The policy of Labour’s front bench with regard to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria is a strange thing – most of the time it’s an echoing silence but occasionally it’s punctured by strange statements that those of us who follow the Syrian situation closely, and solidarise with the victims of the Assad dictatorship, struggle to make sense of.
We found ourselves in the latter situation once again last Monday (11 December) when Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, shocked Syria-watchers when she concluded a wide-ranging Parliamentary question to the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, with the following query:
Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria? If they will not accept that deal, will the Foreign Secretary tell us when it comes to the future of Syria, as on everything else that we have discussed today, what is his plan now?
Following Parliamentary convention, this is framed as a question rather than a statement, but an examination of the rest of Thornberry’s intervention shows that all her “questions” were vehicles for advancing positive policy proposals and implicitly criticising the Foreign Secretary. For example,
Turning to Yemen … While we welcome the talks, we are bound yet again to ask the question: what is the plan now? What is the plan to get the blockades fully lifted and enable full access for humanitarian relief? What is the plan to secure a ceasefire agreement and make progress towards long-term political solutions? And where is the plan for a new United Nations Security Council resolution, 14 months since the UK first circulated its draft?
Comparing the structure of this passage and Thornberry’s Syria “question”, it is hardly surprising that most readers of the Syria statement would interpret it as advocacy of the “deal” she described; just as they would read the Yemen “question” as advocating a lifting of the blockade, and the other measures she referenced in that passage. (Thornberry herself assimilates her Syria question to the Yemen one when she says “as on everything else”).
However when she was challenged about her views in a letter sent to her jointly by Syria Solidarity UK and the Labour Campaign for International Development she issued an aggressive denial insisting that she was only asking a question about Iranian intentions, and attacking one of the organisations (and why that one, we might ask), accusing them of “wilful misrepresentation of the Parliamentary record”.
Well obviously the person best placed to know Thornberry’s intentions is Thornberry herself, and it’s good to have clarification that she does not endorse the policy she took the trouble to outline in the House of Commons. But some nagging questions remain.
First Syria UK and LCID were not the first people to “misrepresent” Thornberry’s question as advocacy. Moments after she posed the question Boris Johnson responded to it, interpreting it in exactly the same way:
… the right hon. Lady asked about the Astana process and whether it would be acceptable. Our view is that if there is to be a lasting peace in Syria that commands the support of all the people of that country, it is vital that we get the talks back to Geneva. I believe that that is the Labour party’s position. Indeed, I believe it was also the Labour party’s position that there could be no long-term future for Syria with President Assad. If that position has changed, I would be interested to hear about that.
Now I can see why Johnson might have been motivated to “wilfully misrepresent” Thornberry’s views (the motivation of SyriaUK and LCID are far less evident). But what I have difficulty understanding is why Thornberry allowed this “misrepresentation” to stand on the Parliamentary record not only at the time but for the subsequent four days without making any attempt to correct it.
For me, however, all this is a secondary problem. What I am puzzled by is where Thornberry’s unique knowledge of the Astana process has come from. She suggests that it has produced a formula for the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah from Syria – but no one else seems to have heard of this. I have scoured the published record of the Astana proceedings, and consulted academic specialists on Syria, but nowhere can I find any sign of this “deal”.
Astana – the Facts
The Astana process has involved eight different meetings, all them concerned with the details of crafting ceasefires and “de-confliction zones” (mostly observed in the breach). None of them has been overtly concerned with negotiating a political solution to the Syrian conflict. And from the first to the last the Astana “guarantors” (Russia, Iran, Turkey) have always insisted that “the Syrian conflict … can only be solved through a political process based on the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 2254 in its entirety.”. The statement of the Astana partners, made three weeks ago after a joint meeting in Sochi, confirmed this commitment to UNSC 2254 and:
underscored the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and emphasized the need for the Syrian parties to take confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees/abductees … to create better condition for political process and lasting ceasefire.
If we turn to UNSC 2254 we can see the process that it envisages as the road to a Syrian settlement:
… a Syrian-led political process that is facilitated by the United Nations and … establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate (UNSC 2254, para 4)
Perhaps Emily Thornberry’s advocacy skills would be better employed supporting this approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict (after all, supporting UN Security Council resolutions should be in the DNA of a left-led Labour Party).
Second time around
But let me note that we have been here before with Emily Thornberry. In October 2016, during the emergency House of Commons debate on the situation in Aleppo, Thornberry started out well with a robust denunciation of “the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime.” But she then moved on to advocate a plan to provide safe conduct out of the city for the alleged 900 Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham fighters, in order to “remove from the Russians and the Syrian forces their current pretext for the bombardment of east Aleppo”. Thornberry added “There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria”. In a Briefing document for the Parliamentary Labour Party, Thornberry clarified “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.”
However this account was completely erroneous. Neither of the two evacuations from Homs that Thornberry referred to involved Jabhat al Nusra, and the first (May 2014) did not involve combatants at all – it was an evacuation purely of civilians (who had been deprived of food and medicine for almost a year and were on the verge of starvation).It was in fact the first of a series of politico-ethnic cleansings that have been carried out by the Syrian regime, involving the forcible displacement of populations, illegal under international law, and in this context almost certainly a “Crime against Humanity”.
…And a third
To these two incidents I can add a third, personal, one. In October this year, after attending a meeting hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the House of Commons, I bumped in to Thornberry and had a brief conversation about Syria. She mentioned the importance of providing reconstruction aid once a political settlement was secured; I responded by suggesting that aid for reconstruction needed to be linked to demands that the Asad regime observe human rights norms, in particular the release of the large number of political detainees. Thornberry dissented strongly from this suggestion stating, as I recall, that it would be difficult to do and that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”.
I have no doubt that Thornberry is a compassionate person, so this remark can only have been born from a lack of knowledge and understanding: ignorance of the fact that political detainees in Syria number in the tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, imprisoned in terrible conditions and subject to torture and arbitrary executions; and ignorance of the fact that the “starving children” in the country are those forced to live under mediaeval sieges imposed by the regime.
Setting Labour Straight on Syria
These episodes indicate that the Labour front bench not only has a poor grasp of what is taking place in Syria, but that it appears to be dependent on very unreliable sources. They will continue to make these sorts of gaffes if they do not consult more widely on Syria. Again, this is not difficult to do: we have a wealth of expert knowledge on Syria in our Universities; we have active solidarity organisations of the sort who are listened to by Labour when they are linked to causes like Palestine; and we have a network of organisations based in the Syrian community involved in advocacy and humanitarian relief work which gives them a rich insight into the situation on the ground in Syria. To my knowledge the Labour front bench has never spoken to any of these organisations. Why?
Sources like this would be able to point out to Emily Thornberry that aid provided to Assad is far more likely to end up in the hands of his kleptocratic familial clique than benefitting “starving children” and be harnessed to their project of shoring up the regime through further ethno-political cleansing.
They would also be able to point out to her that while she was dictating the letter castigating her critics, while Jeremy Corbyn was voicing indignation about a miniscule leakage of aid funds to reactionary groups in Syria, 400,000 people in East Ghouta were facing starvation and systematic bombardment, and, according to the UN’s Jan Egeland, “495 people were on the priority lists for medical evacuations. That number is going down. Not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying.”
All of this in defiance of Astana, Geneva and the UN Security Council.