafis, who have about 3,000 to 5,000 people and are themselves fragmented. We have heard about Jabhat al-Nusra, but there is also Liwa al-Islam, Liwa Saqour and Kata’ib Ahrar al-Sham, among other Islamist groups that are fighting there.

So we have an asymmetric war in which Bashar Assad has no incentive whatever to negotiate seriously. What are our options? They are fourfold. One is a containment strategy that would prevent the conflict from spreading, but unfortunately it would merely lead to more death. Another is a no-fly zone, as proposed by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). That would indeed tip the balance, but it would put the lives of our Air Force pilots at risk, and I do not believe that after Iraq and Afghanistan, the military establishment in this country has any appetite for that.

The third option is lifting the arms embargo, which I believe would put pressure on Bashar Assad. However, as the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) will also make this point when he gets his opportunity to speak—there is a risk that arms may fall into the wrong hands. However, the signal that we would send by lifting the arms embargo would put pressure on the regime.

The final option is a radical diplomatic engagement strategy. In that regard, we have two opportunities before us. One is the fact that the UK holds the presidency of the UN Security Council next month, and the other is that there are Iranian elections next month, which may provide an opportunity for us to press the reset button regarding engagement with Iran. As the hon. Member for Islington North said, we need to engage with all parties—the Gulf states, Turkey, the EU and the US as well as Syria, Russia and Iran.

Time is running out. We must show Bashar Assad at Geneva that he is at the last chance saloon. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to exert pressure through a two-pronged strategy of radical diplomatic engagement with all parties and a real threat of lethal support to the FSA. Only then will there be a real prospect of ending the tragedy unfolding in Syria.

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Earlier in the same debate

Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Jabhat al-Nusra and the Salafists were a fairly small about group 12 months ago. Part of the problem is that they have been much better armed and are much better fighters, so that elements in the Free Syria army, which is not as well armed as the Islamists, are flaking away to them. That is one area that my hon. Friend needs to consider. Another is that the UK has the chair of the UN Security Council—the presidency—next month. That presents us with an opportunity to pursue a radical agenda of engagement with all parties, perhaps including Iran, which has elections next month.

...

Alistair Burt: ...

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) makes two points, and I absolutely agree with him. His understanding of the situation is clear. He makes an entirely fair point about how al-Nusra has been able to garner support at the expense of more moderate elements. He makes an absolutely valid point, which I hope I have also made in my speech. He is also absolutely correct to say that we will be leading the UN Security Council next month. The Foreign Secretary set out the situation in relation to Iran yesterday. Of course Iran has influence and an interest in the area. My right hon. Friend is keen that those who get round the table for Geneva II should probably be the original cast, but my hon. Friend’s point is well made.

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Mr Newmark: I totally respect the hon. Lady’s position, but history has also taught us that when we stood aside and did nothing in Rwanda, 800,000 people got slaughtered, and it took us four years to go into Bosnia, while, again, hundreds of thousands of people got slaughtered.

Emma Reynolds: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the loss of life in Syria. The problem with the solution that the Government seem to be offering us is that it could lead to an escalation, not a de-escalation, of the conflict by fuelling the fires of the conflict, rather than encouraging a solution.

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