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Tuesday, November 03, 2015 

Is anything not the fault of Labour and Corbyn?

The reports in both the Guardian and Times this morning that the government will not attempt to bring a motion before the Commons authorising military action against Islamic State in Syria add up to a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, albeit one clouded by the very nature of a vote not taking place.  It allows Downing Street to claim that in fact no decision has been taken, and that at any moment we might find it back on the agenda.  The truth though is surely that the Conservative whips have done the maths, and found that however many Labour MPs they think will support the government, especially if as promised Labour allows a free vote, it won't be enough to overcome the number of Tory rebels.

It's worth remembering that what was or is proposed is so slight as to be all but pointless.  Essentially all the government wants is permission for the military to bomb Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, where it has permission to do so courtesy of the Iraqis.  Regardless of any other considerations, this does have a certain logic to it: IS's supply lines and main base are both in Syria, where they moved into space either vacated by the Assad regime or deemed dispensable when the emphasis was on protecting the area surrounding the capital Damascus.  Moreover, despite both sides maintaining plausible deniability, it's been obvious for a long time that the Americans/rest of anti IS coalition and the Syrians have been cooperating when it comes to fighting Islamic State, at least on air strikes.

For any government, especially any recent British government to not be able to get so slight a military initiative through parliament is a remarkable showing of weakness.  Not of the military variety, but of the political.  Two other things are already in the government's favour: that British troops embedded with the American military have carried out air strikes in Syria; and that under the legal justification of HE'S COMING RIGHT FOR US, Cameron authorised the extrajudicial killing of a British citizen via drone strike in the country.  On that very legal basis, it's arguable that the government could claim Islamic State poses a similar threat to this country by its mere presence in Syria, and so dispense with a Commons vote altogether.

Except it's apparent Cameron's standing remains so low with some of his backbenchers, despite his success in winning a small majority, that to act in such a way would be to stretch his capital way too thin.  All Cameron wants really is to say to the rest of the anti-IS coalition, principally the Americans, that we're with you.  This will amount to little more than a very slight further sharing of the military burden, with reports suggesting that of 5,000 air strikes carried out thus far in Iraq, the UK was responsible for 300, or less than 10%.  That he cannot apparently persuade enough of his backbenchers of the importance of such a move vis-a-vis our relationship with the Americans will be all the more alarming to the party's Atlanticist wing.

Cameron's cause would not be so desperate if the campaign against Islamic State looked like being a success.  As today's report by the Foreign Affairs Committee sets out, any advances have been either inconsequential or negated by losses elsewhere.  Islamic State cannot be defeated from the air, and as the possible partners on the ground are either sectarian or unreliable, there is little cause for optimism that any major victories are in the offing.  Ministers know full well they cannot argue that our taking part in raids into Syria will have anything like a dramatic effect, and so are left with appealing to the logic of doing so and making the inconclusive at best arguments about legality.  They aren't so crass as to say out loud how principally it's about making up the numbers in the coalition, knowing that any previous attachment there was to always being alongside the Americans disappeared with Iraq the second time round.  They have almost nowhere to go.

Not that that's prevented our getting our war on in the past.  Cameron's failure is one of authority, of party management, and only then do the actual arguments about chucking a few more bombs at IS come into play.  What is utterly absurd is that just as when the Conservatives and their acolytes pinned all the blame on Ed Miliband for the failure to act against Assad after the Ghouta attacks in 2013, so now they want to blame Labour again without accepting the slightest responsibility themselves.  Apparently there is "not the certainty of support from Labour", as though the opposition should blithely accept the government is acting in good faith and has made a decent case for yet another intervention, when the former is arguable and the latter just simply hasn't happened.   In the Times Roger Boyes (fnarr fnarr) describes Russia's intervention and "Corbyn's non-interventionist legions" as acting as a pincer movement, while even in the Graun mention is made of how a difference of opinion with the leadership, on a free vote no less, could apparently influence reselection after the constituency boundaries have been redrawn.  Such is the paranoia within the PLP at the moment.  It doesn't seem to matter that those who are disposed towards military action have tried their best to help out the government, urging them in the words of John Woodcock to "decide on a strategy that makes a difference" and then set out the case fully.  The government has ignored them, both because said strategy tends to involve no fly zones and safe areas, both now definitively off the table after Russian intervention, and because the government has never been interested in doing anything other than picking up some of the slack from the rest of the coalition.

Which is where the arguments in favour of intervention always fall down.  Our proposed military involvement in Syria has never been about protecting civilians, either in 2013 or today.  There are both good and bad reasons for why this has been the case, but to pretend that either would have a dramatic effect on the humanitarian situation just doesn't follow.  Essentially what were billed as revenge attacks on Assad for using chemical weapons may have morphed into something else, just as the responsibility to protect was invoked in Libya only then to be used to justify regime change, but the case being made was little more than we had to act as President Obama's red line had been breached.  On the contrary, the continued attempts at reaching some sort of settlement, however bleak the chances of negotiations succeeding and then being accepted by everyone other than Islamic State seem, at least offer a smidgen of hope.

This is why it rankles when the likes of Rafael Behr continue to claim that Miliband stopping Cameron getting the hellfire missiles out must then be evaluated by how Assad continues to butcher his people.  Hatred of or hostility to Corbyn outweighs everything else, including capitalising on such Tory weakness, as proved by Labour Uncut claiming the party has outsourced foreign policy to Stop the War, making its foreign policy a "debased joke".  Behr meanwhile writes of how Miliband "indulged" and "deferred" to the left, and how Obama and Cameron are also not wanton warmongers, despite their continuing with the failed ones of their predecessors and making such a success of Libya.  Some might in fact reason that makes them worse - that rather than learn from past mistakes they have carried on with conflicts they never truly believed in.  Where the foreign affairs committee sets out the complexity of the conflict in Syria, and identifies 7 separate points the government should explain in making its case for intervention, many are still insistent on viewing everything as either black or white.

P.S. Worth bringing slightly more attention to is this non-fact sheet from the FCO on just who the moderate opposition are in Syria.  Basically, if they're not Islamic State or al-Nusra, then they're moderate.  To be fair, if we really did limit our engagement with rebels in Syria to all those criteria, we'd be working with about 10 people and a dog, so you can see the FCO's predicament.

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