Lesley Riddoch: Warnings from Iraq going unheeded

LABOUR disarray isn’t really the big story. The enormity of bombing Syria is, argues Lesley Riddoch

Protesters outside Downing Street on Saturday. Opinion polls suggest 48 per cent of people back air raids on Isis. Picture: Getty Images
Protesters outside Downing Street on Saturday. Opinion polls suggest 48 per cent of people back air raids on Isis. Picture: Getty Images

It seems the Commons is set to vote on bombing Syria this Wednesday, which means David Cameron must be confident Labour MPs will defy Jeremy Corbyn and back his own call to arms. Yet, even if the Prime Minister gets by with opposition support, the Commons could be completely out of step with public opinion.

According to a weekend UK Survation poll, 48 per cent do indeed back air raids on Isis, with Scots less enthusiastic on 43 per cent. But asked about sending in ground troops, the result becomes clearer with 54 per cent of Scots against and just 25 per cent in favour. That’s important because bombing alone will certainly not destroy Daesh/Islamic State.

America has already flown 57,000 sorties over Iraq and Syria in 17 months and carried out 8,300 strikes without noticeable strategic effect. Will a handful of Tornados turn the tide or just contribute to the civilian death toll? The US claims only half a dozen civilians have died during its raids but monitoring group Airwars estimates the figure is between 600 and 2,000. Bombing doesn’t always mean surgical precision – as the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital tragedy demonstrated – but it does feed the resolve of opponents and long-term resentment.

Indeed David Cameron accepted this in his Commons speech, when he agreed bombing alone wouldn’t work. But quoting the chairman of the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) he insisted 70,000 ground troops were already in Syria, ready to wage the ground war against IS.

Yesterday General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former Nato Allied Commander took a very different view about the ease of recapturing an IS stronghold like Raqqa.

“To take a city of 350,000 is going to need a massive force. Any fighting in cities soaks up troops in a massive way. It’s very heavily attritional, it’s bloody and it’s a grim business. It’s not something you are going to achieve with 70,000 so-called Syrian moderates.”

Indeed the history of Syria’s civil war suggests “moderates” are hard to identify, may work with jihadi groups and are often unwilling to fight for any territory but their own.

So is the JIC estimate reliable? Twelve years ago the information the committee provided on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction proved worthless. Is the forecast of 70,000 moderate Sunni fighters more accurate now?

Others have questioned the legal basis for action since the UN Security Council resolution didn’t cite Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which authorises the use of force. And one of the 30 Tory MPs who rebelled against Cameron’s earlier bombing vote in 2013 has predicted that 15 of his colleagues will vote against bombing Syria again.

In short, opinion from all sides of the political spectrum is divided over bombing Syria. Yet, the media is strangely agreed there’s only one important political angle – the disarray in Labour’s ranks.

Of course, some senior Labour figures don’t help – apparently determined to use the bombing debate as an excuse to oust Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, he at least is in tune with public opinion and far more connected to Labour rank-and-file thinking than his MPs. A YouGov poll suggests 70 per cent of Labour party members oppose bombing.

This is not to say Corbyn is perfect, a master tactician or even the ideal man to hold his party together while its grassroots and parliamentarians try to reconnect. But currently he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If Corbyn insists on a “whipped vote” the Labour leader will be portrayed as Joe Stalin to John McDonnell’s Mao – or maybe even King Canute. If he doesn’t even try to pull MPs round to his way of thinking he’ll be dismissed as rudderless and spineless. Characteristically though, it’s likely to be the tough initial stance followed by a climb-down and the announcement of a free vote at today’s Shadow Cabinet that will do the damage. Even then, Labour disarray isn’t really the big story. The enormity of bombing is – or should be – our focus along with some mature acknowledgement of widespread dissent on the subject.

Three weeks ago the Tory-led House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee advised that intervention in Syria was not a good idea. Peter Oborne – until recently chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph – has described Cameron’s strategy as “Bomb and hope for 
the best.” And concludes; “We should not go ahead until we have a better idea of what we are doing.” Right-winger and iconoclast Peter Hitchens wrote yesterday; “On the basis of an emotional spasm and a speech that was illogical and factually weak, we are rushing towards yet another swamp, from which we will struggle to extract ourselves and where we can do no conceivable good.” And he says the former ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford energetically opposes what he calls ‘recreational bombing’. The Observer believes expanding military action into Syria is a mistake – so too does the Daily Mail which writes “It sickens the Mail to find ourselves in the same camp as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell … even more, it distresses us to know many of our readers may disagree with us. But on balance, and with many misgivings, this paper believes the case for bombing Syria has not yet been made.”

So are we really seeing shameful disarray in the Labour Party or just an honest – if chaotic – reflection of a deeply divided public mood which the Tory party has managed to ignore or suppress in its own ranks? Let’s be honest. Cameron’s main argument is that when other big countries act, Britain cannot be found wanting. But there is next to no mention of exit or reconstruction strategies and that’s why parallels with the disastrous Iraq War keep popping up almost unbidden.

Of course, the world must confront IS. But adding a handful of extra bombers to the confusion over Syrian airspace won’t help. Overcoming IS needs an international coalition embracing all the states in that region – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Gulf states and Syria and a reconstruction strategy. Neither massive task is currently at the top of anyone’s agenda – but they must be.

Public opinion is not always right. But launching bombs on Syria is not a great time to be out of step with it.