New UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a difficult test of his leadership over the next few days. He has made a reasonable case that the Tory proposal to join the bombing campaign in Syria is vague in its aims and uncertain in its outcome, but it appears that the majority of the shadow cabinet believe that there is no alternative to joining the fragile coalition.
In a letter to his MP’s, Corbyn states:
“We’ve all been horrified by the despicable attacks in Paris and are determined to see the defeat of ISIS.
“Our first priority must be the security of Britain and the safety of the British people. The issue now is whether what the PM is proposing strengthens, or undermines, our national security.
“I do not believe that the PM today made a convincing case that extending UK bombing to Syria would meet that crucial test. Nor did it satisfactorily answer the questions raised by us and the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“In particular, the PM did not set out a coherent strategy, coordinated through the UN for the defeat of ISIS. Nor has he been able to explain what a credible and acceptable ground forces could retake and hold territory freed from ISIS control by an intensified air campaign.
“In my view, the PM has been unable to explain the contribution of additional UK bombing to a comprehensive negotiated political settlement of the Syrian civil war, or its likely impact on the threat of terrorist attacks in the UK.
“For these, and other reasons, I do not believe the PM’s current proposal for air strikes in Syria will protect our security and therefore cannot support it.”
However, only three members of the shadow cabinet are believed to be likely to support Corbyn’s position.
The Labour MP’s will decide on Monday what their response will be. They have three options:
Corbyn’s best move would be to accept a conscience vote. To have the majority of his MP’s choose to make support for the bombing campaign the formal Labour Party position would a disaster for his leadership. Far better the soft option of each MP going with their hearts.
In an unusual case of cross border lobbying, pressure is being put on UK Parliamentarians by their French counterparts. In an open letter in the Guardian, France’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian calls on the UK to show immediate solidarity:
“Isis is not just present in Iraq. It operates across the border in Syria, where its headquarters are located, in Raqqa. It is from Raqqa that some of the main threats against other countries are planned and orchestrated. That’s why it is now crucial to strike Isis in Syria in order to degrade and, ultimately, to destroy it.
Today, for the very first time since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, diplomatic efforts seem to be converging in Vienna. Western countries, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states have agreed to combine their efforts against the threat posed by Isis. We have to jointly seize this opportunity to broaden the coalition that is needed to defeat Isis.”
Corbyn is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Stick to his pacifist principles or accept that he is offside with the majority in caucus, and indeed, with the UK populace. If he gets this wrong, his leadership may take a fatal hit.
Oh, and if you were wondering what the position of the third biggest party in Westminster was, you’ll be comforted to know that double dipping Westminster MP and Scottish MSP Alex Salmond had a hard choice to make. Participate in the vital debate over Syria or … unveil a portrait of himself in a Scottish gallery. Priorities, priorities.
Of course, the coalition against Isis is a far from solid thing. The shooting down of a straying Russian jet by Turkey has made getting an agreed plan significantly harder. Odd how alike Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin are. Both populist nationalists, not afraid to shed blood to make themselves look stronger. Hopefully this incident is a one off, but don’t hold your breath.
Finally, an interactive map of the current state of play in Syria. ISIS appear to have moved their main fight west, away from Iraq and toward the Syrian capital, Damascus. Their areas of control in Iraq and the Kurdish areas appear to be thinning. I’m guessing that’s a combination of small gains by the Iraqi Government and their Western backers, and substantial gains by the Kurdish forces, coinciding with Isis prioritising the immediate opportunity to put pressure on the Assad regime. If Isis have peaked in Iraq, that’s good news. I’m glad New Zealand is doing it’s small bit to help.