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On Syria Cameron should be the heir to Blair

By Harry Phibbs
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The Conservatives had plenty of criticisms of the Labour Government over the Iraq War which took place a decade ago. There was the dishonesty used by the spin machine to exaggerate the case for military action, there was the contemptible failure to provide our troops with adequate kit and the failure to make sensible preparations for restoring order afterwards.

For all that the basic decision to support military action to remove Saddam Hussein was brave and right. It was to Tony Blair's credit that he took it and to the Conservative Party's credit to support it.

The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein and so is Iraq. It was the Lib Dems who opposed removing Saddam although one of the strongest accounts I have seen for vindicating his removal was a blog post on Lib Dem Voice by the Lib Dem peer Baroness Nicholson. It is not just the removal of a genocidal dictator but the positive progress that has since been made:

Thanks to the free market which is starting to flourish as it never could under Saddam, Iraq’s Central Bank has the biggest reserves in its history at US$60 billion and the Iraqi budget for 2013 was in excess of US$100 billion.

Meanwhile Iraqi banks generally are awash with cash as wages quadruple from a decade ago when Saddam was in power. The Economist Intelligence Unit has predicted a healthy 8.2 per cent GDP growth  this year and 9 per cent in the years leading up to 2017. GDP has increased by 55 per cent over the past five years, driven largely by oil production and exports.

There are other signs of a true economic revival. Recently the Baghdad Stock Exchange successful hosted the biggest floatation of a public company in the Middle East since 1988 when the mobile ‘phone giant Asiacell raised US $1.3 billion. Rivals Zain will follow suit later this year.

In the world of global finance these are game changing events and a clear signal Iraq is certainly not “broken.”

As Executive Chairman of the Iraq Britain Business Council I have frequent meetings with high level Iraqi politicians including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Ministers Shaways and Sharhristani and President of the Kurdish Regional Government Masoud Barzani, as well as other senior figures such as the Governor of Basrah Dr Khalaf.  I have also taken trade missions to Baghdad, Erbil and Basrah and hosted at least 4 conferences a year in the UK and Iraq.

During these extensive visits I have witnessed the rebirth of a nation.

But those of us who aren't dedicated readers of Lib Dem Voice may be unaware of this. So far as the media generally are concerned success in Iraq means it is no longer a story. So many people will assume it is stll a complete mess.

In Libya the secular elected Government is now making some progress in defeating the Islamist militias and establishing the rule of law. I suspect Libya will sort itself out rather more quickly than Iraq did. Again this is not a message much heard in the media.

That prevailing narrative of failure is bad news for the Syrians fighting for their freedom. It makes it harder for western leader to give them the support they need. The excuse is made that if we supply arms to the Syrian Free Army, with its non sectraian democratic goals, they could end up in the hands of extremist rebels by mistake. Rather missing the point that leaving the task to Qatar and the Saudis is hardly likely to lead to better safeguards in that respect.

President Obama re-election was a disaster for the Syrian people and good news for the Assad regime. Mitt Romney would have provided much firmer leadership. Instead we have had months of dither while thousands more have died.

David Cameron can be proud of the role he played in liberating Libya. It is not Mr Cameron's fault that the west has, thus far, been appeasing President Assad.

Now Mr Cameron has to overcome the constraint of winning over public opinion and of Parliament for the UK to play an honourable part in securing a new Syria where those fighting for democracy, freedom and the rule of law defeat both the current regime and the Islamic extremists.

It is not an easy task. The more emphatic a pundit predicts that intervention would mean disaster the greater the deference with which he is treated in a TV studio.

Mr Cameron has plenty of critics but he also has an ally in his predecessor Mr Blair.

Interviewed in The Times (£) this morning, Mr Blair says:

“This is no longer a civil war between factions within Syria. We should be taking a more interventionist line. That’s where I come from in politics. People can agree or disagree with it....”

“You’ve got the intervention of Hezbollah, at the instigation of Iran. The other big change is the use of chemical weapons. Once you allow that to happen — and this will be the first time it has happened since Saddam used them in the 1980s — you run the risk of it then becoming an acceptable form of warfare, for both sides...”

“There are those within the Syrian Opposition who want a pluralistic society and democracy coming out of all of this — and they are the one group of people who are not being armed...”

“You don’t have to send in troops, but the international community should think about installing no-fly zones. You’ve got to create the circumstances in which Assad is not able to change the balance of power within the struggle by the use of outside forces.”

British public opinion is opposed to supplying arms - although supportive of imposing a no fly zone. In terms of Parliament we know there are many Conservative MPs who oppose intervention - assuming that we can in some way "keep out of it." On the other hand are there no Blairite MPs left on the Labour benches? Are there no Labour MPs who believe it is progressive to champion democracy and human rights internationally?

This is an issue that crosses Party boundaries. This should simply be acknowledged and the serious argument pursued. What lives are at stake to suggest Party splits is the main story is crass.

Mr Cameron and Mr Blair should share a platform and make the case together for the liberation of Syria.


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