We must plan for military action in Syria

Each time the Assad regime gets away with these despicable acts, the world becomes less stable.

Editor's note: The New Statesman's leader on Syria can be read here.

Following the appalling savagery at Houla, Kofi Annan declared: “we are at a tipping point”. We are not, we are already peering into the abyss, watching those suffering within it, and ignoring their calls for help as we pontificate on the niceties of international law and power-politics. Given his experience of the Rwanda genocide, Annan knows that there is no “tipping point” above which the number slaughtered either shocks the perpetrators into relending, or shames the international community into acting. The UN and international community have previously stood by as hundreds of thousands of innocents perished, and will do so again unless the moral case for the responsibility to protect is articulated more forcefully. To do this, we must listen to and then act on behalf of the victims, or else their human rights enshrined in ‘international law’ shall once again be shown to be worth little more than the paper on which they're written. Given the futility of diplomacy, robust military intervention must now be planned.  

In domestic politics, the rights of victims of crime are often forgotten amid our clamour to uphold those of defendants. This pattern, when transferred to the international stage, helps perpetuate an ‘aggressor’s charter’ prioritising the rights of criminal governments over those of civilian populations. It is time for a reversal so that in future the rights of ordinary human beings to life and liberty trump an illegitimate government’s right to protection from outside interference in its affairs, or the broader strategic interests of their allies. Only the superb reporting of journalists such as the late Marie Colvin, Tom CoghlanMartin Fletcher (£), and Alex Thomson (to name but a few) has given voice to these voiceless thousands, from which we should conclude that each time the Assad regime gets away with these despicable acts, the world becomes less stable and less safe for us all.

It is of course important to ponder whether an alternative naval base might be found for Russia in the Mediterranean or how they might keep their base in a post-Assad Syria; whether a Yemen-style top-level political solution can be found through which Assad goes but the regime clings on; whether the nature of Syria’s air defences render attack impossible; or whether Syria’s multi-ethnic composition and lack of unified opposition mean any intervention would merely provoke far greater human suffering in future. However, the geopolitical strategic calculations and debates about the practical implications all too often ignore the voices and interests of the civilians, the victims, who matter most.

At this stage of the crisis, three fundamental conclusions can be drawn. First, in its desperation to cling to power, this regime will countenance depravity up to and beyond the level of his father’s massacre of 20,000 civilians at Hama in 1982. Second, diplomatic pressure alone is no deterrent. The Annan Plan has failed because in seeking to end violence on both sides, it delegitimised the right of civilians to resist a dictator who is oppressing them, whilst simultaneously failing to afford them either the physical security or the democratic reforms they desire and deserve. Equally, like Milošević and Saddam Hussein, Assad is well-versed in Stalin's doctrine: 'how many divisions does the Pope have?' and will only desist when confronted by overwhelming military force. Third, Russia and China's diplomatic and military support for Assad, confirmed again on Wednesday, is likely to remain sufficiently robust as to prevent the Security Council sanctioning of any form of military intervention, thereby bolstering Assad's confidence that he acts with impunity.

What can be done to break this impasse? The most credible military option, the creation of militarily-protected safe zones in North West Syria, is now being mooted by, amongst others, serious and experienced people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Director of Planning at the US State Department, and Ann Clwyd MP, Tony Blair’s former special envoy to Iraq and now a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Even this would probably fall foul of the Chinese and Russian veto. Therefore, the international community, and indeed each of us, must ask whether for the sake of not offending the sentiments and interests of these Security Council members, we are willing to allow the death-toll to rise from 18,000 towards the levels of Bosnia or Sudan?

International law should not be conflated with doing the right thing, and the victims of Houla and countless other places in Syria, require that for once, we protect them, rather than protecting a discredited, immoral international political system. The Arab Spring has shown that ordinary citizens rising up in pursuit of freedom and democracy can topple nefarious regimes. The ferocity of Assad's response indicates his deep fear of the unstoppable, eternal urge of people to govern their own destiny and live in dignity. Facing down cynical, brutal evil has never been easy and will not be this time. We owe the innocent civilians of Syria our support, for their sake, and in defence of the principle that the rights of ordinary people must prevail.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).

Twitter: @JohnSlinger

Members of the Free Syrian Army's Commandos Brigade near Qusayr, nine miles from Homs. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog.

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The government's housing policies are dividing London

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The government’s Housing and Planning Bill, which returns to the House of Commons this week, is not fit for purpose. Not only will it not tackle the housing crisis facing the capital, it will actually make the situation worse. Many of the Bill’s most damaging provisions have been pulled apart by the House of Lords, and I would call on the Government to think again before forcing this Bill through Parliament.

This government has long talked of ‘making work pay’ by removing disincentives to work from the welfare system, yet this rhetoric is directly contradicted by the pay to stay rule which will hit households earning over £30,000 (£40,000 in London) with a significant rent hike. Penalising a working couple in this way is a senseless attack on aspiration – it should never make financial sense for someone to cease going out to work to avoid fiscal penalties handed down by the government.

The end of long-term, secure tenancies for families in social housing pours further scorn over two other Tory buzzwords, namely ‘community’ and ‘security’. The Prime Minister has told us that all government policies have to pass the ‘family test’, but there is nothing more damaging to family life and children’s education than moving families from property to property, in and out of school catchment areas and causing endless uncertainty about the future.     

I am genuinely fearful about the impact that the Government’s forced sale of social housing will have on the most vulnerable. Across the capital, local authority waiting lists are already over-subscribed and families with young children are living in the most desperate and dire circumstances.

The Government’s own figures show that rough sleeping has increased 30% in the last year and 102% since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. A separate study by the Combined Homelessness and Information Network found that there are over 7,500 rough sleepers in London alone.

This is nothing short of a scandal, and must serve as an urgent wake-up call. London councils simply do not have the housing stock available to them to provide for all those that need a roof over their head, and Haringey Council are already spending almost £20 million per year on temporary accommodation in a desperate effort to keep children and families from sleeping on the streets.

It is hard to fathom why the Government is planning to push through changes that would reduce social housing stock by 370,000 by 2020 according to the Chartered Institute for Housing. Whether it is the extension of Right-to-Buy or the forced sale of valuable council homes to fund these discounted sales, forcing those on low incomes into the private rented sector will only see the housing benefit bill continue to soar.

Council properties, currently set aside for local people, will instead fall into the hands of speculators and buy-to-let landlords. The Government have not set out a serious plan for how replacement properties will be provided in the same area as the lost homes, with Housing Minister Brandon Lewis telling me that housing associations will merely “have the flexibility” to replace lost stock nationally.

What is needed is more council homes for social rent. Recent history tells us that property developers and the free market won’t supply these homes – there is far too much money to be made in building high end high rise blocks for wealthy foreign buyers – so we must provide councils with the funds to build the homes so badly needed.

Not only is the Government failing to provide for the most vulnerable in our society, the Bill also makes a mockery of the Government’s apparent commitment to providing ‘affordable’ housing for those looking to get on to the housing ladder. A cap of £450,000 is 30 times the annual salary of someone employed on the Government’s celebrated ‘living wage’. The Tory front bench needs to face up to the fact that their definition of affordability means absolutely nothing of the sort to most ordinary Londoners.

What message does it send out about aspiration when only those with the help of cash-rich parents are able to get on the property ladder, no matter how hard they work?

It isn’t just the Labour Party, the House of Lords and housing charities that are calling on the Government to think again. Former DCLG Permanent Secretary and Head of the Civil Service Lord Kerslake and two prominent Conservative local government leaders – Local Government Association (LGA) Chairman Gary Porter and Chair of the LGA Conservative Group David Hodge have also publicly made their concerns known.

If the Government carries on down this path without taking the dire need to build more houses seriously, our capital city will soon be unrecognisable. Inner London is fast becoming the preserve of the super-rich and shady off-shore investors while in the outer boroughs private renters are paying ever-increasing rents to live in overcrowded and substandard homes, in thrall to unregulated landlords free to treat their tenants however they please.

Our great capital is fast turning into two cities as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever larger, and the danger is that if we do not act now this division will become permanent.  

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham