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.

Are we neglecting our soft power assets?

Time to Deliver the Post-2015 Agenda’s Promises to Children

The post-2015 agenda has a clear vision for children: the protection, survival and development of all children to their full potential. Four resonant and ambitious ‘core promises’ to children can be drawn from the child-focused goals and targets.

The core promises are:

  • No child should die from a disease we can prevent.
  • Every child should have the food needed to grow normally.
  • Every child should be able to read and write, and should be numerate.
  • No child should live in fear.

These core promises represent minimum levels of wellbeing that children must enjoy if, as adults, they are to contribute to a sustainable future. This new paper by David Steven sets out an agenda for those working to deliver the most urgent priorities to children (June 2015)

Download Full Report

Every Child Deserves a Childhood

Continuing with our work on the Time to Deliver theme, focusing on the core promises that should be made to children, this report explores the potential for the United Kingdom to play a leadership role at the heart of a proposed new global partnership to protect children; using new targets to end abuse, exploitation and all forms of violence against children as the focus for a drive to protect children both within the UK as well as globally, through the UK’s foreign and development policy.

This report was written in collaboration with UNICEF UK and will be used by them to develop the new partnership for children, both in the UK and globally.(May 2015)

Download Full Report

5 flashing warning lights on the dashboard of the global humanitarian system

In case you hadn’t noticed, these are extraordinary times for the global emergency relief system, which has never looked more overstretched. 5 facts lifted from a new paper by my CIC colleagues Sarah Hearn and Alison Burt:

1. 76 million people now depend on the humanitarian system. A decade ago, the figure was 26 million.

2. The number of forced displaced people has more than doubled over the MDG era –  from 20 million in 1999 to more than 51 million at the end of last year.

3. The cost of global emergency assistance is now $18 billion – a more than threefold increase from the $5 billion it cost in 2000.

4. Internally displaced people now outnumber international refugees by a factor of 2 to 1 (24 million IDPs versus 12 million refugees – in 2000 it was 6 million IDPs and 12 million refugees).

5. The average displacement of a refugee now lasts for 17 years.

When we talk about ways of assisting the hardest to reach of the people living in poverty around the world, it’s often not governments or development actors but the humanitarian system that are delivering the basic services. So if the world is serious about the SDG aim of leaving no one behind, then this is where we have to start.

Back in 2005, UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland led a massive push to upgrade the humanitarian system. With next year’s World Humanitarian Summit coming up, it’s high time that the UN embarked on a similarly ambitious effort again.

OECD States of Fragility Report – Meeting Post-2015 Ambitions

This afternoon, in New York, the OECD is launching its States of Fragility 2015 report which explores how new sustainable development goals and targets (SDGs) can be implemented in countries and communities that lack the political stability and institutions to support inclusive growth, or that are affected by very high levels of violence.

The report was written with colleagues at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and is part of a broader effort to switch the focus from what should be part of the post-2015 development agenda, towards how the new agenda can be delivered.

It argues that we have no hope of delivering the SDGs in large parts of the world, unless we get serious about tackling fragility.

Robust global growth, and more equitable patterns of distribution, have the potential to lead to rapid and continued further reductions in all forms of poverty, but this would mean that those left behind would increasingly live in fragile situations. Continue reading

If foreign policy doesn’t feature in this election a global powerhouse risks losing its voice

In a piece for Real Clear World I argue that

The chances of Britain making it through to May 7 without facing at least one unexpected international event with serious implications for our national interests are slim indeed. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband should be planning to give over at least a day between now and polling to lay out how they intend to shape world events and not just react to them. Even if they remain unpersuaded that the electorate is hungry for answers now, it is difficult to see how they could claim a later mandate for tough decisions if they don’t hint at their direction of travel on ISIS, Russia, China, the Transatlantic relationship, Syria, reform of the European Union, and prospects for this year’s critical summits on sustainable development and climate change.

You can read the whole piece here and see all the other world election coverage they are gathering together here.