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Sunday 18 December 2016

Jeremy’s letter

It’s time that the Leader of the Opposition stopped undermining his own MPs on Syria, writes Clara Connolly

Let’s be clear, the major blame for the UK’s lamentable lack of action on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria lies with the Government. The Foreign Secretary’s response to the passionate debate in Parliament on Tuesday was almost a joke: he threw up his hands, blaming Parliament itself for its vote against intervention in 2013, which, he said, passed the baton to Russia. Syria was now Russia’s responsibility, and Putin is welcome to it. Nothing to be done.

But the Leader of the Opposition made that response easy, and inevitable. He did not speak at the debate, but he wrote a letter on the subject to Theresa May that morning, which had the effect of undermining his own Foreign Secretary, as well as the many Labour MPs who spoke strongly in favour of action by the UK.

At first sight, the contents are unobjectionable. He asks the Government to ‘press for an end to the violence and a UN-led ceasefire,’ since the rules of war ‘are being broken on all sides.’ He says that Labour has long condemned all attacks on civilians, ‘including those by Russian and pro Government forces in Aleppo, for which there can be no excuse.’

On humanitarian assistance to Aleppo and other besieged areas—an immediate priority—he urges the UK to ‘bolster and affirm the United Nations as the primary avenue for international efforts.’ It should engage all sides in its diplomatic effort, including regional powers. Lastly, he urges ‘patience and persistence’ in pursuing a long term negotiated settlement.

So what is wrong with this? Set alongside the debate, its weaknesses become obvious. But I cannot believe that this is due to haste or ignorance: its extraordinary absence of detail, its anodyne tone, are carefully calibrated. Despite what his fellow MPS might say in the debate, it gave a green light to the Government’s ‘do nothing’ policy.

Firstly, his emphasis on the primacy of the UN takes no note of its complete failure on Syria: stalemate at the Security Council because of Russia’s use of the veto, its refusal to deliver on its own resolutions on humanitarian aid to besieged areas. If he really hoped for UN–led action, it would have been helpful to refer, as some MPS did, to the Unity for Peace (UN 377) resolution proposed by Canada. This is a mechanism which in an emergency can trump the use of veto.

Secondly he makes no mention of the European Union, though there were repeated requests in the Commons for clarity on the UK’s position on the matter in the forthcoming European Council meeting. (The Mayor of Aleppo has since made an urgent plea to the European Council, for a hearing on humanitarian assistance.)

Thirdly he does not refer to the security and safety of civilian and humanitarian activists in Aleppo, in imminent danger of torture and death if captured by the regime—including the famed White Helmets (whose Director had spoken in Parliament recently) and even including British citizens involved in the aid effort there, which Mary Creagh MP repeatedly raised as a matter of urgency with Boris Johnson.

Finally, he makes no allusion to airdrops of food by the UK, despite there being a majority for this in Parliament. MPs from the Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru, and Conservative parties spoke in favour of it during the debate. It is also popular with the public: at the time of writing there are over 137,000 signatures on a petition, more than enough to trigger a further debate.

Most significantly,  his own Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry,   spoke strongly in favour of the proposal, with Jeremy at her side. She reminded the Government that, months before, they had promised airdrops ‘at the point of last resort,’ and gave way to a fellow Labour MP who asked: ‘if we have not reached the point of last resort, what would it be?’ to which she agreed.  She said that,  if it was considered too risky to pilots to drop food from planes, ‘the Government must use unmanned drones or GPS guided parachutes.’ Inaction, she said, ‘is simply not an option.’ She could not have put the point more insistently.

And yet not a word of support for this, in Jeremy’s letter. It is well past time that the Leader of the Opposition stopped undermining his own MPs in Parliament, including even his closest allies in the Shadow Cabinet.  

As was pointed out to him very clearly during his speech on International Human Rights Day, his own credibility as a champion of human rights is seriously undermined by his significant silences on Syria. Pious and mealy mouthed generalities will not do the trick any longer.

Clara Connolly and fellow protesters, 10 December 2016. Photo © Steve Eason.