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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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