Syria is not Iraq: Labour can reclaim principled intervention


A Syrian refugee walks among severely damaged buildings in downtown Homs, Syria, on June 3, 2014. (Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue)

Last Sunday, Labour MP Jo Cox, the former head of policy at Oxfam, co-wrote a piece for the Observer with Conservative MP, Andrew Mitchell, arguing that British forces could help achieve an ethical solution in Syria. They lay out a threefold plan placing civilians at the heart of a British response to the humanitarian crisis which includes a role for military intervention in Syria. The article, and Cox’s subsequent speech in Parliament, were brave considering she is an MP in a party which has just elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, who recently made a splash when he said he would struggle to see circumstances in which he would agree to deploy British forces. As Cox and Mitchell argue, “There is nothing ethical about standing to one side when civilians are being murdered and maimed.”

Cox’s article provoked ire from Dianne Abbot, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, who went on Twitter to say it was “sad” that Labour MPs want to “support Cameron in his long held desire to bomb Syria.”

Abbot, who was later accused of internet trolling by a fellow Labour MP, penned her own piece on Monday arguing that “British military intervention in Syria will solve nothing.” In it, she claims it is “entirely disingenuous to argue for military action alongside a diplomatic and humanitarian action, as if they are inextricably linked.” Abbot’s culminating argument, that Labour shouldn’t  support any form of military action without a new UN Security Council resolution, is incidentally the same position argued for by Conservative MP, Tobias Ellwood, in his response to Cox during the parliamentary debate.

But can Syria’s innocent civilians really wait for international consensus? In Left Foot Forward, a left-leaning political blog, Clara Connolly, an immigration and human rights lawyer, and an activist in Syria Solidarity Movement UK, challenged “the lethal danger of Labour MPs reliance on yet another drawn-out UN process while time is running out for Syrians.” Cox and Mitchell conclude that the international community’s response through the UN has been “woefully inadequate.” This is why they argue not only for a diplomatic and humanitarian response—but for a military response based on offering security and protection to the innocent, one not necessarily limited to acting with the endorsement of the UN. The international community’s response over the last few years has been “a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy,” as Cox wrote in a follow-up piece for Labour List.

In the post-Blair era, the spectre of Iraq hangs heavily over the Labour party. Cox, an adamant opponent of the Iraq war, who marched against it, recognises the reticence of some of her parliamentary colleagues when it comes to military intervention. In her speech to parliament, she said this reticence “comes from perhaps the darkest chapter in Labour’s history, when we led this country to war in Iraq. Many Members in all parts of the House have been scarred by that experience, and understandably so; but let us all be clear about the fact that Syria is not Iraq.” Cox draws on Labour’s internationalist tradition to build her case for intervention, and points to the thousands of volunteers from the Labour movement who went to Spain to stand with the anti-fascists. She also called upon the memory of Robin Cook, famous for resigning from the Blair cabinet over Iraq, who “demanded action to stop the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica and elsewhere, in the face of outrageous intransigence from the then Conservative Government.” Labour should take pride, according to Cox, “in the action we led in government to save countless lives in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.”

Significantly, it appears that rather than leading to further entrenched divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party, as the Guardian suggested, Cox has managed to win influence with her front bench colleagues, and push her party in a new direction. Following Cox’s parliamentary speech, rather than supporting Abbot’s no-compromise approach, Corbyn signalled that Labour could back military action in Syria without UN support. But will Corbyn, who once signed a Parliamentary motion critical of humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, which likewise claimed “‘genocide’ never really existed” there, find a way to square his own values with the principled intervention called for by Cox and Mitchell? One hopes, because the people of Syria, now more than ever, need our solidarity. “Every decade or so,” Cox said in her opening to Parliament, “the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation —their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us.”

  • Ernekid

    Getting involved in the Syrian civil war means getting involved in an intractable sectarian quagmire that will benefit nobody but the Executives in Arms companies who get their bonuses from spreading death and destruction. If we get into Syria we will be there into at least the 2020s. It’s not our fight. We’ve no strategic interest in getting involved, it won’t stem the tide of refugees. The best thing to do is lend our diplomatic assistance to any future peace negotiations between the regional powers and continue to help out the poor desperate refugees fleeing the violence. The U.K. Has done enough meddling in the region. We laid the seeds for this conflict with the Sykes-Picot betrayal a century ago, let’s not make any more mistakes.

  • kalista63


  • Sergiogiorgio

    Sorry Barton, but an unelectable Labour Party having internal spats between ex militants is meaningless.

  • Zig70

    I have a strong human interest not to stand by while others are killed and maimed. I think we should be doing something though I think the hardest answer is that there isn’t anything we can do without making it worse. The very people who advocate action in Syria would balk at the Syrians if they came here to impose a military solution on us if civil war broke out again. You wouldn’t be surprised if we joined together to oppose them. Would seem unreal if the Syrians intervened and the French or Germans hadn’t. There is a big dose of ego in those arguing for military force.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The U.K. military is being cut, yet spending is increasing by 2%?

    Let me guess, the inflationary financial pressures of pointless nukes and retirement homes for the generals!

    90% of the budget seems to be spent on the real world, 10% on the fantasy world stuff I mentioned before. The UK government were cutting the defence budget and leaving soilders with poor equipment in the feild, now they raise it when the most dangerous thing UK soldiers do is train native soilders in Kenya having been returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Iraq was considered to be a Kosovo situation at the time too, maybe all generalisations need to be challenged.

  • Turgon

    One of the “principles” of “principled intervention” is not “intervening” (an interesting use of double speak to refer to killing people) without either a UN resolution or the invitation of the sovereign government of the state.

    It seems that some of the Labour “interventionalists” (aka warmongers) which Mr. Creeth lauds want to “intervene” (i.e. kill people) without a UN resolution. Since President Assad who rightly or wrongly is the president of Syria is unlikely to support this it seems that the “interventions” Mr. Creeth and co laud would be against international law. Mr. Creeth and others have learned even less from the Iraq debacle than they realise.

    However, since there is a rather more competent military involved in Syria at the behest of the Syrian government it is unlikely that the RAF’s ageing fleet of attack aircraft will make much impact as compared to state of the art equipment used in coordination with ground forces.

    If one the other hand Mr. Creeth wants to try to follow some in suggesting a no fly zone in parts of Syria policed by NATO that would be even greater folly. Policing no fly zones against 1970s Russian equipment in Iraq or Serbia would be very different to policing it in Syria likely against the opposition of current Russian military equipment flown by Russian pilots.

  • Richard_SM

    US and UK don’t want to cooperate with Russia. If UK gov. wants to do more to stop ISIS and al-Qaeda then it should stay in the skies above Iraq with US. Give Russia the space to operate in the Syrian skies to deal with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Lets see who is more effective. Competition is good so they tell us.

  • 23×7

    Many British politicians still haven’t grasped the fact that it is now a second rate nation in both political and military terms. Ludicrously they are about to wave through the renewal of trident which is nothing more than a vanity project for the British establishment.

  • Gopher

    There was a time for soveriegn nations to intervene in Syria for a limited and violent period. That was when ISIS was stalled outside Kobane fighting conventionally at the end of a long logistics train. The battlefield had largely been cleared of civilians thanks to their brutality so the economics of intervention would have been reasonably cheap as good old fashioned “dumb” weapons like artillery, iron bombs and tanks could have been used with liberal efficiency in something not dissimilair from what “NATO” armies are actually trained to do. Intervention would have lasted around Kobane as long as ISIS sent “dumb son of a bitches to die for their cause” .

    This would have with a certain degree of probability, as certain as one can get in war opened the road to Raqqa which will eventually have to be “captured”, “reduced”, “liberated” “neutralized or “razed” or what ever your favorite euphemism is it will have to be done! Now there is no easy road to Raqqa and ISIS wont fight outside it in any great numbers and the battle has bogged down in the internal politics of Turkey rather than on that road.

    After the “victory” at Kobane the window for efficient soveriegn nation intervention passed but a new one opened. The problem the collective Kurd alphabet soup have is numbers to exploit success, The problem Iraq has is unless you are a commited Shia you dont want to fight. The problem the US have is everyone they arm deserts! The west had a glourious (sic) opportunity to rectify these difficulties by reintroducing “Mercenary” as a career choice for people of that bent. Though Mercenaries are messy and require everyone to look the other way including Jeremy for the greater good, ISIS would suffer severe losses at their hands and there would be no need to bother the UN about resolutions to put “western” boots on the ground.

    That window has now shut. Russian intervention and their associated bombing was a game changer, Mercenaries might work if allowed in Iraq but now would run the risk of an international incident in Syria. The solutions now are very messy and “western” political will is non existent as they involve backing unsavory regimes and redrawing the map of the middle east.

    Writing in the Observer is not taking Raqqa nor is it pacifying swathes of desert. Taking Raqqa and clearing Iraq will require a great “effusion of blood”, it is no longer a matter of sending a Kitchener down the Nile as the Labour party seem to want to do now, it is finding a congress of nations that actually can agree a plan of action. In the meantime get used to refugees and more blood letting. Russian weapons arnt that “smart” the war has went urban and locally based aircraft have a quick turnaround time.

  • Greenflag 2

    From that other book of Revelations – The Mail on Sunday

    “The revelations focus on a memo allegedly written by former US secretary of state Colin Powell on March 28, 2002 to then president George Bush a week before the US leader’s meeting with Blair at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

    “On Iraq, Blair will be with us should military operations be necessary,” wrote Mr Powell, in a document the Mail on Sunday published on its website.

    “He is convinced on two points: the threat is real; and success against Saddam will yield more regional success,” Mr Powell said, referring to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was eventually ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion.

    The ‘regional success ‘ awaits . With Afghanistan in turmoil and almost all of it under Taliban control -with Iraq’s internal uncivil wars continuing and with Syria imploding .

    Next up troops on the ground in Iran ( about 2 million I’d guess ) .

    Best we (the West ) can do is alleviate the suffering and accept as many refugees as possible and try to get a political solution in Syria eventually. If the Americans and Russians together can’t fix it neither can the UK or France or Germany .

    As for dealing with ISIS there is no dealing with ISIS . Religious fanatics cannot be reasoned with . Its their values or ours . Closed societies eventually crumble and decay from within . That doesn’t mean all the West has to do is sit and wait . The West’s values and what we still call democracy are not guaranteed .

    Maybe troops on the ground in North Korea might yield more regional success and pressure China into the ‘democratic ‘ world ?

    Churchill had his Gallipoli -Blair and Bush had their Iraqs – Johnson had his Vietnam . Churchill got it right in WW2 . 3 million died in Vietnam – In the Afghan /Iraq /Syria ‘instability zone ‘ it’s probably 1 million or more at this point with hundreds of thousands of refugees .

  • Gopher

    The problem is those nice little Kurds are at odds with Assad in Syria aswell as their Turkish nieghbours. If Assad by proxy of Russian military might gets ascendancy over the various factions in revolt the Kurds are next. The Russians are quite willing to bomb any faction in revolt no matter who they are aligned to. Now if there had of been “Nato” troops on the ground at Kobane the Kurds would have had diplomatic recourse but now they will be jettisoned faster than you can say “Don Cossacks” when Putin and Assad come.

  • Greenflag 2

    That statement BTW was made in 2002 -it was crystal balling .
    Whatever about the MIddle East he did bang heads together in NI which brought some progress . Had he not they’d still be killing each other most likely .

    We can never know what might have been had Saddam & Gadaffi been allowed to remain in power . As in all wars when the talking stops and the guns are fired it can end up anywhere .

  • Greenflag 2

    They ( Blair & Ahern ) have to get some credit as must the local NI politicians but Senator George Mitchell’s mediation over several years was probably the key to getting both sides to agree the GFA . Since then there have been some setbacks but theres no other deal in sight and thats as good as it gets UNLESS the local NI parties can agree on something else . Good luck with that .

    The link below is Senator Mitchell’s broader view on peace and conflict resolution from a broad perspective . His remarks on demography in the context of Israel /Palestine sound very like a place not far from here . Worth a listen .

    As to your link and the chances of persuading said individual re peaceful co existence ?

    Somewhere between 0 and minus 100 .

    “I much prefer the Godless ones – who can be bought off with treasure and promises – rather than the ones who are convinced they are doing Gods work”

    I don’t prefer any of them . The dead be they Arabs , Christians , Jews never get to choose . Freedom of religion is the now acceptable democratic norm in the developed world -but lets not forget it took Europe centuries of conflict to reach that point .

    As for buying off the Godless ones ? Sometimes that might work and sometimes the former regime is replaced with an even worse one or no regime at all i.e a failed state situation in which law becomes essentially whatever the local warlord /gunman says it is .

    The Drug War /Cartels in Mexico are an instance where the local cartels achieved so much power/money that the state has become virtually powerless and local politicians /police /officials bought /corrupted . It seems to me that when our elected representatives fail in their responsibility to provide security for citizens- in the first instance physical security , but also social and economic ‘fairness ‘ , then the wheels come off our ‘democracy ‘ . We can run on three wheels for a while and even on two but eventually what Margaret Thatcher asserted does not exist i.e ‘Society ‘ wakes up and suddenly there is revolution or civil war etc.

    Putting it all back together at that point becomes a much bigger and more difficult task than fixing it before it falls apart would have been . People don’t learn do they ?

  • Greenflag 2

    Ideally it should be the UN but we’re not there yet and given that the Permanent Security members of the UN are the worlds biggest powers and economic adversaries the ideal may remain just that an ideal ..

    NRA and the Gun Lobby in the USA aver that guns don’t kill people -it’s people that kill people . Mr Romney the GOP Presidential candidate who lost to Mr Obama at one point in a debate stated that ‘Corporations are people too ‘

    Add these views together and you can conclude that ‘Corporations kill people ‘ . Sadly they do . Not all of course but some do , did , and will continue to do -unless they are stopped from doing so by our elected representatives .Much human progress it has to be said is due to business corporations making advances in all areas of human life that would not have been achieved otherwise .

    Haliburton and Blackrock come to mind in the Iraq case . Historically we’ve seen tobacco manufacturers shorten the lives of 100 million ‘users ‘ . The Lead industry particularly the lead that was emitted from car exhausts and which contributed to raising the lead levels ( a neuro toxin ) in the blood in millions of Americans and Europeans until it was made illegal is another example .

    Today the fossil fuel industry and its supporters deny global warming . The Tobacco Manufactures denied the carcinogenic effect of their product for 70 years after it was known to be a fact , The lead industry denied their product was killing people for several decades . The fossil fuel industries will continue to prefer ‘profit ‘ to ‘people’s lives .

    Churchill famously stated that ‘scientists ‘ should be on tap but never on top . He might have expanded that truism had he but known today’s world financial dysfunction . i.e

    ‘Large corporations and international financial institutions should be on tap but never on top ‘

    Unfortunately they’re on top by virtue of the manner in which the power of money to control our democratic institutions has grown and will continue to grow until eventually they will become even more discredited than they are today . And when that happens then it’s only a matter of time before the guillotine or gulag or concentration camp solutions begin to appeal to those who no longer have faith in our institutions .

  • Greenflag 2

    “There has always been self serving and undemocratic influence on the political by the corporate but at least some attempt to keep it discrete was made.”

    Yes true enough .Whats different now as opposed to say 10 or 20 years ago is that whereas prior to the 1990s the financial influence was largely exercised within states and could be regulated and monitored . Also now the degree and sheer volume of the international currency markets which are far greater than what just the increased trading between nations would justify . The speculation against entire countries /currencies etc . If the UK looks likely to vote for withdrawal from the EU you can expect the pound to become a major target for speculation re its exchange value both up and down .

  • Gopher

    For those who tire of the dreay steeples and conversations with the long dead, I happened upon a piece in the Wall Street Journal by one Henry Kissinger ( ) which I for one found interesting. Whilst I suppose one has an opinion on Kissinger; dogmatic, emotional or rational and I am disposed to be, as a child of his golden era no different. I approached the piece with an open and objective mind unfettered by anything other than his position in the pantheon of the realpolitik.
    It is evident that Kissinger deals in solutions and the piece pivots on the phrase “Westphalian state”, an interesting choice which suggests he is reaching further a field than the New World audience. Everyone in the Old World understands the marker he lays down, Swiss, French, Dutch, Swede, Dane, German, Pole, Hungarian, Spaniard and Italian. Refugees or Wesphalian State. No appeal to oil or higher principles open to interpretation only to the natural order since 1648. Very clever and may I and in my humble opinion a correct gambit.
    Kissinger and as you read one has to admire that he never once overplays his hand. The 42 Russian Divisions are Soviet and on the Sino-Russian border but the inference is there, Kissinger will only fight on the ground of his choosing and the Syrian Littoral is Putins and Assads. Syria Kissinger tells us is now Federal and by definition and some nuanced language Raqqa must fall and fall soon to the “Westphalian States”. The US has backed the field now it must back a horse, a Sunni horse and dismember Iraq.
    The understated explanation of strategic and tactical alludes to Russian strategic success and advances using all arms combinations and the failure of tactical surgical strikes from the western power to effect a change. The inference is also doubled barrelled with regards collateral causaulties ie The West ineffective and hamstrung make poor Allies whilst the Russians make good friends. Moderation in war it has to be seen hampers diplomacy and Kissinger paints the picture like an old master.
    The final question maintains that oblique genius putting resolve before force of arms when everyone knows resolve will lead to an instantaneous force of Arms. So there you have it, principled intervention in defence of the Westphalian State. Nothing like a lesson of the realpolitik to banish those Tuesday dreary steeple blues.