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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Jeremy Corbyn set to win landslide victory – what now for his opponents?

A YouGov poll shows the Labour leader on course to win by a bigger margin (62-38) than last year. 

Different year, same result. Jeremy Corbyn is set to win another landslide victory in the Labour leadership election. The long-anticipated Times/YouGov poll puts Corbyn ahead of Owen Smith by 62 per cent to 38 per cent: an even bigger margin of victory than in 2015 (when he won 59.5 per cent).

YouGov, which has called the last two contests correctly, shows Corbyn leading comfortably among all three groups: party members (52-40), registered supporters (70-25) and affiliated supporters (54-33). 

For weeks, Smith’s backers have claimed that the race is far closer than I and others have suggested. They argued that constituency party nominations (of which Corbyn won 84 per cent) were unrepresentative. A projection last week by Saving Labour showed Smith on course to win by 4,000 votes. But YouGov's poll, the only one to have been published since the contest began, suggests such hopes are forlorn.

Corbyn’s lead comes in spite of the exclusion of 130,000 post-12 January members from the contest and the increase in the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (which some rebels anticipated would favour them). Smith has also made repeated efforts to woo the left: offering to make Corbyn party president, vowing to give activists a veto over policy and adopting an interventionist manifesto (including a 1 per cent wealth tax, £200bn of infrastructure spending, a ban on zero-hour contracts and the reversal of NHS private provision). The scale of Labour’s transformation is shown by the chasm between new and old members. Among those who joined before May 2015, Smith leads by 68-32. Among those who joined after September 2015, Corbyn leads by 86-14.

In the absence of a remarkable upset in the next three weeks, the Labour leader will be returned on 24 September. There are two rebel groups who will claim vindication from this outcome (it is wrong to treat the 172 MPs as a unified entity). The first are those who argued that it was far too early to challenge Corbyn; that he needed to be “given more time to fail”. In their view, it was utopian to believe that Labour members who elected him less than a year ago would change their views.

The second group are those who argued that rather than narrowing the selectorate (by increasing the sign-up fee to £25), Corbyn’s opponents needed to expand it. As a former shadow cabinet minister recently told me: “Moderates need to understand that it’s only through the registered supporters route that they’re going to be able to win back the party. There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up ... The strategic problem with Owen’s candidacy is that it talks to the existing bubble, you can win 40-45 per cent of that, but you can only really win if you can bring in new people. Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Some point to the primaries in which French president François Hollande (backed by 1.6m) and Italian president Matteo Renzi (1.9m) won selection against left-wing opponents as models to emulate. Another invoked the US: “Obama would never have won in 2008 with the existing Democratic membership and support base, it was owned by the Clintons. You’ve got to change it.”

Though many will again raise the spectre of a split, Labour MPs, as I’ve written before, have no intention of pursuing this course. Instead, with Theresa May ruling out an election before 2020, some intend to challenge Corbyn again. Others believe that they should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.” A senior MP told me recently that the PLP should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it”. The imperative, he said, was to avoid the rebels taking the blame for a future election defeat.

Corbyn’s allies do not hesitate to warn that antagonistic MPs put themselves at risk of deselection. “The power’s there, we can’t stop it. We cannot say you cannot use the powers at your local CLP [Constituency Labour Party],” a senior source told me. “There’s no lever in the leader’s office for deselections. The issue is that there’s lot of party members who are very annoyed at their MPs for going against them and now they find they have a voice that they never normally had.”

Though mandatory reselection was abolished by Neil Kinnock in 1990, MPs can still be ousted if they lose the “trigger ballots” automatically held before a general election (from which open selections result). During a recent visit to Brighton, Corbyn said that he would not “interfere” in attempts to remove local MP Peter Kyle. “What goes on in CLPs is part of a democratic process,” he stated. For Corbyn’s supporters, the finding that 48 per cent of the selectorate favour mandatory reselection is a valuable disciplinary tool. Until the members reflect the MPs, or the MPs reflect the members, Labour will remain united in name but divided in spirit.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.