For too long the Labour Party has failed Syria. But there are policy measures that Labour could promote which would contribute to a just peace in the country.
My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate... Before helping Syrians or showing solidarity with Syrians, the mainstream Western left needs to help themselves. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian socialist and dissident For almost six years the people of Syria have been subjected to unimaginable violence. It is estimated that over half a million people have been killed, largely as a result of a vicious aerial campaign that has deliberately targeted civilian populations. Millions are either internally displaced or seeking refuge abroad. The international community has spent this time wringing its hands, making largely empty statements and bemoaning a tragedy that it has done next to nothing to halt. At the end of 2016, in Eastern Aleppo, the Assad regime and its Russian allies engaged in relentless bombing of civilian areas, supplemented by ground assaults by the thugs and looters that comprise the remnants of Assad's 'Syrian Arab Army' and sectarian Shia militias from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Day after day, Syrian activists in East Aleppo released videos calling, often begging, for the international community to do something. No action was taken, and by the end of the onslaught, the forced displacement of civilians was talked about as if it was a positive outcome.
Over the course of the pressing humanitarian crisis in Syria, large parts of the Western left, in the name of anti-imperialism, have counselled that nothing should be done. Even those who have responded with well-intentioned humanitarianism to the refugee crisis have, on the whole, neglected to analyse the deeper roots of the crisis, or to appreciate the role that Western countries could have in contributing to a just peace in Syria. The spirit of solidarity and internationalism upon which the left is supposedly founded has been notably lacking. Syrians have been patronised, dismissed and ignored.
Something must be done to address Labour's failure on Syria. This article first analyses the party's response to the current crisis and identifies some of the shortcomings of its approach. It then outlines the policy measures that it could promote in order to contribute to a just peace in the country, one that is based on the demands for freedom and dignity that Syrian civil society continues to make. Finally, the article criticises the intellectual foundations of the broader left's current misguided understanding of what imperialism and anti-intervention mean in relation to the Syrian conflict.
The Revolution Betrayed: Syria and the Left
Labour's lack of a clear stance on Syria is revealed by its disorganised and weak response to various government proposals for UK action. One of the few parliamentarians to see through the rhetorical confusion and to advocate a solution focused on civilian protection and the root causes of the conflict was the late Jo Cox. She reached out across party divides, pushed against lazy thinking, and sought out the opinions not only of foreign policy experts but also of Syrians themselves. It was this near-unique approach to understanding the crisis that helped her to see the failings of the Government's 'ISIS-first' approach, namely the lack of a broader strategy of civilian protection.
The Labour Party's first major mistake on Syria was its opposition to the 2013 vote to launch strikes against Assad's chemical weapons facilities. Miliband's decision to derail the vote was informed largely by a desire to vanquish the memory of the Iraq debacle, which still hangs over British politics in general and the Labour Party in particular, but which, as we argue below, offers a fundamentally false comparison to the situation in Syria. Less interventionist means had obviously failed to address Assad's use of chemical weapons, and the proposal for military intervention was the solution of last resort. The intervention was to be limited to responding to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons; it was not to lead to regime change, or to an open-ended military response to all of the Assad regime's violations of international law. The Labour Party, however, in killing the Government's motion, contributed to Obama's U-turn from his 'red line' and effectively gave the Assad regime a green light to resume its campaign of brutality against the civilian population alongside its Russian, Iranian, and Lebanese Hezbollah allies. Though it would be foolish to imagine counterfactuals, a limited intervention in 2013 would have drastically changed the situation in Syria, and made Russian and Iranian intervention much less likely.
Labour's failure on Syria was also prominently highlighted in the December 2015 House of Commons debate on extending the UK's airstrikes against ISIS into Syria. In this vote, Labour parliamentarians were split into what was described by Jo Cox as the "'something must be done' brigade" and a "'nothing can be done' sect", (2) neither of whom properly grasped the depth of the situation and the international action required to bring it to an end.
On the one hand, the iconic head of the 'something must be done' brigade was then-Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn who, speaking and voting against the leader of his party, argued passionately for extending airstrikes against ISIS into Syria. Benn appealed in his argument, to Labour values, stating that 'as a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road'. (3) For all the high rhetoric of Benn's speech, however, and despite the terrible shadow of the recent attacks on Paris, there was something slightly farcical about the debate, which was concerned almost exclusively with a relatively small addition to an already existing war against a brutal, media-savvy, but ultimately secondary evil. As Syrian civil society organisations themselves regularly point out, Assad, not ISIS, is the main problem in Syria. The regime and its allies are responsible for over ninety per cent of the civilian casualties sustained during the war. (4) The Syrian crisis began as a series of peaceful demonstrations against the brutal and corrupt Assad dictatorship, which responded with bullets and bombs. This violence, and other strategies of the Assad regime, created a vacuum of death and destruction in which terrorism thrived.
Benn did acknowledge in his speech that a political transition in Syria would 'help in the defeat of Daesh'. (5) He furthermore admitted that 'air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh', but that rather, they would merely give the group 'a hard time, making it more difficult for it to expand its territory'. He failed, however, to make the...