Syria: the frontbench’s silence over Ghouta shames the Labour Party

By Mark Boothroyd

With over 500 civilians killed and 2,400 injured in 5 days, the attacks on Eastern Ghouta by the Assad regime and its Russian backer are the most pressing international issue of the moment. Yet aside from a few platitudes, the Labour Party leadership appear silent on the issue. In fact, a closer look at their published statements reveals they are largely acquiescing to Putin and Assad’s attacks on civilians.

This stance is a shameful failure to uphold anti-war and anti-imperialist principles, and an abandonment of an entire community facing the most brutal onslaught from the Assad war machine.

A brief history

The Eastern Ghouta is an area of countryside and small towns that lies east of the capital Damascus. A hotbed of anti-regime protest since the outbreak of protest 2011, it has been cut off and besieged from the rest of the country since November 2013, when the Assad regime militarily encircled the area as the regime repelled the armed rebellion that the its violent repression of peaceful protest had created.

The siege has trapped some 350,000 people in an area the size of Manchester, at the mercy of the regime’s artillery and air power. Despite claims to the contrary, the area is not controlled by “jihadists” or “extremists” but by nationalist and Islamist factions of Syria’s indigenous armed rebel groups; the dominant groups in Eastern Ghouta are Faylaq al Rahman, a Free Syrian Army aligned faction, and Jaysh al Islam, a nationalist-Islamist faction. While both factions are authoritarian and have grown increasingly repressive and corrupt as the siege has worsened, they are neither comparable to ISIS nor are they foreign fighters in the pay of a foreign power.

Despite the harsh conditions created by the siege and the increasingly repressive policies of the armed factions which control the area, civil society has existed and continues to exist in Eastern Ghouta. Several towns within Ghouta have their own local councils elected by the residents that attempt to manage civilian affairs, Women’s groups and media organisations exist in the Ghouta, as do civilian relief and medical aid organisations attempting to help the most vulnerable affected by the siege and lack of resources. These groups have faced repression from the armed factions, but they are also targeted by the regime’s firepower as they continue to represent the most dangerous thing in Syria for the regime; a non-violent civil society alternative to Assad’s gruesome dictatorial police state.

It is these groups which the regime hopes to destroy, along with the armed opposition, through its war of extermination waged against Eastern Ghouta.

Anti-war, or anti-west?

Why does this matter? The Labour frontbench make great claim of their anti-war credentials, Corbyn having been chair of the Stop the War Coalition, and having been active in the anti-war movement in 2001-2003 opposing the disastrous attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Stop The War are holding a speakers tour round the country calling for an “anti-war government”, and touting Corbyn’s administration-in-waiting as just that.

Yet despite their anti-war stance, Corbyn and his front bench have been reluctant to openly criticise the Syrian regime or its imperialist backers. When Russia openly entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, sending its airforce to bomb opposition strongholds into submission, Corbyn said he may welcome Russia in a “peacekeeping” role.  No further condemnation was forthcoming of Russia’s role in the conflict, despite its widespread targeting of civilian areas and use of banned weapons like white phosphorous.

When the Assad regime besieged Aleppo and subject it to unrelenting bombardment, it was months before Corbyn issued a statement which explicitly condemned the Syrian regime and Russian attacks, and this was only done after protests by Labour Party members and Syria solidarity activists over Labour’s lack of response.

Contrast this with Corbyn’s response to Trump’s strikes on a Syrian regime airbase; this was issued within days and condemned the airstrikes, even though they only targeted a military base and were explicitly in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Corbyn was again very quick to respond when there were reports that a minuscule amount of UK aid funding was appropriated by extremist rebel groups, issuing a statement within days condemning this fact. He has been silent however on the constant obstruction of aid going to opposition areas besieged by the regime, the regular reports that UN relief aid has ended up in the hands of Syrian regime forces, or the glaring hypocrisy that the UN and World Food Programme (WFP) have carried out over 257 air drops of food to Deir Ezzour, a regime controlled city in north eastern Syria that was besieged by ISIS from 2015-2017, yet the UN and WFP has carried out zero air drops to any besieged opposition areas, despite repeated pleas for them. At the 2017 Labour Party conference, Corbyn talked about the impact of war and authoritarian regimes worldwide, but failed to mention Syria once, a fact which drew criticism from UK-based Syrian organisations.

Coupled with these belated and weak condemnations of Russia and the regime’s actions, Emily Thornberry on numerous occasions was seen lending credence to Assad regime claims that the problem in Aleppo was “jihadists” rather than the regime’s siege, and advocating a Homs-style solution to the conflict. Homs was another city besieged by the Assad regime during the conflict. Civilians were forcibly evacuated from the siege, the first of many forced displacements engineered by the regime. Thornberry was essentially advocating for forced displacement as a solution to the regime’s atrocities.

Thornberry wrote an article for the Guardian on the anniversary of the start of the Iraq war which made no mention of the Assad regime or its attacks, and only referenced Russia’s “devastating blows against……proxy armies”  within Syria.

What this pattern of responses show is that the Labour frontbencher’s have a tendency to downplay or legitimise the crimes of Russia and the Syrian regime. Whatever their reasoning for this – be it wilful ignorance, dangerous naivety or calculated politics – it represents a line of thinking which is apologist in its lack of consistent opposition to Russian and Syrian regime war crimes, and legitimation of the regime and its backers.

At a time when millions of Syrians are desperate for any sort of aid, this politics only gives succour to their oppressors, and is disgustingly hypocritical in light of their strident opposition to US-led wars and interventions.

Is the UN a solution?

Corbyn has tweeted his support for a UN-led ceasefire and diplomatic solution to the crisis, but this is already the position of the British government, and has been for the last 3-4 years. It is nothing new to demand the UN intervene, but continue to do so when all UN efforts have been stymied by Russia’s veto power, and the lack of any pressure applied to the regime from outside, is to be wilfully blind to the reality of the situation.

The British and American governments have called repeatedly for a diplomatic solution to the conflict since 2012, one that is dependent on the Assad regime’s departure. This has always been the position of the Syrian opposition, restated time and again. It is the intransigence of the regime and its backers which have sunk every proposal for a peaceful political transition. The regime has stubbornly refused every proposal for Assad’s departure or for any type of power sharing.

With the regime refusing a political transition, that leaves only military and economic pressure to force the regime to depart. While Russia and Iran deploy fighter jets, tanks, tens of thousands of mercenaries and billions of dollars to bolster the Assad regime’s position on the ground, Syrian rebels have been offered only light arms and anti-tank weapons. The US enforced a blockade on anti-air weaponry to the rebels, and since 2014 all US aid has been dependent on rebels refusing to fight the Assad regime.

With little military support for the rebels, the lack of a No-Fly-Zone or anti-air weaponry to ground the regime’s airforce, and the impact of economic sanctions mitigated by Iranian and Russian loans, the regime has had no reason to accept a diplomatic solution, and has continued to pursue a military one; bombing every opposition stronghold in to submission and displacing the population. This has been the main cause of the carnage in Syria; over 500,000 dead, 2 million wounded, with 90% of civilian casualties caused by the regime and its allies.

The regime has been happy to play along with the myth of a diplomatic solution as it serves to buy time while it completes its bloody strategy of crushing all resistance militarily. The regime showed its true attitude yet again when it immediately violated the call for a 30 day ceasefire issued by the UN Security Council. Without any threat of military action the regime knows it is free to do what it likes, with no repercussions.

What is the solution to Syria’s crisis?

It should be apparent to everyone now that there is no solely political solution to the crisis in Syria. The regime and its backers have done everything in their power to prevent this. This doesn’t mean a political solution is impossible, but it must be backed up with force.

The regime’s military might has to be disabled so that its strategy of militarily crushing the opposition is neutralised and it is forced to the negotiating table and a political solution wrung out of it.

The Labour Party can take a variety of positions on the situation, but they all require them to abandon their wilful ignorance and soft peddling of opposition to the Assad regime and its backers, and commit to some form of action either against the regime, or in support of the opposition.

The most immediate action from Labour’s frontbench would be to demand the UK government enforce the ceasefire agreed by the UN. This could be done a number of ways, firstly be enforcing a No Fly Zone over Eastern Ghouta and other opposition areas. This could be done either by giving anti-aircraft weaponry to the Syrian rebels, or by targeting Syrian regime air bases in response to any bombing of civilians. The idea that this would trigger a confrontation between Russia and the US/UK has to be critically examined. Neither Trump’s missile strikes on Shayrat air base, the recent US bombing of Russian mercenaries nor Israel’s widespread bombing has caused any such military escalation. Russia will not go to war with the US or the UK to preserve Assad’s decrepit regime, but targeted military attacks on Assad’s military institutions will save lives, and is what is needed to force the regime to the negotiating table.

If this violent strategy is unconscionable for Corbyn’s pacifism (Thornberry is on the record as not having a problem deploying military force) then Labour should demand the UN carry out air drops of aid to Eastern Ghouta, and if the UN won’t then the UK government should be pushed to carry them out. The British military is able to perform them independently, as it did in 2014 for the Yazidis besieged by ISIS. Dropping aid to Eastern Ghouta would show a willingness by the UK government to intervene to support the civilians trapped in the besieged area, and would force the regime to cease its bombing and shelling for fear of clashing with the UN or UK aid drops.

Alongside this, the Labour frontbench can act in concordance with its anti-war leanings and support protests against the regime and Russia’s bombings. Not weak calls for UN lead processes, but forceful calls for the bombing and attacks on civilians to halt, backed up by protests mobilising the strength of the anti-war movement. These should be backed up with calls for sanctions against pro-Putin businesses and oligarchs whose wealth is handled by British banks and businesses. If Putin’s government won’t force its puppet to the negotiating table, Putin’s billionaire backers should pay the price through sanctions and being frozen out of the UK banking system.

An imperialist power is intervening in a country, bombing its civilians in order to prop up a bloody dictatorship, these actions should be easy to oppose for left-wing Labour politicians. The lack of action on this front is infuriating.

Why is Labour’s position so bad?

The Labour leadership’s failures on Syria’s can be traced to the legacy of “campist” politics, the hangover of the old Cold War politics in to the 21st century which still sees “the Western camp” as the main enemy, regardless of the actions and imperialist nature of regimes like Russia, and the brutal dictatorship and unbridled neo-liberal capitalism of Assad’s Syria. A whole generation of socialist activists were educated to view the world this way, and its this which informs their position on Syria.

This is apparent when you examine the politics of those advising the frontbench on Syria. In 2015 Corbyn’s main advisor on Syria – who briefed the parliamentary Labour Party before the 2015 vote on intervention – was journalist Patrick Cockburn. Cockburn has made no secret of his regime sympathies, calling openly for the UK military to work with the Assad regime against ISIS. Another culprit is Seumas Milne. Milne is Executive Director of Strategy and Communications for the Labour Party and is well known for his campist politics. Milne is on record as stating focusing on Russian and Syrian regime atrocities in Syria “sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities”. Its hard to imagine similar statements being made about US atrocities in the Vietnam war, or US and UK atrocities in the Iraq war. Both of them, coupled with Stop The War and its troop of pro-Assad commentators have had a malign effect on Labour’s position on Syria.

Any criticism of Labour over its stance on Syria is liable to bring on a deluge of rancorous apologism from soft and hardline Assadists within the Labour Party and the Stop The War movement. It is absolutely necessary though to challenge them on this. Civilians throughout Syria are being subject to attacks which would provoke mass demonstrations if they were inflicted on Palestinians, yet they are met with silence by Britain’s anti-war organisations and ostensibly anti-war politicians. This situation must change.

The Syrian conflict will be as defining an event for the 21st century as the Palestine-Israeli conflict was for the 20th. To have a Labour leadership promulgating what is essentially a pro-regime line is abhorrent and a betrayal of basic anti-war and anti-imperialist principles which the Labour frontbench claim to hold.

• Mark is a member of Camberwell and Peckham CLP and an activist in Unite Health and Syria Solidarity UK

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