We don’t need collective responsibility on Syria – let Labour’s hawks and doves debate how to deal with Assad

Dan McCurry

civil war in Syria under President Assad

The doves versus the hawks are once again debating in Labour. It is worth considering our recent history to establish how differing circumstance makes a military offensive appropriate or not so.

The Kosovo conflict came about following a lengthy civil war involving an aerial bombardment and the threat of ground forces. It was a success in that it tipped the balance and brought an end to the atrocities. Our response? In a unipolar world, surely we could create more democracy?

Iraq was a disaster and emboldened pacifism. Few would now argue that Saddam Hussein under containment was a sufficient threat to risk a consequent power vacuum.

The Libyan war  was weird since it had such widespread support when the only catalyst was a radio broadcast by Gaddafi promising to put down a rebellion. The fact is that people just didn’t like him, even though he had claimed to have renounced previous terror and become an ally. The outcome again demonstrated that an existing, contained “strong man” is preferable to the wishful hope of representative government.

I was one of the few people in the country who were against the Libya conflict. Part of my reasoning was that the Arab Spring was likely to move to Syria and we should save ourselves for that intervention. Although I was on the wrong side of the argument about Iraq, I was spot on with this view. It is better to contain a “strong man” than to create a vacuum.

So what should Labour make of the situation in Syria?

Bashar al-Assad is the world’s greatest terrorist. Every neighbouring county has suffered: Turkey from his support of the PKK; Hamas were supplied weapons and refuge; Hezbollah has been armed to provoke a war with Israel and destabilisation of Beirut; while Iraq has suffered an open door policy for jihadists.

We watched on and allowed Russia to enter Syria with a “strong man” policy. However, with military resources depleted, Putin appears complicit in the recent gas attacks upon civilian areas. These gas attacks are indicative of weakness not strength. There is no “strong man” in Syria and Putin cowered when Turkey shot down a plane, demonstrating that he is only a “strong man” in his image.  

Of the noise coming from Labour, many MPs are committed hawks. On this occasion I think they are right to be so. The problem is that the Labour leader is a committed dove. He has tried to avoid a split by calling for a UN enquiry but this is disingenuous. The only reason for a UN investigation would be if the facts were in dispute. But no one disputes that chemical weapons were used, and Assad admits building a stockpile of chemical weapons.

The “terrorists” have no such resources, so the only possible explanation is that they stole them from Assad, according to one theory. Even if this bizarre idea were the case, why did they spray them on their own people? If it was to embarrass Assad then surely they were a bit late in the game for that? Besides, how did they know when and where Assad’s planes were about to drop bombs, in order to be ready to release the chemical weapons, in order to make it look like it was him?

As a criminal defence lawyer, I don’t think there is a jury in the land that would acquit Bashar al-Assad with this amount of evidence. Keir Starmer, who used to head the CPS, and is now in Jeremy’s shadow cabinet, would agree with me on that, I’m sure of it.

Corbyn tried to avoid contradicting his MPs, including deputy leader Tom Watson, for good reason – but this is counterproductive as his equivocation about the guilty party prompts a mass of conspiracy theories.

The doves and hawks of Labour should be open and tolerant about each other’s views. We can be comradely in debate, whereas fudge makes us look foolish, and brings out the worst in the members.

On foreign affairs we don’t need to have collective responsibility. There have always been cross party alliances and inter party divisions on these matters. Let’s all take part in the discussion with principle.

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