Tom Watson and Hilary Benn have taken advantage of Trump’s missile attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase to launch their own attack on Jeremy Corbyn. This is the latest salvo in their war of attrition which they intend to wage until they finally remove him as the Leader of the Labour Party.
Tom Watson, Deputy Leader and not entitled to make up policy, got in first and told the Birmingham Mail: “These US strikes appear to be a direct and proportionate response to a clear violation of international law by the Syrian regime.” Hilary Benn, chair of the Commons’ Brexit committee and former shadow foreign secretary, said: “Let’s hope Syria will now think twice before deciding to gas its own people again.” He was backed up by Angela Eagle who added that the attack was, “… morally justifiable in response to a crime against humanity and compliant with our Responsibility to Protect.”
Not to be outdone, John Woodcock, chair of the PLP backbench defence committee, tried to out-patriot the Tories by adding, “It is disappointing that the UK government sat on its hands until the US acted, 24 hours ago, Theresa May was insisting no one was contemplating a military response.”
Their immediate target, of course, was Corbyn who, correctly, refused to support the US attack, but in the longer term their purpose was to display their credentials as reliable potential members of a British government who can be depended upon to do whatever the western imperialist powers, led by the US, require.
Neither the US nor Russia, nor any of the regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey or Iran, have the interest of the Syrian people anywhere on their agenda. Each is prepared to prolong the war until their actual strategic aims; dominance of the region, causing their rivals maximum damage and crushing independent revolutionary forces, have been achieved. That is why they intervened in the Syrian conflict in the first place.
Corbyn’s Response; strengths and weaknesses
Compared to the proponents of the “Blair Doctrine” of Humanitarian Intervention, first enunciated in a speech in Chicago on 22 April, 1999, Jeremy Corbyn stated the classic peace policy of the Labour Left. We will quote it in full;
“The US missile attack on a Syrian government air base risks escalating the war in Syria still further. Tuesday’s horrific chemical attack was a war crime which requires urgent independent UN investigation and those responsible must be held to account. But unilateral military action without legal authorisation or independent verification risks intensifying a multi-sided conflict that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people.
“What is needed instead is to urgently reconvene the Geneva peace talks and unrelenting international pressure for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
“The terrible suffering of the Syrian people must be brought to an end as soon as possible and every intervention must be judged on what contribution it makes to that outcome.
“The British government should urge restraint on the Trump administration and throw its weight behind peace negotiations and a comprehensive political settlement.”
Obviously, it is a good thing that Jeremy has stuck to the principles he has courageously upheld in the House of Commons for more than a third of a century. He is 100 per cent right to oppose the US intervention and the left should support him all the way. We should condemn the Labour Right and demand they yield to discipline.
However, the weakness of Corbyn’s characteristic emphasis on international law and, implicitly, a UN Security Council vote, is that, if by some miracle all the great powers agreed, as they did in Libya, it would transform whatever they then did into a supportable “police action”.
Calling on the UNSC to agree a democratic and humanitarian solution is utopian. The two “imperialist camps”, that is, the US-Nato and Russia (and China) that have fomented and armed the conflict in the first place, both sit on the Security Council and both hold vetoes. How are these serial poisoners to act as doctors? No discussion in Geneva or anywhere else will resolve a war until one side is sure of winning and the other finally accepts that. Then, peace is effectively a negotiated surrender, or a divisions of the spoils. The Security Council is indeed a thieves’ kitchen. Talk of the need for “political solutions”, rather than military ones, is either naïve illusion or pious humbug.
What can we do?
From the outset, socialists should have supported the overthrow of Assad and the Ba’athist dictatorship and not a “regime change” orchestrated by the Western powers. Even less should the existing regime just be given a face-lift by some sort of Geneva Agreement. Any US-backed regime change, even if they had ever really wanted it, would have turned out to be something like the Egyptian military dictatorship or the Saudi monarchy. It would not be the democracy that the Syrian revolutionaries set out to achieve in 2011. That progressive goal can only be achieved by the Syrian people themselves and by using revolutionary means.
How can the labour movements of the world help them? By providing various forms of support, humanitarian and logistical, to what democratic forces remain in Syria and aiding the refugees in the region and in Europe. The international antiwar movement must break from its shameful silence on Russia and Assad’s crimes. Corbyn, too, seems tongue tied on this issue as though condemning Assad and Russia meant siding with the US President or the British Prime Minister. We do not have to join either imperialist camp or their reactionary Middle Eastern allies. We have to remain in the camp of the Syrian and Arab revolutions, battered and bloodied as they are. We have to represent the independent standpoint of the international working class.
On this basis, the antiwar movement must campaign for all the imperialist powers, both Russia and all the Nato allies, to get out of Syria and Iraq, indeed out of the whole Middle East. Likewise, we must campaign to end arms sales and finance to the Egyptian and Saudi dictatorships and Israel. It was the intervention of the rival imperialists and Iran, Turkey, Saudi etc, that diverted and destroyed the Arab Spring of 2011. The regimes of the Middle East are not as socially and politically strong as they are militarily brutish. Their overthrow will lead to a new and more powerful spring, and summer, of freedom.