Former Bishop of Oxford’s Lord’s speech in opposition to Syria airstrikes

Will “more good than evil must flow from the military action”, Lord Harries asks the government

Hansard 2 Dec 2015 Columns 1130-31

Lord Harries of Pentregarth: My Lords, I have always found the Christian just war tradition an essential tool for thinking about military action. There is nothing esoteric about it. It is simply a way of ordering one’s thoughts in relation to a well-established set of criteria.

In relation to the proposed bombing in Syria, the first three criteria are easily met. Is there just cause? Yes: Daesh is an evil that must be stopped. Is there competent authority? Yes: the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 calls on states to take “all necessary” means to overcome this threat to international peace. Is there just intention? Yes: to establish an ordered peace in territory now held by ruthless killers.

It is when we come to the last three of the six criteria that the issue becomes much more problematical. Have all other steps short of war been taken? No: there are clearly other actions that we should be tackling as a matter of urgency. One is working with Turkey to close the Turkey/Syria border to foreign fighters, who have in recent years made their way much too easily across it. The other is stopping the flow of arms to Daesh. Much stronger pressure must surely be put on those countries that are currently facilitating this.

The next two criteria are very closely intertwined and are crucial in the present debate in particular, as noble Lords have made clear. Namely, more good than evil must flow from the military action, and there must be a reasonable chance of success. We need to think very seriously about what we mean by “success” in this context. It has two aspects, both crucial. One is the worldwide battle for hearts and minds. We must never forget that the aim of these terrorists is to alienate young Muslim minds from the values of the countries in which they live and to win them over to their extreme form of religion.

There is a lesson to be learnt here from the liberation struggles in the 1960s against colonial powers. The guerrilla forces at that time knew that they could not win great battles, but their aim was to stay in existence long enough and be enough of a threat until the political battle had been won. That success depended on keeping the population for whom they were fighting on their side. Daesh must, and will, be defeated, but that would be worse than useless if military action resulted in thousands more disaffected Muslims joining its ranks worldwide. This could happen if bombing resulted in major civilian casualties. The problem now is that Daesh forces are clever enough to no longer present obvious military targets. They can and do very easily melt into the civilian population—a population that would be the main sufferers in any bombing campaign.

The second aspect of success means winning and holding Daesh territory and establishing stable government upon it. For this, as so many noble Lords have emphasised, ground forces are needed. But Syrian experts tell us that the Free Syrian Army, even if it numbered 70,000, is mainly in the south, with its fighters unwilling to fight outside their own provinces. As we know, they are very divided amongst themselves. Until there are ground forces in place ready to take territory—this probably means some prior political understanding with the Russians over the future of the Syrian Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Hague, so rightly stressed—I do not think that the criterion of a reasonable chance of success has been met. As the Prime Minister wrote, in response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee,

“Without transition, it will … be difficult to generate a Sunni force able to fight ISIL and hold ground in Eastern Syria”.

The Government are committed to a political and diplomatic process, which, of course, the whole House wholeheartedly supports. However, it is only the beginning of a process. It is premature to say that it is far enough advanced to have a reasonable chance of success on the ground, without which air strikes alone would be premature and could alienate the very people whom we want to hold to our side.

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