For years, people have demanded a new kind of politics: MPs who listen, debate issues honestly and openly, stop talking in code, don’t decide everything behind closed doors, don’t vote just according to the party line. Now, in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, they have it. Every tortured twist and turn of its internal debate on bombing Syria was exposed to public scrutiny. Labour MPs pulled no punches in rubbishing each other’s arguments. The leader could speak against bombing Isis positions in Syria; Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, could speak in favour; other shadow ministers and MPs could air various opinions in between. Because the party officially has no policy on the merits of going to war, the whips have been made virtually redundant. A precedent has presumably been set for other tricky issues. The lobby fodder is no more. In accordance with the teachings of Chairman Mao, a hundred flowers (not, as I am sure John McDonnell will confirm, the commonly quoted thousand flowers) can bloom. Isn’t this what everybody wanted?
Isis bombs will follow ours
David Cameron’s claim that bombing IS’s strongholds in Raqqa will make us safer is simply wrong. It may be true that the security services foiled a number of terrorist plots that were planned before we even considered bombing, but we should be in no doubt that our intervention will greatly increase the chances of IS striking in a big way. The Syrian Kurds, who inflicted several defeats on IS earlier this year, have been frequent targets for suicide bombings, particularly the one in Kobane in June that killed 146. France conducted its first air strikes in September; the Paris atrocities followed within two months. Russian air strikes inflicted substantial damage on Raqqa (despite claims that they are directed only at “moderate” enemies of the Syrian regime); the bombing of its airliner duly followed. Turkey began bombing IS in July; suicide bombers (probably sponsored by IS) killed 100 in Istanbul in October.
It is, to be sure, naive to think that IS will keep the peace if we and other countries stay out of Syria. And it is certainly wimpish to use fear of retaliation as a reason for non-intervention. The truth, however, is that the short-term risks to British citizens are increased by bombing IS and it is very un-Churchillian of Cameron not to say so.
Everyone’s an enemy
The divisions between the forces fighting IS in Syria are mind-boggling. They all hate IS. But Turkey also hates the Kurds, Russia hates the “moderate” Syrian rebels against Assad, we hate Assad, the US and Russia hate each other, Iran and Saudi Arabia hate each other. It’s a bit like any Labour cabinet or shadow cabinet of the past 70 years, united only in hatred of the Tories (though even that now seems doubtful).
To overthrow IS, which will be impossible without ground forces – as amply demonstrated by the terrorist group’s failure to crumble after extensive bombing already this year – we are apparently relying on the Free Syrian Army. If such a thing exists at all, it is split into dozens of different factions, some of them allied or sympathetic to al-Qaeda, which, if I recall correctly, we also hate. No doubt I have forgotten (or just didn’t know about) a variety of other likes and dislikes, loyalties and hatreds.
Against this background, it is ridiculous for ministers to claim that they have a strategy for peace and stable government in Syria. If IS was wiped from the face of the earth, the Syrian civil war would rage on. Cameron would then try to think of somebody else to bomb, as he wanted to bomb Assad in summer 2013 before anybody but a few Middle Eastern specialists had heard of IS.
Who is supine?
What a pleasant surprise to find my old friend the thriller writer Robert Harris stepping forward to share his wisdom on Syria. Writing in the Sunday Times, Harris – who made so much money from his thrillers that he briefly became a wannabe New Statesman proprietor – describes opponents of military action in Syria as “supine, unreliable and irrelevant”. Would he apply those adjectives to the Tory ex-leadership candidate and SAS man David Davis and to the former war correspondent and Telegraph editor Max Hastings? And would he care to repeat them in person to either of those formidable characters?
Hi-tech climate change
This year’s climate-change summit in Paris seems dull, remote and technical, rather like world trade negotiations. Most of us, I suspect, find terrorism and antibiotic-resistant viruses more immediate threats than rising carbon emissions. The global warming deniers have come out on top, not by winning the scientific argument but by planting just enough doubt in the public and political mind to reduce the urgency of the issue.
The most effective argument is that advanced by the former chancellor Nigel Lawson: warming may be happening, he says, but not in such a way as to prevent us, with the greater wealth and technology available in future, from adapting and mitigating its effects. This is precisely what most of us want to hear. It echoes the old quip (usually attributed to Groucho Marx): “What has posterity ever done for me?” Lawson and his allies insist that posterity is quite capable of looking after itself.
A chilling drama
Global warming had certainly not reached the Trafalgar Studios in London when my wife and I watched a new production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. It wasn’t a particularly cold night but most of the audience sat in their overcoats. Was this a subliminal effect of Pinter’s drama, which, for all its brilliance, never radiates much warmth or humanity? Or had the theatre deliberately turned down the heating either to save the planet or to match the chilliness of the family life portrayed on stage? I am still trying to work out the answer.
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war