Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Brent Labour debate the Syria issue

Yesterday evening outside the US Embassy
After attending yesterday's protest calling on the US not to mount a military attack on Syria, I went o to the Labour Party's Public Meeting on Syria in Queen's Park.

All was not unity outside the Embassy with Assad and opposition supporters clashing verbally and there was disagreement too in Queen's Park.  The Labour meeting had been planned well before the heightened tension caused by the use of chemical weapons and the parliamentary vote and it turned out to be a calm and well-informed debate with passion breaking through only occasionally.

Cllr James Denselow who writes on the Middle East, completed a Ph.D in Syria and lived there for 3 years before the regime became 'uncomfortable' with his studeis and banned him from the country.

He described his experience of the country as quiet and safe for tourists but dangerous for  opposition. It had higher numbers of secret police per head than the former Soviet Union.

He said that the Arab Spring had taken previously 'coup proof' regimes by surpise with the rise in food prices being the catalyst for unrest. This meant that the regimes could offer 'neither bread nor freedom'. The young were revolting not merely against their rulers but against the 'owners' of the state.  Syria is a case of the failure of the expectations, of revolution with the opposition united by what they are against rather than what they are for.

With damage to the country amounting to £11b and mounting, the regime only in charge of 45% of the country and 10 million likely to be dependent on aid by the end of the year, the situation is extremely serious.

John Lloyd of the Financial Times spoke next opening with the statement that he agreed with Michael Gove's view, although not how it was expressed, on the rejoicing of MPs after the House of Commons vote. It was a curious vote, which nobody won, and should be revisited. Llopyd said the international situation was unstable with the euphoria of the Arab Spring gone, 20-30 states developing or have developed chemical or biological weapons and nuclear instability  especially over possession of nuclear weapons by Indian and Pakistan.

He likened the situation between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East to that which prevailed in the past between Catholic and Protestant in Europe.

On statements from Labour that the issue may be revisited if something 'huge happens' he said, 'What hugemess are we waiting for. It has happened already.' Countries are trying to uphold international agreements on the use of chemical weapons and we can't let their use become normalised.

Ivana Bartoletti, London Labour Euro 2014 candidate and deputy director of the Fabian Women's Network, spoke from a background of experience in European and international politics. She quoted an old saying, 'Never light the fire when the wind is blowing: you'll get burned'.

She said that Syria was a critical issue with the geographical closeness of Israel and Syrian Kurds beginning to flee to Kurdish regions and the number of refugees in Bulgaria. Bartoletti believed that Labour's amendment was right but that this didn't mean that the UK couldn't intervene in other ways.

Options in Syria are never easy, a campaign for  democracy had turned into a civil war and then a religious war. She was concerned about what would happen internationally if the US attack Syria and believed that the G20 talks gave an opportunity to put the issue at the top of the international diplomatic agenda.

Dr Sundar Thava, of Freedom for Torture, Amnesty International the Fabian Network and an NHS doctor, told the audience about his 10 years experience as an officer in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In contrast to John Lloyd, he was pleased with the outcome of the parliamentary voted although he had not been impressed by the quality of the debate. He believed that we shouldn't intervene and that question was a moral one. The US held hegemony over the UN but we can't sweep China and Russia aside. We should look at the concept of national interest as it applies to the US, Russia and Syria.

The US was seeking to spread neo-liberalism internationally and doesn't need us in terms of our armed forces as such - they can go it alone. Thava thought our non-participation would not affect the 'special; relationship'. He didn't agree with gassing but felt that Obama had been silly in making its use a 'red line; and been trapped into the position of having to be seen to react.

He wanted to see evidence that bombing would send a message to other dictators - he could see none. There was no such thing as bombardment as a 'surgical tool' and it was insincere to suggest that bombardment could be effective without the use of ground troops.

Military intervention would risk escalating the situation.

In the subsequent discussion different views were expressed but I got the impression, despite no show of hands, that there were more people supporting Bartoletti and Thava than Lloyd.

I was not chosen by Chair Tulip Siddiq to ask a question but would have wanted to discuss the wider issue of the UK's international role and whether we should cease the 'punching above our weight' approach that has become our role. Hugh Gaitskell's condemnation of the Suez adventure, Harold Wilson's steadfast refusal to send British troops to Vietnam, Robin Cook's attempt at an ethical foreign policy have to be set against Tony Blair's actions in Iraq.

Can you be an internationalist without being a military interventionist?

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