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I oppose military action in Syria - but I believe we must act to save lives

Humanitarian action is different from a march to war, says Green co-leader Caroline Lucas. 

Though the English language is rich, it fails today because words simply cannot express the horror of what is occurring in Aleppo. Government forces are reported to be murdering people as they hide in their homes or flee on to the streets. Families are stranded in the last remaining neighbourhoods that haven’t been captured by Assad and the rebel groups too are reported by the UN to be firing on civilians. Russia appears to be adopting a very deliberate strategy of preventing the evacuation of doctors and medical staff alongside the patients they are keeping alive.

People are starving in Aleppo too – with food provisions used up and water cut off as government forces use starvation as a tactic of war. Families in Aleppo are being purged from their own city if they’re lucky, slaughtered if they’re not.

In Parliament – thousands of miles away from the chaos both literally and metaphorically – over 200 MPs from every party have joined together, and alongside CEOs of eight international NGOs, to urge our government to do all they can to get aid into Eastern Aleppo. Our party allegiances are different, but our demand is simple: people should not be left to starve.

I believe humanitarian airdrops should begin immediately, and should be carried out by drones or GPS-guided parachutes. The use of drones is not something I have advocated before but, given the risks associated with a manned aircraft potentially being shot down and the resulting escalation in violence, it’s a compromise I am willing to make.

British MPs are quite possibly, in my opinion, to soon be asked to vote on whether to commit the British military to the conflict in Syria. In the House of Commons chamber today a number of MPs made that exact point. Indeed George Osborne claimed that the crisis in Syria "came out of a vacuum - a vacuum of Western leadership" and that "we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening". That claim will be repeated often now – British MPs blaming our lack of intervention for causing the crisis as it is today.

The truth is that nobody knows what would have happened if Britain had committed troops to the conflict in 2013. I stand by my decision not to back such a proposal, not least because an attack on President Assad then would have strengthened Daesh’s grip on the region, and potentially led an even bloodier battle than we have today.

What is certain is that nobody believes there is a military solution to what is happening in Syria – it is diplomacy, both hard and soft, that will pave the way for the long road to peace. The West’s fingerprints are all over the various crises destabilising the region today, and we have to take responsibility for the disastrous long-term consequences of intervention in Iraq and Libya before we throw our military towards further actions in the future. Concluding from Iraq and Syria that UK intervention is always wrong is a folly. However, ignoring the lessons from those conflicts is, frankly, an even more reckless thing to do. Furthermore – as evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee made clear last year – British military involvement in Syria pushes us further away from the role of peacemaker that we should be stepping into, especially ahead of Donald Trump taking the helm in the USA.

Let me be clear, too, that I don’t believe that humanitarian airdops are the only action we should be taking. That’s why I joined a group of MPs in tabling amendment to a piece of Government legislation to freeze assets of those with "blood on their hands" for human rights abuses – including Russia. As Adam Smith, Barack Obama’s former sanctions adviser, says "there is a lot of headroom” to apply more restrictions — on Russian banks, oil companies and individuals. Additionally, the importance of ensuring accountability for the crimes committed in Syria should remain high on our agenda. We must urgently look at how we can better support NGOs documenting human rights violations in Syria – and then explore the creation of a Syrian War Crimes Tribunal.

I will continue to urge the government to do all they can to help the people of Aleppo from starvation by deploying aid drops – and to use every diplomatic tool available to stop the horror that’s occurring in Syria. At the same time, I will resist a march to war that could lead to more people dying and write Britain out of being a peacemaker in the future. When we voted last year on engaging Daesh in Syria, I said that MPs on both sides of the debate made their case with the best of intentions. I continue to believe that to be the case now – and hope that we can all continue to urge government action when we agree – and respect each other’s opinions on the issues on which we do not see eye to eye.

Right now Theresa May has a unique opportunity to forge a new role for Britain on the international stage. Indeed, the world is crying out for leadership that isn’t based on brinkmanship. Let’s get humanitarian aid to the people of Aleppo immediately, and let’s use this moment to recast Britain as a positive force for good in increasingly turbulent times. 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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