The protest by Syria Solidarity UK activists and Peter Tatchell at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on Saturday, in which I took part, highlighted once again that many people in the Labour party are unable to talk about Syria except in terms of the party’s internal politics. For a great many people, it seemed, Syria was simply a marker of whether you were a Corbynite or a Blairite, rather than the site of one of the greatest tragedies of our times. If we’d interrupted Corbyn, it couldn’t have been because we wanted him to speak out against these atrocities – we must be the paid stooges of Portland Communications, or a Blairite cabal, or some other shadowy group behind the scenes.
As I write, Assad’s troops, largely consisting of foreign sectarian militias backed up by Russian air power, have driven Syrian rebels into a tiny pocket of Aleppo and are submitting it to unprecedented levels of bombardment. By the time you read these words, the city may have fallen. The war is reaching a new level of humanitarian catastrophe.
Looking at the responses to our protest, and listening to the people who came to speak to us afterwards, it seemed that for many this disaster could only be understood in terms of what it means for Labour.
For the record, I’m a member of the Labour party, and I consider myself neither a Blairite nor a Corbynista. While petty factionalism in general is bad, it becomes actively dangerous when it begins to distort the way in which we respond to something as horrific as the war in Syria.
One of the few people to cut through this confusion was the late Jo Cox, a stalwart supporter of the Syrian people and one of the few politicians to really listen to Syrians in Britain. In a 2015 article in the Huffington Post explaining why she intended to abstain on the vote on airstrikes against Isis, Cox pointed to a “something must be done brigade” and a “nothing can be done sect”, both of which were simply “playing out the same tired arguments irrespective of the facts on the ground in Syria”. Labour’s internal wrangling and factional positioning were obscuring the real issues.
As much as many people like to blame Corbyn for this division, it’s nothing new. In August 2013, Parliament voted down a government motion that, pending UN support, would have punished the Assad regime for the murder of 1,500 civilians with chemical weapons in Ghouta. Parliament’s decision has been cited as one of the main reasons that President Barack Obama, who had pledged action against this clear breach of international law, stepped back from his “red line” and allowed Assad to go unpunished. The vote was defeated because of Ed Miliband’s opposition to the motion, which had more to do with tending to Labour’s scars after Iraq, that totemic issue in the party’s internal fallings out, than it had anything to do with Syria.
Corbyn’s ascendancy, however, has brought the blinkered politics of the Stop the War Coalition into the mainstream of Labour politics, and heightened the emphasis on foreign policy as a marker of moral authority and sectional loyalty.
In the debate about whether to extend airstrikes against Isis into Syria last year, how an MP voted became a marker of partisan allegiance. Factional fighting in the parliamentary Labour party knocked any analysis of the government’s confused proposal, which highlighted that Assad was the real problem while committing to relatively limited strikes against Isis, from the centre stage. Hilary Benn’s much-publicised speech in favour of the plan led to immediate speculation about a leadership bid, followed by cries of treason and rumblings about deselection, and the entire vote was discussed in the media as though it was a matter of Labour politics alone, rather than a decision of life and death in another country.
After our protest on Saturday, several people approached us to ask why we weren’t protesting that war-mongering Blairite Benn. After all, Corbyn had voted against airstrikes in 2015. Never mind that he’d hardly talked about Syria since. Never mind that what we were calling for was for Labour to support aid drops, evacuations of civilians, and the suspension of the Assad regime from the UN, none of which Corbyn has previously supported.
Five years into Assad’s murderous war, while bombs are still tearing apart homes and human bodies and poison gas still chokes the lungs of innocent children, as hundreds of captured men in Aleppo are rounded up and sent off to who knows what horror, Syria remains nothing more than a plaything of debate for far too many in Labour.
I’m proud to be a member, but some things are more important than the Labour party. Syria, drowning in blood, is one of them.