Paddy: “A problem caused by killing Arab Muslims won’t be made better by killing more with Western weapons”

rally paddy 01I had been waiting to see what Paddy Ashdown would have to say on Iraq because he’s probably the person in British politics who best understands the international complexities of all the world’s flashpoints.

On a day when Tony Blair is urging speedy action to deal with extremism, Paddy spoke to Sky News’ Murnaghan programme about what he thinks should happen. He was asked if Blair was right to be interventionist. His reply that intervening didn’t necessarily mean blowing things and people up:

I’m firmly interventionist because I believe unless we are prepared to intervene internationally to preserve the wider peace when it’s threatened, the world will be a much more turbulent place but I don’t believe it’s right in these circumstances in the way that Tony suggests.  I mean there are other ways you can do it and we might come on to talking about that.  Look, I’m sorry Dermot, I’m having a bit of a difficulty getting my mind round the idea that a problem that has been caused or made worse by killing many, many Arab Muslims in the Middle East is now going to be made better by killing more with Western weapons.  I just don’t think that’s the solution.

He also warned about ignoring the wider context of what is going on – the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims:

..the problem is that we are at the beginning of a widening Sunni/Shia religious sectarian conflict that is going to be spreading across the entire Middle East, it will go to Iraq, it will go to Egypt, it will go to Libya, it will go to Mali and that’s exactly what’s happened.  This is more about the preparations, funded by the way by our so-called friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to capture and unify the Sunni community, the Sunni umma, for a Jihadist cause in preparation for a widening Shia war and unless we understand that and unless we understand also, Dermot, that we have pretty limited means to influence the progress of that, then I think we are going to get every calculation wrong.

We need to be aware of the position of the Russians in all of this, too:

…we need also to recognise that the Russians have a concern about this and a very legitimate one because what they are seeing in those Islamic republics of Dagestan, Chechnya threatening the cohesion of the Russian Federation is exactly the same radicalisation of the Sunni community and the real danger of this, unless we are very careful, is that we are drawn in on one side, on the side of the Sunnis, and Russia is drawn in on the other.  Then you have a regional war with the great powers engaged.  Now I don’t say we are there yet but that at all costs is what we must avoid.

But what can we do about it? He talked about ISIS making Al Qaeda look like a Vicarage tea party and suggested that he thinks they’ve over extended themselves and would  be beaten back in the short term, but the best way of dealing with the longer term problem was by use of subtle diplomacy, which includes a reformist Iran:

Now I have a suspicion that diplomacy has a role to play here and that diplomacy is to ask ourselves in real terms whether our true allies here are the unreformed Saudi Arabian monarchy and the Qatari monarchy that is funding these extremist movements or whether reformist Iran isn’t somebody we should be playing, so I think we could diplomatically always try to make sure we played to the balance.  The big thing we mustn’t do, and this is the danger of getting involved with bombs and guns again, is for us to be instrumentalised on the side of the Sunni and then for the Russians to be instrumentalised on the other side.  I think there is much more diplomacy to play here than there is straightforward military intervention with guns and aircraft and air support and so on.  I think that is clumsy and I think it will exacerbate the situation in all probably rather than improve it.  So  a little more subtle diplomacy here might be quite helpful.

Paddy certainly confirmed by suspicions that we are right to be very apprehensive about these developments. However, it is a source of great relief to me that Paddy has the ear of the Deputy Prime Minister and will be advising him to plot a sensible and cautious path through this complex situation.

You can read the whole interview with Paddy here.

Murnaghan was embarrassed with riches in the form of world affairs savvy former Liberal Democrat leaders as Sir Menzies Campbell was doing the paper review. Also speaking about Iraq and in particular the article by former Ambassador Sir Christpher Meyer in the Mail on Sunday, he said:

Indeed and there is a piquancy in that because of course Christopher Meyer was there, he had to follow the instructions of this political masters but it’s now emerged that from time to time he was excluded from some of the most important meetings and what he says, it’s in the headline, ‘No Mr Blair, your naïve war was a trigger for this savage violence”.  You’ve just had an interview with Tony Blair in which he says the opposite but I think it’s very interesting that someone who had to implement the policy is so root and branch opposed to what Mr Blair is now offering.

Elaborating on Meyer’s position, Sir Menzies said:

Well he says that the root of all this is the fact that we went in there and disturbed the circumstances.  It is quite true that there was nothing good to be said about Saddam Hussein and a lot of people still argue that in the fullness of time then the opposition might well have been powerful enough in order to deal with them.  Remember too, we were following a policy in those days of containment and deterrents, making life very difficult for Saddam Hussein and his regime and there is no reason that I have ever seen put forward as to why we would shouldn’t have continued that other than – and I think Mr Blair actually admitted it to you today – that the purpose was regime change.  Well that’s not what he was telling us back in 2003 and in particular what Clare Short was being told when she was a member of the Cabinet.

You can read Ming’s interview here.



* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Jun '14 - 3:58pm

    No British intervention or involvement of any sort. Seems straightforward enough to me.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Jun '14 - 4:19pm

    This is a very good article. My humble instincts are to stay away from populist messages about not intervening, but also to listen to people like Paddy who have got ideas for a diplomatic way out. We all live on this planet together and we can’t ignore violence happening elsewhere. We need to think like a police force who is willing to use force to stop the violence, not sound eager to join in on it.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jun '14 - 4:46pm

    Paddy Ashdown said he was “ashamed” when the Commons voted not to intervene militarily in Syria, so he seemed to have no qualms about Western weapons being used to kill Muslims in the Middle East last year. The kind of language Paddy uses here is not helpful.

    I’m a bit baffled by the references to Britain potentially wading in on the Sunni side of this conflict, when pretty much everyone is agreed that the Isis Sunnis are the bad guys here.

    It’s ludicrous to blame Blair for the current conflict. People talk as if the Sunnis and Shias were living in perfect harmony before 2003, or even as if Saddam, whatever his other faults, at least did a good job of keeping a lid on these tensions. In fact Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government had brutalised the Shia and others for years. In 1991 alone he killed between 50,000 and 100,000 after a failed uprising. This wasn’t keeping a lid on conflict; this was conflict.

    As for the Sunni/Shia conflict in general, this has been going on for nearly 1,400 years, in most cases (including now) in countries that were never invaded by Tony Blair. By all means blame Blair for his own failings, but to suggest that he is the instigator of a 1,400-year long sectarian conflict doesn’t make any kind of sense.

  • David Allen 15th Jun '14 - 6:07pm

    “By all means blame Blair for his own failings, but to suggest that he is the instigator of a 1,400-year long sectarian conflict doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

    No, indeed it doesn’t. Unless you believe Tony Blair is Doctor Who, and that he travelled back into time to launch the first Crusades (in his dreams!)

    Who was it who created this awesome and historic straw man argument? Clue: it wasn’t Paddy Ashdown.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jun '14 - 7:28pm

    @David Allen
    I’m glad you can find humour in the current situation, but the reality is that Isis are slaughtering Shias because they believe them to be “infidels”. Why do they believe them to be infidels? Mainly because they hold a different view over who should have been the rightful Caliph 1,400 years ago. Meanwhile, people like Christopher Meyer (if you’d read my post a little more carefully you’d have noticed I never said it was Paddy Ashdown) are debating whether Tony Blair is to blame for all this.

    But then, it’s all the fault of the Crusades really isn’t it (though the first crusade was nearly 450 years after the Battle of the Camel).

  • @Stuart
    Although religion may be part of the issue, Maliki is also part of the problem. Rather than look for a government that can serve all, he excluded the Sunni quite consciously which created a disaffected element.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jun '14 - 8:03pm

    You are right, and of course that in itself is a product of the Sunni-Shia schism I was talking about.

    This will never be solved. When people are prepared to kill others over this kind of thing, the idea that it can all be solved by “diplomacy” (as held by Menzies Campbell) is hopelessly optimistic.

  • Steve Comer 15th Jun '14 - 8:19pm

    Interesting that Paddy used the words “… funded by the way by our so-called friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

    Whose “friends” are the Saudi Government supposed to be then Paddy?
    The Saudis have funded mosque building in many countries, but have also funded hundreds of Imam’s who defend and promote the authoritarian conservative Wahabi and Salafi interpretations of Islam. Saudi Arabia has never been a democracy – its a feudal Monarchy with abundant natural resources, especially oil. The country relies on cheap migrant labour. Much of it from poorer Arab countries…oh and Trade Union rights – forget it! Women are second class citizens who are even legally barred from driving a car.

    Of course historically the Saudi government were “friends” of the USA (and the Bush family in particular). They could be relied on to turn on the oil supply tap when their “allies” asked them to. So called “Western democracies” have done themselves no favours by backing autocratic and totally illiberal dictatorships in the Middle East. The trouble is most politicians refuse to even look at the facts.

    To his credit Vince Cable did, in his brief tenure as Acting Leader, he refused to attend the jollities for the official visit to the UK of the Saudi King. The Saudi regime is no friend of any Liberal (or even liberal) , and our party leaders should be saying so loudly and publicly.

  • @Stuart
    Diplomacy can work. The problem is similar to the mistakes that were made in Egypt. By seeing the Sunni as something to be sidelined, it helped those who want war between the sects.

    This problem is partly of the making of the west which talked about getting rid of the Baathists after the fall of Hussein.

    If we are to intervene, it should be to create a national unity government where all sides are included.

  • Jonathan Pile 15th Jun '14 - 10:45pm

    Say it long enough and Loud enough and often enough Tony and you might even convince yourself. Western Intervention didn’t help then and won’t help now. Better perhaps to develop regional security but keep out. The west has growing alignment of interests with a reformed Iran. We Lib Dems were right to keep out of illegal wars.

  • Stuart Mitchell 15th Jun '14 - 10:58pm

    @Helen Tedcastle
    Before the Blair/Bush war in Iraq there were just as many people being killed, it’s just that most of them were being killed by Saddam’s regime. Would-be Sunni terrorists had no need to kill a couple of dozen people in a market because they had a Sunni-dominated government killing Shias and Kurds on an industrial scale.

    I’m not sure how you can say there were no terrorists in the country – death and mayhem had been commonplace in Iraq for years.

    I don’t disagree that the war was a disaster in many ways, but it seems very questionable morally to suggest that things would have been better if Saddam had been left in place, and it’s even more questionable to suggest that somebody who kills innocent people – motivated in many cases by sectarian hatred – can transfer any of their own guilt on to Tony Blair. Terrorists will always make excuses for their actions – we shouldn’t entertain any of them.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Jun '14 - 11:35pm

    This is different to Iraq in 2003. This time their government wants help.

  • Paddy in his interview says “…in all probability what you are seeing now is the wholesale rewriting of the borders established in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and set in the Versailles Conference of 1918 of the whole Middle East in favour of a new complex of borders which reflect sectarian differences between Sunni and Shia and that’s the danger.”

    I think this is the crux of the matter and we will likely see the kind of wholesale displacement of populations along tribal/sectarian lines that we saw at the end of World War 2 in Europe and has been happening more recently in Syria.

    Beyond humanitarian assistance and political support to democratic governments, I think there is little benefit to be had in the UK getting embroiled in the upheaval associated with this redrawing of borders or playing balance of power politics. We need to look to our own national interest – countering the threat from British Jihadi’s returning from these regions; encouraging and supporting the Arab league in dealing with their own regional problems; maintaining pressure on the Assad and Maliki administrations to form governments of national unity in Syria and Iraq; and bolstering Nato bases in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean.

  • So what is so good about a country’s borders being drawn as straight lines on a map by foreigners who live half a continent away? Modern Iraq dates from colonialist powers (Britain and France) carving up the middle eastern section of the old Ottoman Empire. Its hardly surprising that Iraq and Syria have never known democracy when the whole existence of the country depends on the power of the state crushing opposition forces.

    The Kurdish people were denied their state in the colonialist carve-up post WW1, and lets not forget the post-war settlement led to wholesale ethnic cleansing and force population moves, (most tragically in Greece and Turkey.


  • A Social Liberal 16th Jun '14 - 2:24am

    Helen Tedcastle said

    “Before the Blair/Bush war in Iraq – to facilitate regime change – there were no terrorist in the country.

    After the war, in which over 100,000 people died, the country is crawling with jihadi insurgents and mercenaries. So yes, Blair’s decision-making and lack of listening, is responsible for this mess (along with a gung-ho US President).”

    You are quite wrong, Helen. The following quotes are from a Guardian report published in 2003

    “According to Abid, the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980 was run by a senior Mukhabarat officer called Fawzi al-Naimi. The attackers were recruited from regions within Iraq populated by so-called ‘Iranian Arabs’ and were trained in the Iraqi capital. ‘I was in special operations in Baghdad at the time and I saw their files and their information,’ Abid, 49, said.

    Weapons for the Iranian Embassy operation were smuggled from Kuwait to London with the help of the Abu Nidal terrorist group, who were close to Saddam’s regime at the time, Abid said. In 1982 the Iraqis used Abu Nidal for an attempt to kill the Israeli Ambassador in London. Abu Nidal himself died of multiple gunshot wounds in Baghdad last year.

    ” . . . The defectors also revealed that Iraqi intelligence officers had trained Palestinian terrorists at a base near Baghdad and, for the first time, revealed details that confirm Saddam’s role in the failed assassination attempt on George Bush senior in Kuwait in 1993.”

    “. . . . . Abid confirmed that the Mukhabarat trained terrorists at a camp south of the capital, but said that recruits came from leftist Palestinian groups. He said that the regime had close links with Hamas, the Islamic militant organisation behind many suicide bombings in Israel.”

  • Just my opinion however we should not have been aggressors in Iraq we should keep our nose out. Libya Syria now back to Iraq we are not world police President Obama quoted a trillion $ bill we are told our bill was £20 odd billion yeh right is it any wonder we have national debt of £1.4 trillion and struggle paying our way.

    I would prefer not hearing Tony Blair trying to incite a further war.

    Now I will contradict myself we should aid Iraq with the latest threat but only because I think we should consider we had some responsibility in brining this incursion about

    STOP the UK being world police punch above our weight is another way of saying spending on the credit card even though it’s maxed now.

  • Jayne Mansfield 16th Jun '14 - 4:57pm

    I have never understand how Saudi Arabia was regarded by western powers as a friend or as a bulwark against terrorism. Have we been bought?

    Well done Vince on showing some moral backbone.

  • Stuart Mitchell 16th Jun '14 - 5:16pm

    On the day the new forced marriage laws come in to effect, to the delight (I hope) of virtually everyone, I’d say we can safely conclude that David Herdson’s article is complete nonsense.

  • Good Iraq military situation report from the Brookings institute advising against US attacks or taking sides with Iran against Sunni militants.

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