First, apologies for the long pause in updates. I’ve stepped back from day-to-day updates on Broxtowe (please see the browtowelabour.com website for Labour’s updates) but I do intend to keep commenting from time to time on national issues.
The obvious question coming up is whether we should join the Americans, Russians and French in bombing ISIS in Syria – and perhaps further involvement thereafter. The case for action has clearly been strengthened by the horrific terrorism in Paris. If anyone was in any doubt about the murderous evil that ISIS presents, that doubt should now have disappeared. Another important development is the agreed UN resolution urging all powers to take action to combat the terrorism. Although this stops short of explicitly making the attack on ISIS a UN mission, it clearly gives a level of international agreement that we have not seen for a very long time.
That said, it’s easier to get into wars than get out of them, and it’s right to ask some questions. How will defeating ISIS in Syria affect terrorism in Europe? Can ISIS be defeated in Syria without ground troops, and if not, are we willing to get involved again with ground forces? The allies attacking ISIS are completely divided on the future of Assad, with Russia strongly supportive and Britain entirely hostile – if ISIS is defeated, what happens next? What exactly are we trying to achieve? What would victory look like, and is there an exit strategy, or would this be an indefinite commitment?
The lesson of Iraq (where I mistakenly supported military action) is not to rush into battle without a coherent plan for what we are trying to achieve and what happens if we win. At present, we don’t appear to have a strategy at all; we are against Assad, but we don’t have a clear alternative, except for a vague reference to the fractured Free Syrian Army and “moderate forces”. There is, it seems to me, a danger that we are responding to the real threat of terrorism in Europe, which we don’t know quite how to deal with effectively, by doing what we do well, air strikes against an enemy thousands of miles away.
There is a case for joining the coalition out of solidarity with the other countries – not least as the emergence of combined action between the West and Russia perhaps shows real progress since the Cold War. But it is delusional to get involved in a war and think we are really tackling terrorism, without a clear idea of what we are trying to achieve either in Syria or against terror in Europe. I should like to see signs of an effective plan for compromise between Assad and the non-ISIS opposition, and in the absence of that, shouldn’t we stop trying to help overthrow Assad? Is he a ruthless dictator who has almost certainly committed war crimes? Yes. But he may be the least bad realistic option available. The belief that the end of a dictatorship in itself always makes for a better future is not always well-founded. Look at Libya. Look at Yugoslavia. Look at Iraq.
This is all too important for party politics, and notably all parties are divided on the issue. But I’d like to disagree with the common view that Jeremy Corbyn’s nuanced response and his refusal to brush into a war is a sign of weakness or even lack of patriotism. It’s part of the job of opposition leaders to ask questions and raise cautionary warnings. Corbyn’s reluctance to make generalised bellicose statements is seen as a weakness in today’s climate. It is not, however, pacifism; rather, it’s a concern to avoid rushing into a new adventure when we have only just exited from the last one. My unfashionable view is that he’s doing us a service by keeping a cool head in this anxious and fevered time.
Quite separate from what should be done in Syria is the question of how terrorism in Europe can best be fought. I’ll return to that in a later column.
Best wishes, Nick