It’s impossible to watch the footage without wanting to do something, immediately. That leads some on the left to surprising positions.
Disrupting Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on December 10 did nothing to help civilians in Aleppo; it diverted attention from the important pledges he made on women and human rights. Equally, this newspaper was wrong to characterise President Bashar al-Assad/Vladimir Putin’s military assault as a “liberation”. Faced with brutal horrors, the West — both the left and the right — reaches too quickly for military solutions.
Jeremy Corbyn is right to continue to reject military intervention, and to call for:
“humanitarian assistance to Aleppo and other besieged areas and serious pressure to negotiate ceasefires across the conflict zones […] the UK, as a member of the United Nations security council, should bolster and affirm the UN as the primary avenue for international efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria.”
Corbyn has repeatedly and correctly condemned Russia’s involvement in Syria and its actions in Aleppo, as have shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow defence secretary Nia Griffith.
The analogy has been made with Guernica. As with all historical analogies, it’s only partly correct. As with Guernica, Aleppo’s civilians have been subjected to brutal military air strikes. However, the political context is different. In 1937, socialists had no difficulty defending — including militarily — the elected Republican government from Franco’s fascist military rebellion. They did so as individuals or through the labour movement, not by calling on the British government to intervene.
In Syria, what began in 2011 as a political revolution against a dictator has collapsed into a multilateral conflict involving many military forces, most of which — Isis, al-Qaida, etc — are guilty of the most appalling crimes, including kidnapping, arbitrary executions and rape.
Assad’s crimes are also well-known: a dictator with a record of torture and arbitrary detentions in secret prisons is raining down hell from the sky, with hospitals, residential areas and schools all bombed.
As government forces entered the city, the UN reported that civilians, including women and children, were summarily executed — collective punishment for the actions of the fighters.
Both sides are guilty of horrific war crimes. Rather than take sides, surely the answer is to condemn all human rights abuses and all military action against civilians?
What should and what should not be done? Military intervention causes more harm than it is intended to prevent. In 2013, the Labour Party was completely correct to oppose British military intervention in Syria. The Tories, and shamefully some Labour MPs, now blame the current tragedy on that vote. Ben Bradshaw said: “In August 2013, after the international outrage at his use of chemical weapons, we had the chance, but we blew it.” John Woodcock MP agreed.
It’s nauseating watching Boris Johnson and others talk about their concern for civilians in Aleppo. They don’t show the same concern for civilians in Yemen, murdered by US drones and Saudi military forces — armed by Britain — nor for the deaths in Iraq, over 13 years after the invasion. The city of Mosul is seeing dozens of civilian fatalities every week, the result of aerial bombardment, which British MPs backed a year ago.
Humanitarian aid, through air drops, might be right, but only if it has been negotiated. Unilateral action, without agreement of the local or international combatants, could simply escalate the conflict.
Realistically, Britain can do four things: political pressure, humanitarian aid as soon as there is a ceasefire, a welcoming approach to refugees and taking action against the arms trade. Sadly, the Tories and some Labour MPs would much rather bomb than provide assistance for refugees, or stop selling arms.
Political pressure must continue, especially against the executions of civilians. The government should offer humanitarian aid — food, shelter and medical assistance. This should include, once people are safe, fed and sheltered, taking testimony so that war crimes are documented and perpetrators can be held accountable.
The government should welcome Syrian refugees — far cheaper than military engagement. The Dubs amendment was a humane response but by mid-November only 330 children from Calais had been received. The government has failed to meet the inadequate quota of 3,000 children and spent its energy contesting its international obligations.
More than five million Syrians have been displaced since 2011. Thousands are stranded in France, Greece, Italy and elsewhere, where all European governments, including the British, are trying to avoid granting them asylum. The government should allow asylum claims from those refugee camps, recognising that most Syrian refugees are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Those who prefer to stay close to Syria, so that they can return home quickly when it’s safe, should be supported too.
Finally, we need national and international action on arms sales. The British government could ban, overnight, the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Libya and Iraq. It could lead an international non-proliferation process, seeking to reduce economic dependence on arms manufacturing, to increase the types of arms that are banned under international law and to reach agreement on the gradual decommissioning of the arms industry. If we can change our habits to beat climate change, can governments be persuaded to solve their problems by talking, rather than fighting?
Liz Davies and Mike Phipps are Labour Party members and were involved in setting up Iraq Occupation Focus in 2004. Mike continues to publish a regular Iraq Occupation Focus newsletter, documenting events in Iraq.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star online.