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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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