Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Hilary Benn: Many on the Left Underestimate his Speech in the Syria Debate.

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“Greatest oratory can lead us to the greatest mistakes.”

Many on the left gravely underestimate the power of Hilary Benn’s speech in the House of Commons debate yesterday.

Not so John McDonnell who has shone with his good sense and judgement throughout the debate on Syria.

“His oratory was great. He reminded me of Tony Blair’s speech taking us into the Iraq war and I am always anxious that the  as well.”

He dismissed the 66 Labour MPs who voted with the government as a “small minority” and said Mr Corbyn had the backing of the majority of Labour members, the party’s national executive and the shadow cabinet.

He also condemned the abuse directed at Labour MPs who backed military action.

“We have said if they are Labour Party members we have disciplinary processes and they will take place. We cannot have intimidation in our party,” he told Today.


We can only endorse this statement:

Momentum strongly disapproves of anyone who engages in abusive behaviour towards MPs or anyone else, and threatening or bullying, whether they are outside the Labour Party (as most are) or inside it. We specifically asked our supporters to emulate Jeremy Corbyn, and to keep their messages about the issues and to refrain from any personal attacks.”

Momentum is not a threat to MPs who voted for bombing. We have made clear that we will not campaign for the deselection of any MP and will not permit any local Momentum groups to do so. The selection of candidates is entirely a matter for local party members and rightly so.”

Those determined not to respect the opinions of those they oppose on UK intervention should pause.

If there is one place to start from it’s from reading or watching Hilary Benn’s speech.

These extracts give some flavour of Benn’s intervention.

Now Mr Speaker, no one in this debate doubts the deadly serious threat we face from Daesh and what they do – although sometimes we find it hard to live with the reality. We know that in June four gay men were thrown off the fifth storey of a building in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor. We know that in August the 82-year-old guardian of the antiquities of Palmyra, Professor Khaled al-Assad, was beheaded and his headless body was hung from a traffic light. And we know that in recent weeks there has been the discovery of mass graves in Sinjar, one said to contain the bodies of older Yazidi women murdered by Daesh because they were judged too old to be sold for sex. We know they have killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia, 224 Russian holidaymakers on a plane, 178 people in suicide bombings in Beirut , Ankara and Suruc, 130 people in Paris – including those young people in the Bataclan, whom Daesh, in trying to justify their bloody slaughter, called them apostates engaged in prostitution and vice. If it had happened here they could have been our children, and we know they are plotting more attacks.

Sister Socialist Party.

So the question for each of us and for our national security is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much, including Iraq and our ally France. Now France wants us to stand with them , and President Hollande, the leader of our sister socialist party, has asked for our assistance and help. And as we are undertaking air strikes in Iraq, where Daesh’s hold has been reduced, and we are already doing everything but engage in air strikes in Syria, should we not play our full part?

From Iraq to Kobane.

Now Mr Speaker, it has been argued in the debate that air strikes achieve nothing. Not so. Look at how Daesh’s forward march has been halted in Iraq. The house will remember that 14 months ago people were saying, ‘They are almost at the gates of Baghdad.’ And that is why we voted to respond to the Iraqi government’s request for help to defeat them. Look at how their military capacity and their freedom of movement has been put under pressure. Ask the Kurds about Sinjar and Kobane. Now of course air strikes alone will not defeat Daesh, but they make a difference because they are giving them a hard time and it is making it more difficult for them to expand their territory.

International Brigade.

Now Mr Speaker, I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us here tonight, and all of the people that we represent.They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight.


This is not rhetoric.

It is a carefully constructed argument studded with language of some grandeur.

We stand with the victims of Deash, for its defeat, and this sets out a deep ethical dilemma.

That its premises and conclusions are contestable does not take away from the fact that it, this has to be said, is ethically kilometres away from the slogan mongering of those who say, with Alex Callinicos, of the Socialist Workers Party, “Our job is to defeat imperialism, not Isis.

We are not going to wait for the “Arab Revolution”, as these voices suggest, to resolve the Syrian civil war.

But we can express more than doubt that the forces Benn backs are a vehicle for human rights and justice.

Who can answer his arguments?

The Stop the War Coalition has issued this statement, in the name of Andrew Murray and Lindsey German.

The Stop the War Coalition believes that the decision taken by MPs tonight is profoundly mistaken and dangerous. The prime minister made no good case for war, and his abuse of those who differ as “terrorist sympathisers” gives a measure of his small-mindedness. There is no good case for British airstrikes in a war which is already seeing the two major military powers, the U.S. and Russia, bombing Syria. A new war will not increase the prospects of peace in Syria, nor will the British people be safer from terrorism. And the record of two years’ bombing of IS in Iraq shows that it will not be dislodged by a great-power air war.

How far can this be taken seriously? Are they the people to persuade us for an anti-war movement based on human rights and justice.

Andrew Murray is a member of the Communist Party of Britain, which supports the legitimacy of the actions of one of these “major military powers”, Russia.

The Communist Party maintains its opposition to US, NATO and British military intervention in Syria. Whatever the pretext – whether to defeat the barbaric ISIS or to rescue civilian populations – the real aim is clear: to strengthen the anti-Assad terrorist forces (Islamic fundamentalists who have largely displaced the Free Syrian Army ‘moderate opposition’), create areas in which these forces can operate freely (in the guise of ‘no-fly zones’ and ‘safe havens’) and ultimately to partition Syria and replace the Assad regime with a compliant puppet one.

Russian military forces are now attacking all the anti-Assad terrorists, including Isis, at the invitation of the Damascus government – which has every right to issue such an invitation as the internationally recognised political authority in Syria.

Communist Party general secretary Robert Griffith

It hardly needs adding that having to rely on figures like George Galloway and Tariq Ali to convey their message at demonstrations does not add to the Stop the War Coalition’s moral authority or popular appeal.

Galloway is too well known to bring up further.

On Ali can only note this,

Tariq Ali spoke at a Stop the War rally in London on November 28, 2015, on the need to oppose any Western interventions in Syria. He did so by propagating, again, conspiracy views and actually legitimizing Russian imperialist interventions in Syria.

But, for all Hilary Benn’s power of persuasion,  he has not presented a convincing case for Cameron’s actually existing plans.

These rely on many forces who are very far from a new International Brigade. 

The Coalition rests on Saudi Arabia (Islamist totalitarian state), Turkey (authoritarian Islamist democracy – violently opposed to the Kurds). It requires the tolerance of Iran (semi-totalitarian Islamist theocracy), and Putin’s Russia – not to mention some kind of modus vivendi with Assad (for the moment…).

As for the forces on the ground that Cameron and his allies place hopes in,  many of them “hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.”

‘Britain is on the verge of entering into a long war in Syria based on wishful thinking and poor information…’ Patrick Cockburn

“The notion that there are 70,000 moderate fighters is an attempt to show that you can fight Isis and [President Bashar al] Assad at the same time,” says Professor Joshua Landis, the director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on Syrian politics. But he is dismissive of the idea that such a potential army exists, though he says there might be 70,000 Syrians with a gun who are fighting for their local clan, tribe, warlord or village. “The problem is that they hate the village down the road just as much they hate Isis and Assad,” he said.

The armed opposition to President Assad is dominated by Isis, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the ideologically similar Ahrar al-Sham. Some of the smaller groups, once estimated by the CIA to number 1,500, might be labelled as moderate, but only operate under license from the extreme jihadists. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and an authority on the Syrian armed opposition, says that these groups commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.

He recalls that one group he met during a recent visit to Latakia province in north-west Syria claimed to have 2,000 fighters, but probably numbered only 500.

Sectarian Hatred.

He warns that they pretend to the outside world that they are more moderate than they really are, speaking of “the equality of all Syrians before the law” when they are outside Syria or communicating with people who have never been to the country, but express “hatred for Shia and Allawites” on all other occasions.

Mr Tamimi says that the smaller armed groups, which sometimes have good weapons supplied by the Americans, had acted as auxiliaries to Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham when they captured Idlib City in fierce fighting with the Syrian army in May.

Even if such groups are not extreme Islamists, they do not have the strength to refuse to cooperate. This will make any ceasefire very difficult to arrange because such moderate fighters as there are who might be willing to accept a truce, are intermingled with powerful Nusra forces which will not do so.

Radical Islamic Ideology.

Moreover, radical Islamic ideology has been gaining ground in all parts of the Syrian opposition. James Harkin, the author of Hunting Season about the kidnapping of foreigners in Syria and a frequent visitor to opposition-held areas, says that it is important to grasp that “none of these people [the armed opposition inside Syria] like us”.

They see the US, Britain and France as enemies. This includes the non-jihadists, whom the West hopes to enlist, who suspect they will be used as cannon fodder and then discarded.

Kurdish Forces.

The one group that has some claim to be non-sectarian, secular and a powerful fighting force is the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who claim to number 50,000, but probably total half that. It has been the most effective anti-Isis ground force and, heavily supported by US air strikes, its territory now stretches across northern Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates.

It claims to be non-sectarian and that it does not persecute Sunni Arabs, but sectarian fear and hatred is today so deep in Syria – partly but not entirely because of the atrocities of Isis – that people flee the attack of every other sectarian or ethnic group different from themselves. The Sunni population in Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian capital, or in Mosul in Iraq, may dislike Isis, but they are even more terrified of the Kurds or the Shia militias.

Are these, seriously, the vehicles to help defeat fascism? 

Written by Andrew Coates

December 3, 2015 at 5:52 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Good article. Many of the same points made in a btl comment at Shiraz Socialist, from one Johnny Lewis:

    I think the reason Hilary Benn’s speech last night was so effective is not because he had anything to say to respond to Corbyn’s position put forward earlier that day but because he correctly identified Corbyn’s and the entire lefts political weakness over the last 25 years.
    – its softness or even support for fascism and medievalist reaction as long as it comes in some anti western form.
    – that even after the fall of the soviet union the same old apologist shit still remains strong on the left and particularly the labour left. Against Human Rights abuses and imperialism anywhere but Russia and its allies who they use all sorts of relativist arguments to support.
    – that via Stop The Wars popular front with the right the left has adopted the old rights isolationism. The idea that it has “nothing to do with us”.
    – the much older Labour Pacifist tradition that Corbyn is steeped in. That despite some notable personal bravery in World War One and in the fight against nuclear weapons adopts instead of class struggle or anti fascism a impotent saintliness.

    So this meant even when Corbyn was making the better internationalist arguments against this specific bombing campaign people knew his and the lefts record to groups like Daesh was poor.

    We should be plain with people on the left that this debate should have been won. The right could play on peoples desire to do something to oppose Daesh and the better suggestions of the left to do this (support / arm the Kurds, end Assads bombing, stop the alliances with Turkey and Saudi) were not credible given the lefts history and the nature of some of our ‘comrades’ on the left opposition to bombing.

    Jim Denham

    December 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm

    • Exactly.

      He did not have an effective defence of the Cameron military intervention, but he did have an effective way of identifying the problem in the position of many on the left on Islamism – though only effectively about Daesh it has to be said.

      People are increasingly fed up with those who dismiss this with “of course we condemn the ISIS/Daesh ” “we condemn absolutely the terrorist bombings” and then, without going any further into what it specifically wrong with them, say “but”…..

      That and the irritating and impotent strain of pacifism you identify Jim, are, as you say, barriers to winning a debate on how to oppose Daesh.

      Andrew Coates

      December 4, 2015 at 5:23 pm

  2. “A new war will not increase the prospects of peace in Syria, nor will the British people be safer from terrorism.”

    It is not a ‘new war’ it is merely the UK finally hitting back at ISIS in Syria, which is absolutely its right and duty. ISIS picked a war with the UK over a year ago when it started beheading British hostages.

    If it had been Russia responding to the murder of its hostages, all the hypocrites on the ‘Stop the War’ left who are piously and dishonestly wailing about the RAF bombing ‘brown skinned babies’ would be sagely nodding and asserting the right of Russia to defend its people and its ‘interests’.

    “And the record of two years’ bombing of IS in Iraq shows that it will not be dislodged by a great-power air war.”

    Where does this ‘two years’ come from?


    December 4, 2015 at 3:35 am

  3. Well reasoned piece. Hilary Benn’s speach has not been looked at sufficiently by the left in Britain and, rather, dismissed out of hand. They claim to be internationalists but are too focussed on inter-party inter-group squabbles to contribute to the bigger urgent picture.


    December 4, 2015 at 7:02 pm

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