Syria: lessons from history for the west

Much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion.

All too often, international events bear out the adage that "history teaches us that history teaches us nothing". Lessons from the shameful response of the international community to other crises must inform our policy on Syria.

First, we must not describe events as a "civil war", thereby creating an image in western minds that the combatants are morally or militarily equivalent when this is a cynical perversion of reality. One is the army of a dictatorship attacking civilians; the other are freedom fighters defending a popular uprising of democrats. In the 1990s the "civil war" descriptor was used by John Major, Douglas Hurd and their foreign counterparts, to justify inaction in the face of overwhelming Serb aggression. Tragic consequences followed.

Second, we must not accept that providing solely humanitarian aid satisfies our responsibility to protect civilians in Syria from war crimes. We must not copy the model used in Bosnia of sending in UN-helmeted western troops to protect humanitarian aid convoys, merely to feed today those who will be murdered by a powerful aggressor tomorrow. The so-called "safe havens" of Bosnia seared an image of the wilful impotence of the international community onto the minds of countless dictators, no doubt including Assad and Saddam Hussein. Now is the time for moral potency in bringing to life the growing norm in international relations that, under certain circumstances, we have a "responsibility to protect" when illegitimate governments murder or persecute their own people.

Third, we should recall that much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion. We should learn the lessons of the work of Ann Clwyd MP and others who set up the organisation INDICT in 1996 to seek the indictment of Saddam's regime for war crimes. Suffice to say Western governments did not take up this option. The UN Human Rights Council should be encouraged to act on the recent findings of the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Fourth, we must remember the crowing of those opposed to the international liberation of Iraq in 2003 who said at the time: "why invade now for WMDs or oil...why didn't we invade when Saddam was massacring the Kurds and Shias in the 1980s." Western powers did, eventually and under public pressure, do the right thing by the Iraqi Kurds and instituted a no-fly zone and a safe haven which allowed the Kurds to return from the mountains and start building what has become the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq so far. We are now witnessing events akin to those dreadful crimes of the 1980s against humanity and failure to act will reap a terrible future harvest, not least for the people of Syria but for the Middle East and the wider world.

Finally, the Arab Spring has shown that the universal human urge to live in freedom can topple governments unwilling to reform. History will remember those who upheld and protected the rights of people whose desire was not death and destruction, but the dignity of living in freedom. The lessons of history teach us that we must not allow those who disparage and fear such universal forces to be the arbiter of human progress in Syria or elsewhere.

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.