Speaking in a debate on Syria, Brooks Newmark outlines a five-fold solution to the problem including diplomatic engagement with Iran and providing arms to General Idris of the moderate Free Syrian army.
Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, and I have probably spent more time in Syria than most Members of this House, including meeting Bashar Assad up to 10 times over a six-year period. My experience of Syria is very different from the Syria we have heard about today. Syria has always been a highly secular country. There is no Salafi tradition in Syria; it has more of a Sufi tradition and a mystical approach to Islam. There was no sense of radicalism there, so how have we got from where we were to where we are today with a highly sectarian divide and the potential for a fragmented Somalia on the Mediterranean?
We must remember how this began, which was when a 13-year-old boy in Daraa had the audacity to urinate on a poster of President Assad. The security forces took him, beat him up, killed him, cut off his penis, and returned him to his parents. That sparked massive outrage among civilians in five different cities and was the beginning of the Arab Spring. Those who point to hardly any complicity of the Assad regime in causing what is happening today should think carefully. It made a very bad situation worse with civil disobedience met by repression. Ultimately, individuals felt that they had to protect their communities, and small militias were set up in various towns. The Free Syrian army was really a fragmented group of people, and only more recently has it become a little more co-ordinated under General Idris. The Syrian National Council has been equally dysfunctional and has not sought to reach out at all beyond the Sunni community.
In February when I was in Cairo, there was an opportunity and the Russians said that they would try to lead engagement. The regime was feeling insecure, but unfortunately Minister Lavrov dropped the ball. He did not do anything and, in fact, the opposite happened. Iran and Russia provided more arms, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard bolstered the Assad regime, including his personal bodyguard, which became a member of the IRG. Until then I had always believed in engagement, but Al-Qusayr was a turning point. The regime knew it could not win alone, so Iran and Hezbollah came in and gave it the support to win Al-Qusayr. I changed my mind and believe that one needs to do a little more than simply provide humanitarian aid. From my understanding of Assad, he will have to be pushed, or driven kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.
My solution is fivefold. First, radical diplomatic engagement is absolutely necessary including—I agree with all Members of the House—with Rouhani and the Iranian regime. This is time to press the reset button.
Mr Jenkin: Does my hon. Friend agree that if we persist in doing nothing, the situation will continue to deteriorate and the radical Sunni factions will come to dominate the opposition to Assad? They are providing a playground for terrorism, where British citizens are going to train as terrorists and coming back to this country.
Mr Newmark: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, there are 70 to 80 citizens of the United Kingdom who are today with Jabhat al-Nusra and the more radical groups. However, those groups represent only 5,000 or 6,000 people on the ground, versus the silent majority of 15 million Sunnis.
The second part of the strategy, beyond radical diplomatic engagement, should be containment. We must protect the likes of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey from becoming infected by this explosion. Thirdly, we must provide more aid, not just to Jordan and Lebanon, but internally.
Bob Stewart: I am in favour of considering military intervention to escort aid into Syria. Does my hon. Friend agree?
Mr Newmark: Yes, I do, although that is not without its dangers. When we ask the UN to do something, we have to think about what protection it will get.
My fourth point is that the Syrian National Council must become less dysfunctional. It cannot be a puppet of the Qatari regime, which it has been to date, representing just the Sunnis. It must reach out to the Alawites, the Kurds, the Druze and the Christians.
My fifth recommendation is this. I am not asking for British soldiers on the ground or for our pilots’ lives to be put at risk; I am asking for what the Syrian people have set out to me time and time again. We need to rebalance the situation on the ground. We need to arm the Free Syrian army and support General Idris. If we do not, unfortunately more and more of the Free Syrian army—the moderates—will drift towards the extremists. I am afraid that inaction will breed extremism and the fragmentation of Syria. Supporting the Free Syrian army is also more likely to bring Assad and Russia to the negotiating table.
Returning to the point of this debate, I would not wish to bind the hands of the Executive on a foreign policy matter where our soldiers’ and our pilots’ lives are not at risk. Therefore, I would oppose the motion.
Interventions in the same debate:
Mr Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will my hon. Friend at least acknowledge that doing nothing also has a cost, and that if we do nothing, two things will happen? The Assad regime will continue to try to slaughter its own people into submission. Where 12 months ago there were hardly any Jabhat al-Nusra on the ground, there are today perhaps 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000, and if we continue to do nothing, we create the space to allow more and more jihadis to come into the ground. If we support the moderate opposition, that will stop the flaking off from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra.
Mr Baron: I take on board what my hon. Friend says, but I think it does him no service to try to create the impression that those of us who suggest that we should not arm the rebels are insisting that we do nothing. It is actually quite the opposite. I think there is an awful lot that we could be doing—on the humanitarian front and on the diplomatic front. I will return to the issue in a minute or two, if my hon. Friend will bear with me. I will allow him in again, if he wishes to come back to me.
Mr Newmark: The devil is always in the detail. I hear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about not giving arms directly to the opposition, but does he then believe that if we are selling arms to a third party such as Saudi Arabia and those arms then go on to Syria, we should again seek the approval of the House before selling any further arms to a third-party country such as Saudi?
Sir Menzies Campbell: My hon. Friend will be well aware that there is an agreement called the al-Yamamah agreement which regulates the sale of arms from the United Kingdom to Saudi Arabia, and if he is suggesting we should violate that agreement I think he had better consult with Ministers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence and perhaps also with the chief executive officer of BAE.
Mr Newmark: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must not conflate the issues of wishing to support, and supporting, the moderate majority and the Free Syrian army, and condemning Jabhat al-Nusra and others, who also may condemn the regime?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, because it has been part of Assad’s tactics from the very beginning to try to force his own people and the wider international community to believe that there is a stark choice between the Assad regime and jihadi extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra and to ignore the fact that the Free Syrian army, the Syrian secular forces and moderate Islamic forces, represent between them the overwhelming majority of the Syrian public, and to suggest that they are somehow irrelevant to this debate.