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.

Photo: Getty
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Could Jeremy Corbyn lose after all?

Saving Labour's numbers are plausible - but they feel unlikely. 

Saving Labour, the anti-Corbyn organisation, has released its analysis of figures showing that, far from the landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn expected by the bookmakers – and indicated by his dominant showing in constituency nominations and in the only public YouGov poll of the race – they predict a much closer race – one that Smith will edge by 3902 votes.

The numbers are the result of Saving Labour’s analysis of its own mailing list and information about where exactly the £25 supporters and trade union affiliates live and what they do. But are they right?

Well, their estimates for the party membership fit with everything we know thus far.

Saving Labour estimate that Corbyn will defeat Smith among members by 57 to 43 per cent. That’s within the margin of error shown in the only public YouGov poll of the race thus far, which put the two candidates at 56 to 34 per cent, with the remainder undecided.

It also fits the pattern of constituency nominations – yes, Corbyn has taken 84 per cent of those, but when you look at the underlying figures, what you’d expect is a roughly 60-40 vote share. (The excellent Psephography Twitter account, which has also been collating CLP nominations, has produced a similar projection to mine.)  

That brings us to the known unknowns of the Labour leadership race: affiliated trade unionists and the registered supporters who have paid £25 for a one-off vote in the Labour leadership race.

The turnout figures for both are a carbon-copy of last year’s, which feels about right, although who knows, perhaps the sense of it being a foregone conclusion might lead to a turnout drop in the manner of Labour’s second successive landslide in 2001.

To overturn that heavy defeat among members, Smith would need big wins among trade unionists and registered supporters, both of which went for Corbyn by large margins last time.

My immediate response to Saving Labour’s figures – which, you guessed it, show him getting exactly those big wins among those sections – was “how very convenient”. But again, the underlying figures are plausible and fit with what we know: that many of last year’s £3 supporters became full members shortly after Corbyn’s victory, and many of the members most opposed to him left in short order. Look at it this way: if last year’s £3ers were drawn from “Old Labour in exile”, it is possible this year’s £25ers are “New Labour in exile”.

As for the trade union figures, Saving Labour believe they have successfully focused on recruiting trade unionists in fields that Corbyn has set himself against – aerospace, defence and pharmaceuticals. And again, this is perfectly plausible. We know, thanks to a series of polls commissioned by Ian Warren, a former Labour staffer, that support for Corbyn has fallen among members of the affiliated unions.

Plausible, but, not, I think, likely. Why not?

Let’s start with those trade unionists. Yes, we know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that enamoured of Corbyn. But we also know that most members of affiliated trade unions are not that concerned with the Labour party. That’s partly why more than one of Labour’s trade union general secretaries is striking a far more pro-Corbyn tone in public than in private – because while their Corbynscepticism may be closer to that of the millions of union members who don’t vote in internal elections, they need to retain the support of Corbyn-backing activists who do vote.

It feels more likely than not that the tiny minority of trade unionists who choose to vote will be closer to the politically active members of their own trade unionists, particularly as Saving Labour had a relatively small window to recruit trade unionists.  

As for the £25ers, having rung round local parties, my impression is that, on average, a third of them are members who joined after the freeze date, with the rest unknown. It could be, therefore, that these additional sign-ups are “New Labour in exile”.

But again, it doesn’t feel likely. Although the support base for both Corbyn and his opponents, is, on the whole, able to afford to pay £25 for a vote, my feeling is that regardless of how much you earn, £25 still feels like quite a bit of money. Remember that for most of the window, it was unclear which of Angela Eagle or Owen Smith were going to be the candidate to take on the Labour leader – and neither of them were lighting up enough stages to motivate people to shell out to vote for one or both of them.

So while the numbers are certainly believable – I’ll believe it when it happens.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.