Dialogue, not force, is the way to uphold the rules-based international system

Wednesday 3rd January 2018




John Baron, Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay

The commemorations marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration were a reminder of the Middle East’s enduring hold over our foreign policy. One hundred years on, the Armed Forces of Britain and her Western allies are still engaged in military operations in the same areas of Iraq and Syria as their forebears. One wonders how the current struggle against Daesh will be seen a century from now, and whether this part of the world will remain contested and fought over.

Over the 16 years I have served in Parliament, I have been critical of our military interventions in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Libya, and have voted against action. With the exception of the decision to intervene against international terrorists in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I have always felt that we were intervening before all the facts were known, that we did not properly establish our goals before intervening, and that once we had intervened, we then over-estimated our ability to control events.

I think that analysis holds true of our interventions in Iraq, Helmand and Libya. The last was particularly dispiriting, as by 2011 I had hoped that we had learnt the lessons of our earlier interventions. Yet the report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee last year, of which I was a member, revealed that the case for intervention had been overstated, and that at the outset whether our intervention was to ‘save’ the citizens of Benghazi or to effect wholesale régime change, officially at least, was unclear.

Having eventually decided upon the latter, we failed to follow through on the intervention. Painfully predictably, after the euphoria of Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow had passed, Libya splintered into a myriad of armed militias and began exporting instability, both into neighbouring countries, and in the form of the ongoing migration crisis. However tenuous, Daesh has established a presence in the country, and it seems the investigation into the terrible Manchester attack is looking into possible Libyan connections.

More recently, there was the welcome news that Daesh has been driven out of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of its self-styled caliphate. The organisation is clearly being defeated; Daesh has lost nearly 90 per cent of the territory it occupied at its height. Yet we still have no clear answer as to who will take control of Daesh’s former Syrian territories as the civil war continues. In Iraq, the sight of Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting each other over Kirkuk will worry many in Western capitals – not least because both sides, as allies in the struggle against Daesh, were using Western-supplied weapons. Those were some of the reasons I also opposed our involvement in Syria, both in 2013 and 2015.

However, it is not all doom and gloom in the region. One of the great – and sadly rare – successes of international diplomacy was the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Despite vastly different conceptions about Syria’s future, diplomats from the US, UK, France and Germany worked alongside their counterparts from Russia and China to persuade the Iranians to accept the agreement. That has helped to resolve a festering sore in Iran’s international relations, and has help to calm tensions in an otherwise febrile Middle East.

It is worth remembering how close the West came to carrying out air strikes to ‘deal’ with the Iran nuclear issue just a few years ago – my back bench debate, in February 2012, mildly calling for the Government to take military options “off the table” in favour of greater dialogue was roundly defeated by 285 votes to 6! Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail, and the unexpected and welcome election of President Rouhani, in 2013, who campaigned on a platform to improve Iran’s international relations, offered an opening for negotiations.

Hardliners in both the US and Iran have never been fully content with the deal, and it is bitterly disappointing that President Donald Trump has chosen to de-certify it. However, it is encouraging that the other signatories, including the UK, have indicated their strong continuing support for the accord. It is a sobering thought that, if it does fail, it will only work to the Iranian hardliners’ advantage, who maintain that any accommodation with the West is naive and not in their country’s interests.

Furthermore, world leaders, especially in countries such as North Korea, would surely take the view from such a failure that signing any such agreement with the US is not worthwhile. Given that peace treaties, as we have seen with our dealings in the Middle East over the last century, tend to be more enduring than settlements imposed by force, such a development would not be good for countries like Britain – and the US, for that matter – which strive to uphold the rules-based international system. When it comes to dealing with the aftermath of Daesh, I hope we bear this in mind.

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