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.

The six fathers of ISIS

(As defined by Ziad Majed and abridged by Amir Ahmed Nasr in this excellent post):

ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.
1. ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.
2. ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.
3. ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.
4. ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).
5. ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.
6. ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

Ahmad Nasr also adds the observation that:

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the  Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviours of local authoritarian actors.

After Afghanistan

In the latest of our #progressivedilemmas we consider what Labour’s approach to failing states should be.

2014 is the last year of British military involvement in Afghanistan and the end of a long phase of ‘nation-building’ efforts since 9/11. While David Cameron has unconvincingly declared ‘mission accomplished’, in reality the next Labour government will wrestle with an agonising set of dilemmas about the UK’s future involvement in stabilising failed and failing states. Iraq and Afghanistan cast a long shadow.

Saudi Arabia’s national shame

A couple of weeks back I posted about Saudia Arabia’s mass deportation of Ethiopian migrant labourers. Now, with 7,000 migrants returning on flights back to Addis Ababa every night, their stories are starting to emerge in earnest. Humanitarian experts based here who are supporting them and the government are aghast at what they’re hearing.

It seems to be becoming clear that rape of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not just frequent, but endemic. 95% of women coming back are either pregnant or lactating, according to the EU humanitarian organisation, ECHO. Some women who had children in Saudi Arabia have reportedly not been allowed to take them back to Ethiopia.

Many women are also reporting being raped multiple times by Saudi Arabian security and prison staff after being detained prior to deportation. Others held in the temporary detention camps (the FT says there are 64 of them) report that they were forced to purchase their food and water at inflated prices.

2,500 returnees and counting – about 2.5% of those returned so far – have been referred to hospital here, with high rates of both psychological trauma and sexual and gender based violence.

The Saudi authorities are reportedly confiscating many people’s money and valuables before they’re allowed to board the plane – and even their shoes, so that returnees arrive back here in the middle of the night, in temperatures as low as 5 degrees C, in bare feet. Many families are being split up and put on separate flights, including in some cases kids separated from their parents.

The Saudis (30th richest country in the world on GNP per capita) aren’t even deigning to pay for the cost of the charter flights bringing the migrants home – instead leaving it to Ethiopia (175th richest country in the world) and humanitarian agencies to pick up the tab.

Why Russia might favor humanitarian corridors into Syria

Here’s more exciting Syrian news from the Security Council after last week’s chemical weapons resolution:

The president of the U.N. Security Council said Monday that many members are pressing to follow up on last week’s resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons with a demand that the government allow immediate access for desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Australian Ambassador and council president Gary Quinlan said a draft Security Council statement calls for delivering access in “the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries …” if necessary to bypass meddling from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.

And here is the really striking news:

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told The Associated Press that Russia approved of the draft statement on humanitarian aid as well.

Now why on earth would Russia support such a proposal now?  This map suggests one answer:

As the map shows, a majority of border towns and cities are held by rebels or Kurds.  So if the UN tries to open up humanitarian corridors from other countries, the burden will be on the rebels to safeguard them.  There are notable exceptions, like Qusayr.  But Russia can support this initiative safe in the knowledge that (1) it reflects facts on the ground and (2) it may create more headaches for the rebels than for Assad.  Will rebels let aid into government-held areas?

The UN’s struggle for moral authority

I have a 3,000 word essay in Aeon, the online magazine of ideas, on the United Nations and morality. Here’s the opening…

‘We will integrate human rights into the life cycle of all staff.’ This phrase, with its strange mix of bureaucratic and moral ambitions, might sound like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact it is a sincere statement from a policy paper circulated among senior United Nations staff this summer on the need to renew the organisation’s ‘vision’ in the face of massive human rights violations. UN officials have been despondent over their failure to halt the Syrian war and the organisation’s performance in persistent trouble-spots such as Darfur, so the soul-searching is timely. But will it make any difference?

You can find the answer to that question, and the full article, here.

Iran’s biggest headache

A coda to my post a couple of weeks back on the role of climate change and resource scarcity as conflict threat multipliers in Syria, via Tom Friedman in the NY Times:

“Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran. Is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. … Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this.

“I am deeply worried about the future generations. … If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate.

“All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others … deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. … If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.”

– Iran’s former agriculture minister Issa Kalantari (now an adviser to Hassan Rouhani), writing in the Iranian Ghanoon newspaper.