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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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