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Syria vote is Jeremy Corbyn’s first real test

So here we are again. David Cameron seems determined to plough Britain into another war in another Arab country. This time in Syria.

To be precise, Britain has been involved in the covert destabilisation of Syria for years. Western spy agencies (including the Israelis) have been involved in arming and supplying assorted extremist militias and gangs at war with the Assad regime in Syria – including those allied to al-Qaeda.

The overall aim of such meddling, as I have argued before, is not to defeat the Assad regime outright, or to defeat the “Islamic State” outright, but actually to keep feeding the civil war. The logic, in the words of one former Israeli diplomat, is to “let both [sides] bleed”. As long as Arabs are busy with internal wars, they will not be fighting Israeli occupation or the West, so the cynical logic goes.

But now, of course, Cameron wants to deepen British involvement in the country by bombing “Islamic State” positions. He’s chosen his moment for this cleverly, coming as it does soon after the Islamic State atrocity in Paris.

The trouble is that the killers in Paris seem all to have been not from Raqqa, in Syria, or from Tikrit in Iraq, but European citizens. They were home-grown extremists. Press reports have described them merely as “influenced” by Islamic State propaganda. The highly organized nature of their brutal massacre does suggest some degree of training, however.

The issue is this: British bombing will not destroy Islamic State, and could well end up even strengthening this hideous group, which thrives on a culture of martyrdom in its twisted propaganda. And British bombing will certainly increase the risk of Islamic State attacks targeting London and other British cities.

How do we know British bombing will not work in achieving its (claimed) goals of defeating Islamic State? We know because many other parties have already been bombing Islamic State in Syria going back a year or more. The US, France and assorted regional tyrannies (including the UAE and Jordan) have all been piling on, with no discernible impact. Indeed, Islamic State seems only to have gotten more powerful. Russia too has now joined the fray, after Islamic State bombed one of their civilian planes flying from Egypt in October, killing 224 tourists and air crew.

But political realities have changed in the country since the disastrous decision by Labour leader Tony Blair in 2003 to lead the country into a war in Iraq. That war led to the deaths of more than a million Iraqis, was the primary factor in the foundation of the group that eventually became Islamic State, and led to blowback on the streets of London in 2005 in the form of the 7/7 atrocity.

Now, for once, we finally have an anti-war Labour party leader in the form of Jeremy Corbyn. But he is hamstrung by many of his own MPs, and even his own shadow cabinet. Unfortunately, the lousy nature of the Labour party cannot be changed overnight, despite the massive and stunning popular mandate to lead the party Corbyn won in the election this past summer.

Although the vast majority of normal Labour party members oppose the bombing, there are still some MPs whose default mode is to vote for Britain bombing everything in sight. These people still have not got the memo that bombmaster general Tony Blair is no longer leader of the Labour party, or indeed anything other than an obscene irrelevance.

Sadly, at the head of the Labour war mongers is Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign minister. As of this writing, it seems that Corbyn will allow his own shadow cabinet to vote for the war, even as he votes against it, and as most Labour MPs seem set to vote against it. The issue, though, is that Cameron has an overall majority, albeit a narrow one. So every single vote counts.

Details are still emerging from today’s (Monday’s) shadow cabinet meeting as I write but it seems that even though the leader himself is against the war, MPs who vote for the war will face no consequences – i.e. they will not have to defy the party whip system. As such, those in the shadow cabinet who support the war will be free to do so without resigning. Labour issued a statement saying its shadow cabinet decided on a free vote, but called for Cameron “to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons.”

It’s a delay then.

According to some media commentators, the reasoning behind this unusual position is that Corbyn is trying to pursue the new style of consensus politics within the party that he was elected on a mandate to bring about. The idea, according to others, more hostile to Corbyn, is to dare dissenting Labour MPs to vote for the war (against the wishes of the elected leader, most MPs and the vast majority of the party membership) and thus “mark their card” and so come under pressure from activists who want to see them deselected as MPs.

If this really is Corbyn’s strategy (and that seems questionable considering the fact he has repeatedly ruled out deselection of MPs who disagree with him) it is a high risk one.

There is a lot at stake here. Cameron has already signalled that he would call off the vote in parliament altogether if it seemed impossible that the vote would pass by a big enough majority. Signalling there will be a free vote for Labour MPs only makes it more likely that Cameron will call the vote, and win it.

And the Labour party rebellion that Corbyn wants to stave off with this messy compromise will not be averted. As best it will only be delayed. Unfortunately, Corbyn has surrounded himself with enemies in his shadow cabinet, all in the name of party unity. People like Hilary Benn and Tom Watson cannot be counted on, when they fundamentally disagree on very basic questions of war and peace.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell argued in favour of a free vote, while Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott argued against. Both are Corbyn allies. While I remain hopeful that Corbyn will be able to pull something out of the bag and avert yet more British involvement in yet another disastrous and immoral war, I fear that Abbott was right that a free vote will only hand victory to Cameron.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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