Today's protest of Jeremy Corbyn over Syria has drawn a lot of attention because of the presence of Peter Tatchell. This is a good thing when it highlights the issue - aid drops to civilians - but also a bad thing when Peter becomes the focus and not Syria. It is a good thing when Peter's presence draws more attention than one just by the organisers, the pressure group Syria Solidarity UK, would have done but a bad thing when reporting focuses on Peter and not the issue, which is Corbyn's failure over humanitarian protection and, most desperately now, aid drops.
It is also a problem when there is no context given to the coverage, which is the disquiet over Corbyn's leadership failure on Syria, particularly the breadth of that disquiet.
Members of the party who otherwise support Corbyn have been calling on him to speak out on protection of civilians in Syria for some time.
In October an open letter was published saying:
Dear Jeremy,Also in October Corbyn was protested over Syria, by Syrians, at a meeting of the Stop The War Coalition.
We write as members of the Labour Party and Momentum, as socialist activists, or as other supporters of your leadership of the Labour Party. We agree wholeheartedly with your opposition to militarism and nuclear weapons, and your call for an end to British arms exports to countries such as Saudi Arabia. Yet we are concerned by your silence – thus far – on the ongoing slaughter of civilians by Russian and Assad-regime forces in Syria.
Protestor Oz Katerji wrote:
The late MP Jo Cox called for the Labour Party to support civilian protection measures in Syria; I call on Jeremy to listen to Jo and stop ignoring Syrian activists. The bloodshed in Syria cannot be stopped while continuing to refuse to hold Assad accountable for his crimes. We must act to protect civilians now, a sea-enforced deter and retaliate no-bombing zone would be a good place to start, as would aid drops to civilians starving under Assad’s brutal ‘submit or starve’ sieges.The response from Corbyn's spokesperson (almost certainly Seumas Milne) was:
Enough of the silence, enough of the complicity, it is time to act now to protect Syrian lives.
The focus on Russian atrocities, or Syrian army atrocities, which is absolutely correct, I think sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that have taken place.That drew this comment from the husband of assassinated MP Jo Cox, who had chaired the all party parliamentary friends of Syria group:
Independent assessments are that there have been very large scale civilian casualties as a result of US-led coalition bombing and there are several cases of large numbers of civilian deaths in single attacks and there hasn’t been so much attention on those atrocities or those casualties.
Both the United States and Britain, the British Government, have been reluctant to accept any independent assessment of those.
This isn't just wrong, it's absolutely disgraceful.Corbyn's Twitter feed has made no comment on Syria since a series of tweets around the parliamentary vote a year ago. Today's tweets about Human Rights Day mention Bahrain but not Syria.
Tatchell said today:
He’s made no statements as far as we know in solidarity with civil societies in Syria. He’s not listening to their demands, he’s not promoting their demands, which are very simple – a UN-supervised ceasefire, for the UN to supervise the evacuation of civilians to safe havens, and, most importantly right now, the airdrop of aid and medicine to besieged civilian populations.Labour MPs, including the Shadow Foreign Secretary, have backed aid drops to civilians. But Corbyn has said nothing and his response to the protest today did not clarify whether he backs aid drops either.
Just to be absolutely clear, in response to the point that Peter made, Emily Thornberry on our behalf during foreign office questions and on many other occasions has made it absolutely clear that we do think that aid should be given to people in Aleppo, we do think that bombing should end, we do think there should be a ceasefire, we do think there should be a political solution, we do think the war should end in Syria, we are absolutely supporting the people.The specific demands made to Corbyn today were:
- Support calls for humanitarian access to besieged areas in Syria.
- Push for a parliamentary vote on unilateral UK aid drops.
- Demand the suspension of Syria from the UN until it agrees to a ceasefire, and stops blocking aid to besieged areas.
Despite the claims by Momentum we are no clearer now as to whether he supports those specific proposals - and a journalist who can get a response from Corbyn's office should ask.
- Request UN supervised evacuations of the White Helmets and the civilian population.
Given the response from his office in October and given the attitude of the Stop The War Coalition to aid drops then I can guess what they will say. But I want to see a headline saying 'Corbyn refuses to back food drops to starving Syrians' not multiple versions of 'Peter Tatchell disrupts Jeremy Corbyn speech with Syria protest'.
Someone needs to pin him down with specific questions that demand a specific answer. In other words, the next journalist up needs to do a version of "Did you threaten to overrule him?"
Edited to add: In case it is not clear why pinning Corbyn down on these specific four points from responses and Twitter conversations today it appears that some genuinely believe that Corbyn has supported aid drops. Or must have. Until a journalist gets his office on record rejecting these demands (and others, such as sanctions on Russia, as has also been pointed out) then he will continue to get away with waffle. Myself, Peter Tatchell, Syria Solidarity UK, we cannot get a comment from the Opposition Leader's Office - journalist's can.