Does the anti-war left realise war already started?

The decision to bomb Syria is despairingly complicated, but sometimes the most simple points need to be made. The first is that there is already a war in Syria.

This should not need saying. At the start of this year, the UN estimated that nearly a quarter of million people had died. But evidently it does, given that many are debating the extension of British air strikes to Syria as if it was a unilateral act of aggression. 

Iraq is such a dominant element in the thinking of many people on the left that they seem unable to disentangle the specifics of what is happening in Syria now from the specifics of what was happening in Iraq then. Iraq was an unprovoked war of aggression against a brutal regime which posed no danger to the West. It was morally, strategically and politically insane. Its supporters – despite their weak 'planning for the peace' excuses – are not just responsible for the tragedy which unfolded in Iraq, but also for the creation of Isis and the difficulties we now have in convincing the public of the case for humanitarian interventions.

Syria is different. Syria is at war, with civilians torn between a variety of murderous forces, from Assad and his prison torturers, to the pre-historic horror of Isis, to the disciplined but coldblooded Hezbollah militias fighting for the regime. The debate over bombing in Syria is not about peace and war. It is about harm minimisation. Will our intervention makes things better or worse?

That debate has no easy answer. Anyone certain about how to proceed is a fraud or a fool. There is no basis upon which to be certain. On the one hand we want to wipe out Isis before they kill us again – and there is surely no-one left who would question that they are a threat to us and would be even more so if they were ever able to really entrench themselves as a functioning state. We may also want to prevent an anti-Isis fight becoming a pro-Assad fight, which is what it will be if Russia is dominant.

On the other hand, one can see a terrifying prospect rearing its head – of two great international regiments building up. On the one side the Sunni forces of the Free Syrian Army, the western coalition and Saudi Arabia. On the other, the Shia forces of Assad, Iran and Russia. That looks like the kind of situation you'd look at and think: maybe best to stay out of it. That's especially convincing when the government has not been particularly effective when explaining what Britain could bring to the table.

Either position is perfectly reasonable. But let's not have the easy moralising which accompanies the debate, where anyone supporting bombing is dubbed a war-monger.
There is a lopsided arithmetic to the morality of warfare. Those suggesting intervention are blamed for every death, but those who oppose it are never blamed for the deaths which took place in its absence.

If Britain had intervened earlier, right at the start of the Syria revolution, we could have helped take out Assad, protected the Syrian people from his massacres and torture prisons, and prevented the rise of Isis. Britain could have broken the link with the morally dubious foreign policy of old and actively taken steps to protect the democratic potential of the Arab Spring. We could have lent British military power to those struggling for freedom.

We did not. Instead we prevaricated endlessly, talking about arming this side or that side, dilly dallying while Assad dropped his countless barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Those deaths are on our conscience just as the deaths in Iraq following the invasion are.

On August 8th last year, a day after President Obama announced strikes against Isis, US F/A-18 fighter jets and drones attacked Isis fighters as they approached Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. First they dropped bombs on a mobile artillery piece which was being used to shell Kurdish positions. Then they used drones against an artillery position. And then they dropped eight bombs on an Isis convoy of seven vehicles and a mortar position.

This type of attack helped saved Irbil from Isis' seemingly relentless advance. On February this year, Kurdish peshmerga fighters drove back an Isis advance to the south-west of the city. They came from several positions, near the towns of Gewr and Makhmour, about 28 miles away. At first they were so close the US military could not launch a strike. But eventually the peshmerga pushed Isis fighters back and strikes could be launched.

Irbil stands because of US bombing and the bravery of the Kurdish peshmerga. Consider for a moment the Kurds in the city, and the Iraqi Christian and Yazidi refugees who have made it there for safety. What would have happened to them if Isis had taken the city? We have a fairly good idea from what we have discovered in Sinjar, where Kurdish forces won a recent victory over Isis. Men and women separated. The men and older women killed, the younger women put into sexual slavery.

Coalition bombardment helped the Kurds keep these barbarians from taking the city, as it did in Kobane. When Isis did manage to break in – during what was more a terror attack than a military operation in June – they butchered 120 people, including women and children.

These are matters of war, and this is the price they entail. Yes, bombing kills civilians as well as Isis fighters.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that coalition airstrikes have killed 3,952 people across Syria - 3,547 Isis fighters, 136 Al-Nusra Front fighters and 250 civilians. Russian bombing is thought to have killed 1,331 people, of which 381 were Isis fighters, 547 al-Nusra Front fighters and other rebels, and 403 of which were civilians.

How do you do the maths on that? How do you work out if you save more lives than you end? That is the grotesque morality of war. And it's true that in the West we do not suffer the consequences. Supporters of military involvement – the so-called 'armchair generals' – do not get hit by the bombs they support dropping. But then opponents of military action don't have to be raped and executed by Isis either. If they had had their way, Irbil and Kobane would not stand right now.

We are not discussing whether to start a war. We are discussing whether to get involved in one. It is quite right to be uncertain about that. But it's appalling that so many on the anti-war left want to caricature a difficult moral decision as an act of aggression. Whether we enter or stay away: deaths are on our conscience. That is the moral price of being a military power.

Syria debate shows Corbyn is sinking fast

This should have been Jeremy Corbyn's moment. The chorus of disdain which greeted his arrival as Labour leader never recognised that he happened to hold some very popular opinions with the public. Not least of these was his instinctive wariness of western military intervention in the Middle East.

The polls fluctuate, but there is certainly demand for a leading politician to make the anti-war case. But when David Cameron came to the Commons today to make the case for war, Corbyn was unable to do so. He is simply too hamstrung by the open rebellion in the parliamentary party and the hatred of the press. In a desperate bid to keep everything together, Corbyn restricted himself to raising apparent 'concerns'.

Some were pertinent, like a question on mission creep. Some had already been answered, such as asking whether Cameron imagined British strikes would be 'war winning' (they won't be and he knows that). Some were irrelevant, such as the vague argument that because previous interventions in the Middle East weren't successful this one couldn't be either. He tinkered a bit with a legal argument which simply isn't open to him. Unlike in Iraq, it seems clear that intervention would be legal.

What's depressing about Corbyn's performance – and I say this as someone who is mostly convinced of the case for a British contribution in Syria – is that he doesn't just go ahead and make an anti-war argument. The whole benefit of having Corbyn as Labour leader was that he would make arguments which were rarely heard in mainstream politics plainly and simply. But he doesn't. In fact, he is genuinely being far more slippery than Cameron on this issue.

The prime minister doesn't have all the arguments. In so far as he is convincing on this issue, it is only marginally so. But at least, after being badly burned on a Syria vote against Ed Miliband, he openly recognises where his case is weakest. Corbyn on the other hand is unable to be honest. Because the honest truth is there is no scenario in which he would support the strikes. But he can't say that because he fears he'll lose his party. So instead he disingenuously pretends to be open in principle but concerned about these individual points. They will never go away. One will fall and another rise in its place. They are a rhetorical lie.

What should have been a remarkable moment of a leader of the opposition holding the prime minister to account on an issue he has campaigned on his entire adult life turned into a damp squib. It was left to the rest of the Commons to raise concerns about military intervention and they did so remarkably well.

"Two years ago the prime minister asked us to bomb the opponents of Isis," SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson said. "Had we done it, it would have strengthened Isis."

Julian Lewis, Tory MP and military expert, said:

"Airstrikes alone will not be effective. They've got to be in coordination with credible ground forces. The suggestion there are 70,000 non-Islamist moderate credible ground forces [made in the prime minister's statement to the Commons] is a revelation to me and I suspect most other members in this House."

He added:

"Which is the greater danger to our national interest? Syria under [Assad] or the continued existence and expansion of Isil? Because you may have to choose between one and the other."

Veteran Tory MP Peter Lilley said:

"I'd like him to convince me that what he refers to as the Free Syrian Army actually exists, rather than is a label we apply to a ragbag group of clans and tribal forces. I'd like him to convince me there's a moderate group we can back. In times of constitutional dissolution it's almost a law of nature that people rally towards the most extreme of their group."

Labour's Yvette Cooper said the prime minister had made a strong "moral and legal" case but asked Cameron:

"Given recent Russian objectives, how would he avoid giving support, or appearing to give support, to Assad forces? And how would he avoid that giving succour to Isil in its recruitment?"

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron wanted safe zones for fleeing civilians.

Cameron had answers for many of these questions. Creating a no-bombing zone demanded that forces take out air defences – something which could spread the conflict wider. The 70,000 number had been cleared by the joint intelligence committee. He was reasonable and measured and even a little humble towards those arguing against him.

His position remains open to question. There was nothing there about working with Shia forces, suggesting the coalition will be stacked up with anti-Isis Sunni forces and Kurds while Russia, Iran, Assad and the Shia forces stack up on the other side. That's potentially a scary prospect if anything goes wrong, which it tends to do in war.

He also cannot suggest that British involvement would make a significant difference to the situation on the ground. There just isn't that much left to bomb and the benefit of bombing is now mostly about complicating Isis behaviour, rather than destroying its infrastructure. Ultimately, Cameron's argument is that we must be involved as a matter of solidarity.

There are many objections to be raised about that, but Corbyn was not able to make them. He is stuck in the worst of all possible worlds, hamstrung by a party and a press who anyway will never accept him. But today was a powerful symbolic moment. It was the kind of occasion in which his particular brand of politics would have been useful and important, no matter where you are in the debate. The fact he was unable to do so suggests he has been knee-capped by his internal critics. Normally, that's just a shame for him and arguably for Labour. Today, it was a shame for all of us.

Spending review 2015: Osborne's tricks – and how to spot them

If by some freakish series of accidents you found yourself watching George Osborne deliver the spending review this afternoon, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Britain has never had it so good. The chancellor seemed relaxed, even jubilant. Almost everything he said involved spending. The bad old days of austerity and Greek-style chaos were over. Once again, sunshine ruled the day.

Which is odd, because he was actually unveiling a plan to slash public spending. The cuts are so severe, in fact, that by 2020 departmental budgets will be at 50% of where they were when the Tories entered power in 2010. The cuts will be worth £12.2 billion a year by 2019/20. Oh and there'll be £28.5 billion in tax increases too.

Partly, this is just how things are done. The chancellor gets up, announces all the good bits, then journalists go and read the small print of the document and see what's really going on. But Osborne also has tricks which are uniquely his own.

One: Ring-fence political risks

The first thing Osborne always does is ring-fence the budgets which might cause political problems down the line. That old stereotype about Osborne being a supremely political chancellor is entirely correct. Most of the decisions he makes during these events are politically, not economically, motivated.

So, for instance, pensions are protected, because older people are more likely to vote and more likely to vote Tory when they do. The NHS is protected, because Labour's most potent political attack is that – you can almost say it by heart – "you can't trust the Tories with the NHS". International aid is protected, because the Conservatives don't want to be seen as cold-hearted ideological saboteurs, but instead as moderate financial realists. 

That's also why Osborne has ended up protecting tax credits - which, surprisingly, he did a full-blooded 100% U-turn on – and the police budget. The anger from the Sun and that viral video of the crying Tory voter on Question Time showed how politically toxic it could be to cut tax credits for the working poor. And in the wake of Paris, it was clear the police would argue that cuts to their budget would increase the risk of a successful terror attack. That's just too much of a political risk to take, especially if one actually is successful. So suddenly, as if by magic, it was protected.

Two: Focus on totemic good-news stories

Osborne will look at each area of spending, put together a plan to improve a handful of items – ideally press-friendly symbolic issues or government policy with strong polling – and then make the entire debate about that.

In education, free schools will do fine while comprehensives will be hammered. In housing, affordable housing (NB: it's not really that affordable) will be expanded, but social housing looks to be gradually going extinct. On energy, about 24 million households will save about £30 a year on bills due to a cheaper domestic energy efficiency scheme – but the Department of Energy and Climate Change is losing 22% of its budget. London's transport infrastructure will be boosted by £11 billion, Oyster cards possibly rolled out nationwide and several rail lines will get funding for electrification – but the Department for Transport budget will be cut by 37%.

A classic example of this tactic came in the move on 'tampon tax'. This is a financially miniscule issue – it accounts for £15 million in VAT a year – but it's powerfully symbolic. As VAT is a tax on luxury items, the fact it is levied on sanitary products is (rightly) considered proof by many feminists that the economic system is created by, and run for, men. Osborne actually messed this one up a bit by comparing it with the Libor fines against banks, something which triggered waves of baffled anger among feminist commentators online. But the technique is the same as always: Take this press-friendly thing here, make the conversation about that, and meanwhile do all the real work when no-one is looking.

As our guest blog from Sisters Uncut said today, since the Tories came to power 32 specialist refuges for survivors of domestic violence have closed, 31% of women referred to refuges have been turned away due to lack of space and 39% of domestic violence victims have been unable to access legal aid. But don't worry about that. Look over there: shiny things.

The other example is tax credits. Following a tabloid backlash and a defeat in the Lords, Osborne said he was going to come back with new plans. As it happens, he abandoned the £1,300 cuts to tax credits altogether. It's not quite clear where the cost has fallen, but prizes for anyone who guesses that it'll be on housing benefit, universal credit and childcare eligibility. The working poor will still pay. But again, don't worry about it. Look over there at the shiny things.

The tax credit U-turn will lead most editions today. Osborne took that hit, knowing Labour wasn't strong enough to profit from it. By tomorrow we'll all be talking about David Cameron's fight to bomb Syria in the Commons. After that, the debate will be long gone. But the measures undertaken today will remain.

Three: Over-egg pre-briefings

Osborne's team have done a very good job of lowering expectations in the weeks ahead of the spending review. During this period, they tend to massage apprehension. They would have known for some time that they were planning a full U-turn on tax credits, but they were careful to suggest that Osborne would be pursuing something less than that. Even though Theresa May was late to No.11 with her budget plans, they also knew they'd save the police, but that was not the message earlier in the week. No matter how bad the situation, Osborne makes it look worse so what he eventually ends up doing will be seen as tolerable.

Four: Backload risk

Osborne's last trick is one you can only really achieve with a compliant media. He's loved and respected enough by the mostly Tory-supporting press establishment that no-one really holds him to account for the goals he himself sets. The deficit, you may remember, was already supposed to be gone. Actually, that was the entire message of the Tories 2010 election campaign. And yet here we still are, planning for the next half decade of deficit reduction.

Similarly, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) said Osborne will breach his own welfare cap in three successive years from 2016 to 2019.

Osborne's current spending reduction plans are incredibly tight, despite the extra leeway given to him by a positive outlook from the OBR. That takes the power to deliver on his promises out of his hands. If there is an international slow-down, which there are already signs of, his timetable will suddenly be out of reach.

But it just doesn't matter. The Tories completely failed to balance the budget by 2015 and they got elected on a financial competence ticket anyway. Osborne doesn't care that he almost certainly won't be running a surplus by 2020. It's immaterial. The press is on his side, most of the political class is signed up to austerity and the opposition is a mess anyway.

So he can afford to use these big-ticket spending promises because the risk is back-loaded to four years' time, when no-one will care anyway. We have literally heard less about Osborne failing his own central economic targets than we have about Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. Osborne knows that and uses it to his advantage.

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