Syria, Jeremy Corbyn and ‘the Right Side of History’

It is probably one of the silliest phrases used in politics. Whether it be votes at 16, trans rights, or foreign policy, it replaces an argument. Usually, it is Corbyn supporters proclaiming  their man their man to be on it throughout his career. It is ‘the right side of history’.

The righteousness presupposes its victory. If only history worked that way. Unfortunately, there is only what happened and what didn’t happen. Following events in Syria, it will be phrase that is used much in the next few weeks and months.

The chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma was horrific. Some 500 were sent to medical facilities. We have no idea as yet the wider loss of life and injuries. The pictures of those suffering or dead leave a scar on our our consciences. Or they should.

Inevitably, the West now considers a response. President Trump took to Twitter to condemn Bashar al-Assad as a ‘Killing Animal’. French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that this is a red line. In Britain, the Prime Minister has been much more careful, however slowly her language is changing.

Investigations are already underway. Like in the Salisbury chemical attack, there is one clear suspect. There will never be a smoking gun. The question is one of whether we can judge without reasonable doubt, based on the evidence we have as to guilt.

Syrian leader Assad has form, he has motive. It would not be wild to conclude that it might be him. There is no other plausible explanation.

He does not have a plan. He is not even Neville Chamberlain

The question as to whether Britain will join any intervention is complicated by the precedent of a parliamentary vote that Tony Blair offered before the Iraq War in 2003 to appease the anti-war brigade in his party.

Once given, some things are hard to take away. But there is enough wiggle room for May to authorise British involvement without asking Parliament. Should National Security and the projection of British force in defence of human rights be subject to a partisan three line whip? I pose the question.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response has been far from statesmanlike. Following the attack, Labour put out a statement of condemnation. It made no mention of the Syrian leader. Worse, as the Labour leader later condemned violence on all sides, he drew an ugly moral equivalence between the brutality of the Assad regime and those defending themselves. His foreign affairs shadow Emily Thornberry managed to bridge the uncertainties where Corbyn's ideological approach created inconsistency.

Compare Labour’s initial statement on Douma with Corbyn’s statement on the death of Palestinian protesters. On Twitter, Corbyn found no issue with pointing the finger at Israeli forces before an investigation but, when talking about Syria, did not mention the name of Assad.

His own words condemn him: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you are on the side of the oppressor.” The Syrian conflict has an oppressor and Corbyn can only condemn his violence with that of others.

Corbyn has called for peace talks - as if the idea had not occurred to anyone before him. The Geneva process have been going on sporadically since 2012. He talks about the UN and investigations. But Russia is using its Security Council veto to exclude the UN from any process. Corbyn has suggested no mechanism to overcome these obstacles. He does not have a plan. He is not even Neville Chamberlain.

Opposition to violence is a perfectly honourable position. Yet for a senior politician to oppose military intervention - and Corbyn will - without a practical alternative is grotesque.

“Killing is wrong,” Corbyn told LBC. It is such wisdom that propelled him to greatness.

No doubt whatever happens, the Corbynite left will proclaim itself on ‘the right side of history’. Their moral cocoon seems to prevent the soul-searching they demand of others.

If MPs were ‘wrong’ in 2003 to vote in favour of war, by rejecting military strikes in 2013 they avoided doing the 'right' thing. Because Iraq is not the only opportunity Parliament has had to decide on war and peace.

In 2013, David Cameron failed to secure Commons backing for strikes after the Syrian dictator used sarin against his own citizens killing hundreds. Cameron’s 2013 defeat can be laid at the feet of Ed Milliband who led the government a merry dance before appeasing his anti-war left (what had yet to be christened the Corbynite left) in one of the most shameful decisions by any opposition leader in generations.

Miliband’s opportunism created a vacuum of which Vladimir Putin took advantage to play 'peacemaker'. Since then, the West has been hampered from any meaningful intervention by the Russian/Assad pincer. Several war crimes and thousands of deaths later, we are where we are.

Would Douma have happened had the West intervened in September 2013? Nobody can say. Like Iraq, we only have what did happen, not what might have happened. A debate with hindsight always finds plenty of qualifications.

We know this: in 2013, Assad used chemical weapons on his citizens; 'the West' did not respond to that; in 2018, Assad has used chemical weapons on his own citizens again.

It takes a particular sort of morally blinkered vision to talk about “the right side of history” when we are face with such atrocities

By their moral logic (nobody else’s) the Corbynite left hang themselves. Hundreds die every day in the worst humanitarian crisis of 21st Century but the Corbynite left satisfied itself with the myth of always being right.

Admiral Nelson, as he looked out with his telescope, saw events with greater clarity.

Theresa May has a tough decision to make. She would be well within her right to take action against Assad - with or without a parliamentary vote. If the former, she must stamp out this ridiculous notion of Corbyn as an all-seeing sage. He got Iraq right. So what? A stopped clock is right every so often too.

Plenty on the left and right opposed military action against Saddam Hussein in 2003. They did so without the crankery of Corbyn and the Stop the War Coalition.

It takes a particular sort of morally blinkered vision to talk about “the right side of history” when we are faced with such atrocities. We only have what we have.

On one side, an alliance against Syria involves standing alongside Donald Trump. It will involve the loss of life. There is uncertainty. War is an ugly business.

On the other side, we have some evidence of the consqeuences of Jeremy Corbyn’s plan.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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