Paddy Ashdown: It is the coalition being constructed in Vienna that will first of all defeat ISIL

Liberal Democrat Conference Bournemouth 2009 Portraits
Paddy Ashdown

Speaking yesterday in the Lords debate on Syria, Paddy Ashdown made the following speech:

I hope that today marks a watershed not just for the people of Syria but in our battle to remove the scourge and terror of ISIL and in the foreign policy of Her Majesty’s Government. In the last 10 years, since shock and awe, we have been obsessed by high explosives as our singular instrument of foreign policy. We have forgotten again and again and again the old dictum of Clausewitz that war is an extension of diplomacy by other means. So in Afghanistan we relied on high explosives: we did not build the relationships with the neighbours that we should have built, we did not build that diplomatic context, and we lost. In Iraq, we did the same. And we lost. In Libya, when it came to constructing the peace, we did the same. And we lost. And for the last three years we have been doing exactly the same. And we were losing. Maybe we will now give ourselves a chance to turn that around and make success.


The more alert Members of your Lordships’ House will recall that I have made the point over the last three years, in this place and in newspaper articles, that bombing alone would not succeed and that we ignored the diplomatic context—there was none. I remember saying, time and again, that to make the removal of Assad a cardinal principle of our policy when we did not have the means to make it happen was utter folly. If you will the ends, you must will the means, and we had none, since he was supported by Russia and Iran. I made the point, time and again, that this was not about the West but about the growing Sunni-Shia conflict, and we had to try and get in and unite those two groups; that we needed to create a proper coalition; that we needed to involve the Russians—I remember the rather derisory comments when I first made that proposition.

Now, we have that. At last, in Vienna, we have a proposition for a widening coalition between Sunni and Shia with the involvement of the Russians. To back that, we have a UN Security Council resolution, which, by the way, does not just legitimise action but lays a duty upon us to take action. That is what the words say. So all the ingredients that I sought to make some sense of military action are now either in place or in progress. How could I not back that?

However, I want to make two points very clear. The first is that British bombing alone will not defeat ISIL. It might add something—a rather small amount, I think—to the weight of bombs that are falling, but it is the coalition being constructed in Vienna today that will first of all defeat ISIL and then move on to create, I hope, some kind of stable peace in Syria. By the way, those who want to get rid of Assad need to recognise that it is only in the context of that coalition that Assad will now be removed. So of course one would want to support that. With a coalition that comes up with a military strategy first—as in Dayton, when we had to bomb the war to an end to beat the Serbs—and then a strategy to create some kind of stability in Syria, how could it be the case that Britain would not play a part in that? So, yes, I support the Government.

Secondly, and finally, if you launch war, you launch unpredictability. The best that we are deciding on today is that, on the balance of probabilities, this is the best opportunity that we will have. There are no certainties. If we are successful in removing ISIL and creating some context of stability in Syria, it will be messy, conflict-ridden and inelegant. The peace that we may be able to create will not look very nice. In fact, probably the only thing to be said for that peace is that it will be better than the war that it ended.

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