What Diane Abbott gets wrong about Jo Cox’s proposals on Syria

Oh dear.

Labour Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott is right to be sceptical of air strikes on ISIS. But she’s completely misread where Jo Cox and John Woodcock, two centrist Labour MPs, are coming from in their push for a cross-party approach on Syria. And in the process, she’s played straight into the hands of those parts of the media that are rubbing their hands in anticipation of a big bust-up within the Labour Party.

Start with the air strikes. As I wrote in a post here on Global Dashboard almost exactly a year ago, I have great misgivings about the west’s existing strategy of air strikes on ISIS, for two reasons.

One, because they’re militarily dubious. Air strikes only work in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground. Those exist in Kurdistan, but not elsewhere in Iraq – and barely at all in Syria. What’s more, as counter-insurgency writer William Lind observes,

The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.

This leads on to the second problem with air strikes on ISIS, again succinctly summed up by Lind (emphasis added):

By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.

For both of those reasons, I share Abbott’s instinctive scepticism of air strikes on ISIS. They may make us feel better, and scratch the “something must be done” itch – but they’re unlikely to work, and may well end up empowering the forces they’re supposed to weaken.

But Abbott gets it totally wrong with her late night tweet yesterday, responding to a Guardian piece with news that as many as 50 Labour MPs, led by Cox and Woodcock, may vote with the Conservatives to support a new approach to Syria set out in a joint article, also published today, by Cox and former Conservative International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.

In her tweet, Abbott makes two big errors.

The first is to imply that Cox and Mitchell’s proposal is simply to “bomb Syria” – as if they are merely proposing a continuation of the current, failed approach of ‘air strikes only / ISIS only’.

Instead, Cox and Mitchell’s article is calling for a major shift – starting with the recognition that if your priority is civilian protection, then you can’t just target ISIS and ignore the Assad regime which, with its barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks, is by far the biggest source of innocent casualties in this long conflict.

Nor are they proposing air strikes alone. Instead, it’s clear from briefings given to inform the Guardian’s accompanying news article that this is about a much more comprehensive approach, which could include “the use of troops to protect new “safe havens” inside Syria, and enforce a “no-fly” or “no bombing zone” to prevent Assad launching further attacks on his own people, as well as moves to hit Islamic State in Syria”.

To be sure, there are still big questions about what Cox and Mitchell are proposing.

For one thing, I still feel uneasy about including air strikes on ISIS as part of the mix, for the reasons set out above. (True, a no-fly zone would also include air strikes, primarily on Assad’s air defences and airfields – but Lind’s ‘Goliath vs David’ point about perceptions, legitimacy and the moral level of warfare wouldn’t apply in the same way here, and I also find it easier to see how these strikes would work militarily.)

More fundamentally, I have a lot of questions about how their proposed approach would work in the multi-side proxy conflict that Syria’s civil war has now become. After all, Russian air forces have been responsible for plenty of civilian deaths in the past week: would we be attacking their air base at Latakia too?

(Of course, Cox and Mitchell aren‘t suggesting this, and instead it proves their point that any military scaling up would have to be matched by a diplomatic scaling up too, where there are tentative signs of progress in talks between the US and Russia – but the Russia question remains the gorilla in the room in all this.)

The bottom line, though, is that Cox and Mitchell are making a valuable and important contribution in reviving and bringing fresh ideas to a debate in Britain that’s become stuck and that has too often lost sight of what should be our top priority: the humanitarian and civilian protection dimension.

And this leads to the other thing that Abbott gets wrong in her tweet: its tone, with its sour references to Cox, Woodcock and other Labour MPs as “these people” and to “join[ing] with the Tories”.

Abbott may disagree with Cox and Woodcock’s position, but she should at least acknowledge the seriousness of their intent and the integrity of their motives. Instead, she weakens her case, and offers a gift to all those hoping that Labour will go to war with itself under Jeremy Corbyn. Most of all, she diminishes her own standing by bringing party politics into it – as though this were about her or Jeremy Corbyn’s authority, or “the Tories”, rather than about thinking much harder about what we can do to protect the innocent victims of Syria’s war.