The Middle East crisis: Is this the end of the beginning?

As the tide of war turned in 1942 following the second battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill spoke about “the end of the beginning”. I have to confess that these words went through my mind as I sat through many hours of TV parliamentary debate on Wednesday on whether or not to bomb Daesh in Syria.

For those who are cynical about the goings on at Westminster, this was an occasion that illustrated perfectly how important our parliamentary democracy really is.

I have to confess that, as someone who felt that, following the United Nations resolution and the plea for help from France after the Paris atrocities, the case for action was hard to ignore, I felt that some of the contributions from seasoned parliamentarians such as Margaret Beckett and Alan Johnson were really impressive, and, as for Hilary Benn, could this be the end of the beginning of his march to the future leadership of his party?

Some people think that an MP’s first loyalty is to their party. In my view their loyalty lies first and foremost to all the people in their constituency, to those who voted for them, to those who didn’t and to those who could be bothered to vote at all. They are there to be true to their conscience.

The final result, after over ten hours of debate, was pretty conclusive. Whether it represents the majority view in the country is hard to judge. But a decision has been made and it’s now time to concentrate on getting a positive result rather than raking over the past, as some are already doing.

With this vote we really could, if we are determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, be witnessing, like Churchill nearly a lifetime ago, the beginning of the end of the war against radical Islam and the restructuring of the geopolitical set up in the Middle East.

Bombing alone will not produce the desired result. We need boots on the ground as well. But, as General Sir John Dannatt said recently, the $64,000 question is whose feet should be in these boots.

What we need is a United Nations force comprising at least the USA, Russia, the UK, France, Germany, China and Iran. These troops need to stay in Syria/Iraq for as long as it takes to allow the diplomatic work now taking place in Vienna to bear fruit.

The first thing to do is to revisit the agreement concluded in 1916 on behalf of Great Britain, France and Imperial Russia by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, upon which the settlement in the territories formerly part of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was concluded after World War One.

With Russia in isolation following the Bolshevik revolution and the decision of the USA to stay away, it was left to the UK and the French to carve up the land which was yielding increasing quantities of much needed oil between them by the creation of artificial states that had little to do with history or religious and cultural affinities.

Sykes/Picot needs to be unpicked and populations consulted to create viable states and then radical Islam can be challenged in its heartlands. This is where states such as Iran and Russia need to be brought in from the cold. They have a vital role to play as well.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, from the Treaty of Versailles, through the summits of Yalta and Potsdam to the Iraq War at the beginning of this century. Winning the war is no good if you haven’t got a plan for the peace, which will stand the test of time.