The full horror of Houla emerges

How should the west respond to a crime against humanity?

The more we learn about last week's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, the more horrific it seems. Following UN investigations, we know now there were at least 108 victims, 49 of whom were children and infants, their lives ended with a shot to the head or a knife to the throat. Fewer than 20 of the deaths were the result of the initial bombardment by the Syrian armed forces. Most were summarily executed in their own homes by state-sponsored militias (principally the shabiha). The front page of this morning's Times (see below) powerfully articulates the human revulsion one feels at such an event.

In a leading article (£), the paper calls for military action by Britain and others. Given the apparent futility of diplomacy and the legacy of western inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia, that is an understandable response. But there remain good reasons to doubt the wisdom of military action. Even a limited intervention would risk triggering a full-blown sectarian civil war and proxy interventions by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The west cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the Syrian population remains unambiguously loyal to Assad. Moreover, as Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell argued in the New Statesman in February, "our action would be viable only if the rebels wanted us to intervene." For now, they remain divided. The Syrian National Council has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone but the National Co-ordinating Committee, the other main faction, favours a negotiated settlement. In view of the continuing bloodshed in Libya, that is no surprise.

The best hope remains that Russia, Syria's most loyal ally and its largest supplier of arms, can be persuaded to exert genuine diplomatic pressure on Damascus. The US is pushing for a negotiated settlement, modelled on that in Yemen, under which Assad would depart but remnants of his administration would remain in place. Yet even if Vladimir Putin acquiesces in the proposal, it is hard to see Syria's tyrant doing so. The fear remains that, like Macbeth, he is "in blood stepp'd in so far" that retreat is unthinkable. But it is hard to conceive that military intervention would do anything but exacerbate the bloodshed. There are no easy options for the west but diplomacy, not bombs, continues to offer the best chance of stopping the killing.

Demonstrators protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul on May 27, 2012 against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn may be a Eurosceptic, but he still appeals to the values of many Remainers

He reassures Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-EU areas that things will be OK.

There are two facts about Brexit that everyone seems to forget every few weeks: the first is that Jeremy Corbyn is a Eurosceptic. The second is that the first fact doesn't really matter.

The Labour leader's hostility to the European project is back in the news after he told Andrew Marr that the United Kingdom's membership of the single market was inextricably linked with its EU membership, and added for good measure that the “wholesale importation” of people from Eastern and Central Europe had been used to “destroy” the conditions of workers, particularly in the construction industry.

As George Eaton observes on Twitter, Corbyn voted against the creation of the single market in 1986 (and the Maastricht Treaty, and the Lisbon Treaty, and so on and so on). It would be a bigger shock if the Labour leader weren't advocating for a hard exit from the European Union.

Here's why it doesn't matter: most Labour MPs agree with him. There is not a large number of Labour votes in the House of Commons that would switch from opposing single market membership to supporting it if Corbyn changed his mind. (Perhaps five or so from the frontbenches and the same again on the backbenches.)

There is a way that Corbyn matters: in reassuring Labour MPs defending majorities in heavily pro-Remain areas that things will be OK. Imagine for a moment the reaction among the liberal left if, say, Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock talked about the “wholesale importation” of people or claimed that single market membership and EU membership were one and the same. Labour MPs in big cities and university towns would be a lot more nervous about bleeding votes to the Greens or the Liberal Democrats were they not led by a man who for all his longstanding Euroscepticism appeals to the values of so many Remain voters.

Corbyn matters because he provides electoral insurance against a position that Labour MPs are minded to follow anyway. And that, far more than the Labour leader's view on the Lisbon Treaty, is why securing a parliamentary majority for a soft exit from the European Union is so hard. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.