On December 2 the House of Commons voted by 397 to 223 in favour of UK air strikes in Syria. Under the leadership of Hilary Benn, shadow foreign secretary, there were 66 Labour MPs who took advantage of the free vote offered by Jeremy Corbyn and openly sided with the ill-considered imperialist operations in Syria – even 10 Conservatives rebelled, such were their worries. After his closing speech Benn was cheered and congratulated not only by the 67 pro-war Labour MPs, but by front-bench Tories, members of the Democratic Unionist Party and Liberal Democrats. He is the leader of their Labour Party.
On November 26 prime minister David Cameron had set out his arguments in a 36-page document, which was long on rhetoric, but short on facts: indeed it was full of unfounded statements. Given Corbyn’s declared opposition to the bombing of Syria, the opportunity was immediately seized upon to attack the newly elected Labour leader – and not only by rightwing Blairites.
Ahead of the shadow cabinet meeting on Monday November 30, supporters of the Labour leader announced that 75% of party members polled over the weekend had opposed any bombing. Inevitably the results of the consultation – a good tactic – was questioned by the Labour right. One MP called it a “rather vague consultation” and another complained that he knew of “a constituent” who had not been consulted.
Faced with a rebellion from within the shadow cabinet and a good slice of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn – who would have preferred a united position both in the shadow cabinet and for the party as a whole – reluctantly conceded a free vote. The media were always going to seize on this as a sign of weakness, a U-turn. Given the overwhelming evidence against military intervention in Syria – not just by those who are opposed to war, but even amongst military experts, foreign office officials, etc – it is disappointing that Corbyn caved in to pressure in this way.
It was understandable in one sense. Faced with the threat of a string of shadow cabinet resignations, his options were limited. However, the choice of shadow cabinet members was his and he bears full responsibility for appointing Benn, as well as the pro-Trident, pro-intervention shadow minister of defence, Maria Eagle. Instead of fearing their resignation, he should have simply told them to go. After all, 60% of Labour members and affiliated supporters had voted for Corbyn for leader, not least because of his opposition to the Iraq war, amongst other progressive positions. A cringe-worthy moment came when shadow chancellor John McDonnell justified a free vote on BBC Radio Four:
There are some issues, like going to war, that should be above party politics, and I think we are moving to a situation where, hopefully, in all parties, on issues like this a moral conscience should be above the whip as well. On certain issues, the ones really above party politics, we have got to have mature politics in our democracy now. This is a matter of conscience. You are sending people out possibly to die. There shouldn’t be any party discipline on matters like this. You should follow your own judgement on what you think is best for the constituency and the country.
So the problem with Tony Blair was not that he helped launch the Iraq war, but that he used the whip to force Labour MPs to support him rather than allowing them a free vote!
The most absurd part of McDonnell’s disastrous contribution was surely the claim that war is “above party politics”. What nonsense: war is the continuation of politics by other means. Surely we will remember for many years to come McDonnell’s stupid comments.
We had expected the new Labour leadership to cave in on economic issues. After all, their Keynesian tinkering could never work and the left should not be in the business of trying to save capitalism despite its structural crises. But what we did not expect was a situation where Labour MPs under a Corbyn leadership would not only join with the Tories in voting for military intervention in the Middle East, but would virtually be given the go-ahead to do so by the new leadership.
As soon as Labour announced a free vote, there was no doubt in Cameron’s mind that he would get the approval he needed for air strikes. But where does this leave Labour? Well, I regret to say it, but to the right of the Scottish National Party, at least on this issue. The SNP can claim the moral high ground: although amongst the nationalists, with their petty bourgeois mindset, there are undoubtedly those who favour military intervention, its MPs were not given a free vote. And Corbyn and McDonnell should remember that Labour lost support to the Liberal Democrats when they (however half-heartedly) opposed the war in Iraq in 2003.
The events of this week must have been a major disappointment for the thousands of new Labour Party members. Many may forgive Corbyn for allowing a free vote, but I hope they do not forget McDonnell’s ludicrous contribution. Unfortunately his Radio Four comment was one amongst a number of similar statements. He had earlier told the BBC’s Newsnight that it was a “cock-up” to pose with a leftwing leaflet calling for the disbanding of MI5 – an idea that was “bonkers”. His spokesperson reassured the press: “He doesn’t support such views, and only this week John offered his support to the government to further fund the security services and police.” Then there were those cringing comments about the IRA.
We all knew that Jeremy Corbyn’s election would unleash a civil war within Labour, but some of us did not expect such appalling retreats. Given the non-stop attacks from the rightwing media, the Labour leaders were always going to be under pressure. However, McDonnell should realise that, the more he retreats, the more they will push – and he will end up losing everyone’s respect. In fact the best way to counter the rightwing press is to stick to your principles: once you start apologising for them, you lose the respect of your own supporters. While tactical compromises can be excused, stupid comments cannot.
Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is clearly facing major challenges, but in the attempt to win control of the party he must resist the temptation to act in a way that can only bring further humiliation. For the last few months the left has been discussing how to defend Corbyn against the Labour right. But it would help if his shadow chancellor stopped playing into the right’s hands.
Falling for a lie
The Westminster debate had started well for the opponents of military intervention, mainly thanks to an own goal by David Cameron. On December 1 he had said that voting against strikes undermined the UK’s solidarity with allies and he went on to call the opponents of military action – one assumes, including Jeremy Corbyn – “terrorist sympathisers”. By lunchtime the phrase “terrorist sympathiser” went viral, as thousands of opponents of the bombing used the Twitter tag ironically, identifying themselves as opponents of military action. Alex Salmond demanded an apology from Cameron and Corbyn presented a concise argument against intervention.
During the day a number of pro-war, ‘moderate’ Labour MPs complained that they faced abuse and deselection if they voted for air strikes in Syria. What nonsense: lives are at stake, yet these pro-war MPs are complaining about receiving hostile emails.
So what does Cameron’s “comprehensive” Syrian document in support of war tell us?
Military action against Isil will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or Isil. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.
Many have compared this assertion to Tony Blair’s and Alastair Campbell’s ‘45 minutes’ lie justifying the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair had claimed in the ‘dodgy dossier’ that Saddam Hussein possessed long-range missiles capable of delivering chemical weapons in 45 minutes so as to convince MPs to vote for war. That assertion was clearly a figment of the imagination of the august ‘intelligence’ group that came up with it.
So who are these “moderate” Syrians trained to take over from Assad once Islamic State is defeated? In September 2015, general Lloyd Austin of the US central command told the armed services committee of the US Senate that a $500 million effort to train ‘moderate’ Syrian forces against IS had only resulted in “a handful of fighters actively battling the jihadi army: we’re talking four or five.”1
The Pentagon plan was to train 5,000 anti-IS Syrian forces opposed to Assad and the project started in late 2014. However, the Pentagon’s policy chief, Christine Wormuth, had to admit: “The programme was much smaller than we hoped” – although the 100-120 fighters in the pipeline were “getting terrific training”.2
In summary there is a big gap between “four or five” Free Syrian Army members fighting IS (plus 100-120 set to join them) and Cameron’s “70,000” troops. In fact Middle Eastern news agencies, even those sympathetic to the Conservative Party, admit the FSA has been “decimated by desertion”.3 According to Al Jazeera,
The FSA, once viewed by the international community as a viable alternative to the rule of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, has seen its power wane dramatically this year amid widespread desertions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where many FSA soldiers are leaving the group, citing inadequate pay, family obligations and poor conditions.4
In fact, in October this year the Financial Times was claiming that the US had come up with a scheme to create a Syrian rebel force: “The change of tack underscores the difficulty the US is facing in combating Isis”.5 According to Robert Fisk, a veteran Middle East reporter who is no fan of the Syrian regime and someone who travelled this autumn to the front line of the civil war in Syria, “the Free Syrian Army is a complete myth and I don’t believe it really exists”.6 The Daily Mail called it “a phantom army”, so the question remains, where can we find Cameron’s 70,000 “moderate” troops? Either they do not exist or is he referring to al Nusra (an offshoot of al Qa’eda), paid, armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Peter Ford, former UK ambassador to Syria, talking about Cameron’s case for air strikes in Syria, as presented in parliament, states:
His case was very unconvincing. He put forward what I would call a deceitful strategy. For example, he said that the Syrian opposition forces could put 70,000 men in the field against IS and he gave the impression that most of these were under the command of the so-called Free Syrian Army. This is straightforward deceit. To go into this situation eyes wide shut is ridiculous and criminally negligent. Cameron said that we shouldn’t subcontract our security. I say we shouldn’t make ourselves hostage to the actions of others.
The question of “moderate” opposition to Assad is important, as it deals with the strategy of western governments in the region. According to Joshua Landis, the director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “the difficulty is that the three powers in Syria capable of winning the war are IS, a Jabhat al-Nusra-led alliance or Mr Assad, but the US doesn’t want any of these to win”. He has documented US attempts at creating a “moderate” armed opposition and argues that these endeavours have failed abysmally, as they have allowed extremist jihadists to capture modern American weapons.7
On military action, Cameron ruled out troops on the ground, stating: “I believe that the UK should now join coalition air strikes against Isil in Syria.” But a number of military experts have questioned the effectiveness of such intervention. According to the Daily Telegraph,
Military sources suggested between two and six extra jets are being lined up to join the eight-strong force already carrying out strikes in Iraq. But air vice-marshal Sir John Walker, the former chief of defence intelligence, said 24 aircraft would be needed if Britain was to have an impact. “Can we sustain an effective bombing campaign against IS in Syria with the numbers of Tornados currently available? I would say no, we can’t, and a lot of RAF people I speak to feel the same.”8
According to general Sir Richard Shirreff, former Nato deputy supreme allied commander, UK air strikes on Syria will not defeat IS and could be the first step towards Britain being involved in a “bloody” and protracted war. According to the general, a large number of western forces would eventually be needed to fight alongside local groups in order to recapture Raqqa, the capital of IS’s caliphate:
It’s not something you are going to achieve with 70,000 so-called Syria moderates … To take a city of 350,000 is going to need a massive force. Any fighting in cities soaks up troops in a massive way. It’s heavily attritional, it’s bloody and it’s a grim business.9
Air raids will inevitably endanger civilian lives. According to Al Jazeera – hardly a supporter of Assad – there was no truth to the claims of the French defence ministry that 30 air strikes destroyed an IS training camp and munitions dump in Raqqa, the IS stronghold. French air strikes had targeted abandoned IS bases in the suburbs of the city, where there are neither civilians nor IS fighters.
It has been two insane nights. Abandoned Isil posts were targeted at the entrance of the city, along with Isil checkpoints and several other points. Electricity and water have been cut off, as supply lines were hit too.
The US, Russia and France are all bombing Syria. How many more countries want to bomb us? Raqqa is devastated. Raqqa has endured the unbearable and we live in fear under Isil’s dictatorship. A lot of people fled the city. In fact, most refugees heading to Europe are from Raqqa.10
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the civilian death toll from October 1, when Russia began launching air strikes, until November 20 stood at 403 civilians, including 97 children.11 “US raids, claimed to be amongst the most precise ever, face allegations that civilians have been killed in 71 separate air raids”.12
Role of Turkey
Currently a number of major and minor powers claim to be involved in military efforts to fight IS: the US, Russia, France (with German support), Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt – to name a few. No wonder the jihadist group can grossly exaggerate its own power. If all these countries are really fighting IS, surely the group should have been defeated long ago.
The truth is, all this talk of war against ‘evil terrorists’ cannot be taken seriously, when the US, UK and France fail to question their allies’ involvement in financial transactions with IS. Turkey allows arms, money and volunteers to get through to its Syria bases, for example. The same governments turn a blind eye to Saudi financial support for IS too.
In the last two weeks we have seen high-profile examples of Turkish involvement with Islamic State. On November 26, as Cameron was explaining his strategy to join the grand coalition against IS, which, according to the British prime minister, includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Can Dündar, and the paper’s Ankara representative, Erdem Gül, were detained after being summoned to an Istanbul court to testify on the newspaper’s coverage of official Turkish trucks transporting weapons to Syria.
In May 2015, the journalists had published footage allegedly showing the MIT, the Turkish state intelligence agency, sending weapons into Syria. Everyone knows that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government in Turkey – a Nato ally – openly supports the Syrian al Qa’eda, Jabhat al-Nusra, along with a number of other Islamic groups that share its conservative Islamist ideology. The evidence gathered by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University gives a long list of examples of Turkish support for IS too:
l An IS commander told the Washington Post on August 12 2014: “Most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.”
l Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), produced a statement from the Adana office of the prosecutor on October 14 2014 maintaining that Turkey supplied weapons to terror groups. He also produced interview transcripts from truck drivers who delivered weapons to various groups. According to Kiliçdaroğlu, the Turkish government claims the trucks were for humanitarian aid to the Turkmen, but the Turkmen said no humanitarian aid was delivered.13
There is a lot more in the report, but just one more example will suffice:
According to Radikal on June 13 2014, interior minister Muammar Guler signed a directive: “According to our regional gains, we will help al-Nusra militants against the branch of the PKK terrorist organisation, the PYD, within our borders … Hatay is a strategic location for the mujahedin crossing from within our borders to Syria. Logistical support for Islamist groups will be increased, and their training, hospital care and safe passage will mostly take place in Hatay … MIT and the religious affairs directorate will coordinate the placement of fighters in public accommodations.”14
The French general, Dominique Trinquand, is quoted as saying: “Turkey is either not fighting Isil at all or very little, and does not interfere with different types of smuggling that takes place on its border, be it oil, phosphate, cotton or people.” In the last few days social media have been full of photos of Bilal Erdoğan, son of the Turkish president, allegedly standing next to leading IS figures.
F William Engdahl, writing in New Eastern Outlook, says: “More and more details are coming to light revealing that Islamic State … is being fed and kept alive by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan … and by his Turkish intelligence service.” One of the main sources of IS’s finance comes from Iraqi oil from Mosul and, according to these reports, it is Erdoğan’s son who is the owner of a number of maritime companies that facilitate the sales of IS crude oil, helping it to be smuggled to Japan and other Asian destinations.
The evidence is overwhelming, so why are there no sanctions against Turkey, a member of Nato? Before embarking on another useless bombing exercise, surely it would make sense to look at isolating this ‘deadly terrorist group’, stopping its oil exports and cutting off its financial dealings? The reality is that the west is more concerned about recovering from the strategic losses resulting from the Iraq war, while putting a hold on Iran as a regional power (an expansionism that is now openly aided by Russia).
Iran and Russia
Concern has been expressed in the west that Russian air strikes – targeting western Syria, far from IS strongholds – were aimed at strengthening the Assad regime’s fragile grip on power. In fact the Syrian dictator, who believes “US-led coalition bombing in Syria helped Islamic State to expand and recruit fighters”,15 is a great supporter of Russian military involvement!
It is true that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the subsequent incompetence, corruption and sectarian policies of successive Shia occupation governments in Baghdad, have compounded the situation in the region. But Iran and its allies, including Russia, are not blameless.
Last week, Vladimir Putin visited Tehran and met the country’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Pro-regime newspapers in Tehran, along with some in Damascus and Beirut, were unanimous in praising the “historic occasion”. The Tehran Etemad paper ran with the headline, “The tsar of the east in the heart of Tehran”, over a picture of the Russian leader.
Khamenei and Putin are adamant that Assad should remain in power. Putin said: “No-one can or should force any form of government upon the Syrian people from the outside, or decide who should rule them.” For his part, Khamenei defended Assad directly: “The Syrian president has gained the majority vote of the Syrian people with different political, religious and tribal views, and the US doesn’t have the right to ignore this vote and election.”16
Iran bears some responsibility for the current situation in Syria. Its regional expansionist policy, and attempts to prop up or impose pro-Iranian states throughout the region, is no better than that of Saudi Arabia. Iranian officials have welcomed Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and its Shia allies in the Iraqi government have announced they would welcome a Russian bombing campaign in Iraq too.
This week there was another gem from the Iranian supreme leader, by the way. In a letter to youth in western countries it was claimed that he is “moved by the bitter events brought about by blind terrorism in France”. This is the man who was president of Iran when the then supreme leader, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was sending nine-year-olds into battle against the Iraqi military carrying plastic keys that would open the gates of heaven when they were killed. It is estimated that a million Iranians died in that bloody war in the 1980s. The Iranian people have a collective memory of the terror Khomeini imposed on his own country. Many thousands were butchered for the ‘crime’ of defending basic democrats rights.
For all the rhetoric of Iran, Russian, Syria and Iraq, there can be no long-term political solution in the region without the masses asserting themselves. Neither of the two ‘grand coalitions’ against IS (the western one and the Russian/Iranian one) have any intention of addressing the real concerns of tens of millions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who do not want to live under Sunni or Shia Islamic rule – those who oppose IS, yet have no desire to be ruled by a reformed version of the current Syrian regime led by Alawites, with or without Bashar Assad. In this respect Iran’s Islamic republic and Russia are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
So, just as we oppose western intervention, let us be very clear: Russian and Iranian military involvement in Syria has made a bad situation much worse.
However, one of the main tasks for the left in Britain right now is to make its defence of Jeremy Corbyn concrete in one particular way. Campaign – in Momentum and within the Labour Party – to deselect the 66 warmongers who have sided so despicably with David Cameron’s Tories. They clearly have little in common with the values of the mass of Labour members.