In the early hours of Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun in northwestern Syria, residents woke to the sound of war planes and explosions. One 14-year-old witness described a yellow mushroom cloud rising from the wreckage of a one-storey building that had been targeted by the bombers. Within minutes, the local population began to choke, collapsing in the street. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, put the death toll at 86 and said it was likely to rise.
Three days later, the US retaliated against the Assad regime by firing Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase in central Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn was quick to criticise not Assad but the US.
Any military action, the Labour leader told the BBC, “should have been authorised by the UN. There should now be an immediate ceasefire and a UN-led investigation – rapidly – into what is an horrific and totally illegal act by somebody [my italics]”.
Well, both those things happened. There was indeed a ceasefire and there was also a UN-led investigation. And last October the Leadership Panel of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism sent a letter to the UN Secretary General summarising its conclusions: the panel “was confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”
The letter’s concluding remarks contain this warning: “The continuing use of chemical weapons, including by non-State actors, is deeply disturbing. If such use, notwithstanding its prohibition by the international community, is not stopped now, a lack of consequences will surely encourage others to follow, not only in the Syrian Arab Republic, but also elsewhere. This is the time to bring these acts to an end.”
We heard nothing more from Corbyn or his party on the matter for a while, and as far as I’m aware, no journalist has ever confronted him with the conclusions reached by the UN inquiry that he called for. And then, almost exactly a year after the Khan Shaykhun attack and precisely one year after the US retaliatory strike, a similar chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Douma took place.
Yesterday the Labour leader rehearsed his familiar line to Andrew Marr, stating that the only circumstances in which he would support the kind of military intervention we’ve seen in the last few days would be if the United Nations Security Council expressly authorised it.
As in 2017, Corbyn had already gone on record as doubting the consensus that the Douma attack was the responsibility of the Assad regime and again called for a UN-led inquiry to identify the real culprits.
Why? What would be the point?
Why call for an inquiry if you’re determined to ignore its conclusions? Why even talk about the prospect of military intervention if you support a route, via the UN Security Council on which Russia invariably vetos any calls for action, that is 100 per cent guaranteed to never end in military intervention?
Perhaps Corbyn is blind to wrongdoing when the West isn’t responsible. Or perhaps he knows that he’s on morally dubious ground, in danger of looking as if he’s siding with a regime whose MO is the gassing of children. That would explain his — largely successful — attempt over the weekend to shift the debate away from the question of whether military action might be justified to prevent further atrocities, to a subject about which he’s far more comfortable: the legality (or not) of humanitarian intervention.
Even where such intervention is successful – Kosovo in 1999, for example – Corbyn is opposed. He cannot bring himself to support the West against anyone else, irrespective of how badly those regimes are behaving, and especially not when those regimes’ greatest ally is (as was the case with Serbia in 1999) Russia.
The problem for the government is that there seems to be a remarkable public appetite, or at least tolerance, for Corbyn’s faux reasonableness and counterfeit common sense. Voters seem oddly content to swallow the one-dimensional sound bites that pass for political analysis in today’s Labour Party.
So, over the next few days, expect Corbyn and his front bench colleagues to pivot the debate onto the questions of legality (his Twitter minions are already calling Theresa May a war criminal), and of Parliament’s role in the decision to go to war. Corbyn will, of course, entirely miss the irony that the convention that was established in 2003, that Parliament be consulted before a decision on military action is taken, was instituted by Tony Blair.
Still, in Corbyn’s eyes, having a debate about the rights of MPs to decide on military action is far preferable to debating the nation’s tolerance for TV images of asphyxiated ten-year-olds.
And the more distractions he can pull from his hat, the more likely it is that Corbyn can avoid the quesiton he least wants to answer: after the UN-led investigation into culpability, and after Russia’s security council veto, then what?