Jeremy Corbyn's silence on Syria is hypocritical

Jeremy Corbyn's silence on Syria is hypocritical
7 min read
10 Oct, 2017
Comment: Jeremy Corbyn believes one cannot be selective on human rights issues - which makes his position on Syria all the more troubling, writes Sam Hamad.
Corbyn has faced protests over his opposition to intervening in Syria [Getty]
When Jeremy Corbyn delivered his keynote speech at the recent Labour Party conference, it was with zero irony that he discussed the core of his 'ethical' foreign policy:- how democracy and human rights were 'not an optional extra to be deployed selectively'.

Corbyn listed as examples 'the cruel Saudi war in Yemen' and the 'crushing of democracy in Egypt or Bahrain', before saying his government-in-waiting would give 'real support' to end the oppression of the Palestinians.

These points are welcome and do represent a significant break from previously established UK foreign policy, but a bitter ethical sticking point arose when Corbyn himself indulged in a bit of 'selectivity' during his speech.

Nowhere in Corbyn's speech will you find the word 'Syria'.  Nowhere in Corbyn's speech will you find condemnations of the genocidal violence or ethnic cleansing being carried out by the Assad regime, Iran and Russia against free Syrians.

The 'cruel war' being waged by Assad, Iran and Russia against the Syrians, leading to the death and injury of more than a million people, not to mention the ethnic cleansing of millions more, was entirely omitted. The destruction of an entire country was not even mentioned once.

It ought to be astonishing that someone pitching to be the next prime minister of the UK would completely disregard a conflict that has been so central to world events in recent years, never mind the fact that the speech coincided with the brutal bombardment of Idlib by Assad's forces and Russia.

It really was not so surprising however, considering Corbyn's personal ideology on intervention and how far Syria has slipped down the hierarchy of political interest.

For a man who has supported, rightfully, and within the context of Palestinian resistance, Hamas, this is a monstrous double standard

One must understand that while Corbyn's unique selling point is to do things differently to previous Labour and Tory governments, his policies are more rearrangements than fundamental overhauls.

For Corbyn is entirely correct – one cannot be selective when it comes to championing or concretely supporting democracy and human rights.  One cannot selectively apply principles of opposition to oppression in one area, while supporting or ignoring it in another area.

And this is precisely what previous British governments and Mr Corbyn have in common.  While he wants a British government, presumably his government, to concretely end the oppression of Palestinians and end Saudi Arabia's vicious war in Yemen, he has been one of the most consistent voices in advocating that nothing be done to aid Syrians fighting for liberty against Assad.

Take, for example, his intervention in a debate on the EU arms embargo on Syria in May 2013.  Here, the then-backbench MP warns against 'supplying arms to people [the Syrian rebels] we do not know', associating the rebellion to 'the way the USA raced to supply … arms to [the] opposition in Afghanistan in 1979, which gave birth to the Taliban and, ultimately, al-Qaeda'.

This has been a consistent line of Corbyn's since the revolution in Syria began, both in his capacity as an MP and in his former role as the chairman of the notoriously Assad and Russia-friendly Stop the War Coalition (StWC). It was during his time at the organisation that they invited Mother Agnes Mariam, a notorious paid propagandist for Assad and a supporter of his genocidal war effort, to their annual 'peace conference'.

Corbyn has persisted with the will to conflate the Syrian rebels with al-Qaeda and Islamist extremism since becoming leader of the opposition. During the 2015 debate on UK airstrikes on IS targets in Syria, former PM David Cameron made the accurate if not conservative estimate that there were at least 70,000 anti-IS and anti-Assad Syrian rebels on the ground.  Corbyn, as a self-proclaimed internationalist and progressive, ought to have asked why Cameron and the British government had not done more to support these fighters previously, but instead denied they existed and, once again, made the claim that they were 'jihadists' and 'Salafis'.

As Russia and Assad pounded the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their allies, murdering civilians and destroying hospitals, Corbyn stood up as Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition and peddled the same line as Assad, namely that the FSA contains groups that 'few if any would regard as moderate'.

For a man who has supported, rightfully, and within the context of Palestinian resistance, Hamas, this is a monstrous double standard that is entirely conditioned by the way Corbyn views the world – a view that sees Russia, Iran and even Assad as, at best, lesser evils to any force that is conceived to be pro-Western - never mind the Western countries themselves.

This is precisely why, far from offering anything truly different to the UK's realpolitik of supporting tyrants with zero regard for human rights, Corbyn simply offers a realpolitik conditioned by his own politics, rooted in post-war Stalinism of the Labour variety.

It's why he can obsessively, and rightfully, admonish the Tory government for arm sales to Saudi Arabia, while advocating for and lobbying on behalf of the Iranian regime.

The logic behind the Tories' advocating arms sales to the Saudis is not disrupted at all – it's simply transferred onto a camp that Corbyn finds to be more ideologically acceptable.

Read more: Corbyn's politics aren't extreme

And this gets to the heart of why Corbyn's stance or, if we go by his most recent speech, silence, on Syria is important. While he references US and UK-supported tyrannies like in Egypt, he himself endorses a worldview that supports such tyrannies and their consequences.

In his most recent speech he attributes 'terrorism thriving in a world our government helped to shape, with its failed states, military interventions and occupations … where millions are forced to flee'.  

Corbyn has in past speeches as opposition leader claimed, for example, that the NATO no-fly zone in Libya was connected to the Manchester bombing carried out by the Libyan migrant Salman Abedi.

According to Corbyn's worldview, what happened in Libya wasn't a popular revolution aided by NATO in averting civilian casualties from Gaddafi's air force and overthrowing the Gaddafi's brutal Jamahiriya (which Corbyn praised during the intervention against it), but a mere 'military intervention' that can be compared to the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Corbyn, with his criticism of 'ungoverned spaces' - actually code for the vacuum left by the vanquishing of a decades-old tyranny - endorses the same kind of fetishization of order that sees the UK support Sisi or Saudi Arabia or Israel. It's the same logic that Sisi sells – that either brutal authoritarianism or 'jihadism' will allegedly cultivate these 'ungoverned spaces'.  

This is what 'internationalism' has been reduced to - solidarity with states and not people.  Abstract and idealised notions of 'anti-imperialism' versus the reality of multipolarity and living struggles against oppressors,

This is precisely why you'll never hear from Corbyn about the fact that Libya is split by two nominally democratic bodies vying for state hegemony (ones that united and vanquished IS).  

Or about the great strides the 
civil revolution in Syria made. Instead, the spectre of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and 'Salafism' is conjured, all the better so that these realities remain obscured.

This is what 'internationalism' has been reduced to - solidarity with states and not people

One might say that singling out Jeremy Corbyn is quite odd when those in power have allowed fascism and counter-revolution to triumph in Syria, but it's precisely because Corbyn claims to represent an alternative to the status quo that necessitates this criticism.

It's why when the Tory government so supinely dismissed the policy of dropping food not bombs into besieged areas of Syria, saving Syrians from starvation, Corbyn didn't say a word. It's why when the UK government sat and watched as Free Aleppo was destroyed by Assad and Russia, Corbyn was busy defending the Morning Star, which had deemed it a 'liberation'.

Or while issuing statements, written by his spin doctor and open Putinista Seumas Milne, that focussing on Russian atrocities in Syria was a 'deflection' - despite the 4000 people killed by that point.

It's why when Assad gassed to death perhaps more than 100 Syrians at Khan Sheikhoun, Corbyn said nothing, only breaking his silence to condemn the US for its paltry airstrike on the base from which the death gas was fired and to cast doubt on whether Assad was responsible.

Corbyn has clearly struck a chord on certain issues that blight the UK, but the bitter and tragic reality is that he doesn't function as a progressive opponent of UK foreign policy.

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.