Euan McColm: Corbyn's immutable logic against Syria strikes

Jeremy Corbyn's position on allied strikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria surely confirms the deeply held convictions of both his most loyal supporters and his fiercest opponents.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

To those signed up to the Corbyn project, the Labour leader’s anger over Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to commit British forces to limited action last week is righteous; his insistence that any intervention in Syria could only be countenanced if it came backed by the support of the United Nations will have reassured them that here is a man of rare integrity, not like all those “warmongers” they used to have to put up with.

Those unconvinced by the Corbyn phenomenon, on the other hand, may have detected more than a little cynicism in the leader of the opposition’s position. Russia, after all, has repeatedly used its veto, during discussions at the UN Security Council, to block any action in Syria.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – and, thus, its complicity in the chemical weapons attacks that have killed scores of innocent civilians during years of civil war – mean that its position on military intervention is unlikely to change. Russian president Vladimir Putin is on Assad’s side and, while this remains the case, the UN will be authorised to do nothing.

Corbyn’s position on the matter of action in Syria may seem designed to infuriate his opponents. His stance drips with a heady mix of sanctimony and passive aggression. It says he is a wise man of peace while those he rails against are fools. And bloodthirsty ones, at that.

But regardless of whether his opponents doubt Corbyn’s motivation, his position comes protected by a fairly solid degree of logic.

The UN, after all, was established to stabilise international relationships after the horrors of the Second World War and a central part of this mission was the understanding that compromise was necessary.

The UN’s Security Council – of which the UK, along with France, China, the US and Russia, is one of five permanent members – exists, does it not, to ensure that military intervention is always a last resort?

One need not agree with the view that the UK was morally wrong to act, in alliance with America and France, in Syria last weekend in order to accept that Corbyn makes an arguable point. If Russia’s veto on the Security Council means nothing then, logically, neither does the UK’s. Nor anyone else’s, come to that.

Those who believe that Russia has used its veto in order to protect Assad may be entirely correct but if one supports the mission of the United Nations then the repeated Russian block on action in Syria is a consequence with which one must live, isn’t it?

If this is an unsustainable position for some members of the Security Council – and it certainly appears that it is – then there are difficult questions to be asked about the future of the UN.

The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 marked a concerted effort by nations which could count the cost of war in the millions of deaths over the preceding six years to ensure that a new, stable world might emerge.

Since then, the UN, through diplomacy and peace-keeping initiatives, has played a crucial role in ending and even preventing conflict around the world. Along with action to stop war, the organisation has approved the use of military action in a number of instances. The achievement of international agreement, often between countries with radically different geopolitical agendas, in these cases has been key in forging unlikely but useful – if fragile – alliances.

All who participated in last weekend’s limited action in Syria might have a good case that they did not, on that occasion, require a UN resolution in order to proceed. They know that, had they sought this backing, they would have failed to get it.

So where does this leave the Security Council? Does it exist now to act only as a barrier to any military action? Is its authority to be sought only when agreement is guaranteed? If this is so, if the Security Council cannot cope wth disagreement in good faith, then what purpose does it serve?

Ah, you might say, but the Russians aren’t acting in good faith. The answer to that, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t matter. The point about the worth of a veto still stands.

Putin does not wish to see nations united. The Kremlin’s campaign to influence the 2016 American elections and its alleged interference in the EU referendum were not designed to create a more stable world. Quite the opposite is true.

And while Putin has made it abundantly clear to the world that he will do what he damned well pleases and support who he damned well pleases, Donald Trump’s views on foreign policy remain entirely unpredictable.

Once a committed opponent to any US involvement in Syria, Trump last week said strikes near Damascus and Homs represented “mission accomplished”. This, as is so often the case with things the American president says, may not turn out to be true.

If further action is considered necessary by the US, the UK and others, then, inevitably, the United Nations will not be called upon to give its blessing.

Corbyn can then return to the moral high ground, demanding UN approval (though some might also like to hear him say a little more about Russian involvement in Syria).

The United Nations has, for more than 70 years, helped maintain global peace. It has been a force for good, bringing together unlikely allies and acting as a shock absorber on bumpy diplomatic roads, but it faces perhaps the greatest test in its post-Cold War existence.

In a world ever more polarised, with insular nationalism on the rise and competing international agendas threatening to spill over into conflict, the United Nations should be a beacon of hope. Instead, the UN grows more fragile by the day.