Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn’s speech in the House of Commons in favour of bombing Syria has been praised as much by conservative opponents as by his allies. As Sam Kriss said today in Vice magazine: “The reviews are pouring in, as if this were a West End musical instead of the overture to a massacre. “Truly spellbinding”, the Spectator gushes. “Fizzing with eloquence”, gurgles the Times. “Electric”, gloops the Guardian. The Telegraph’s Dan Hodges, who can reliably be called upon to provide the worst possible opinion at any given time, goes further. “He did not look like the leader of the opposition,” he writes. “He looked like the prime minister.””
The Spectator magazine went so far as to publish the full text for us to ogle at. Here is my quick dissection of his scandalous, tub-thumping, murderous imperialist rhetoric.
BENN: Thank you very much Mr Speaker. Before I respond to the debate…. (CUT patronising encomium to Jeremy Corbyn)
Now Mr Speaker, we have had an intense and impassioned debate and rightly so, given the clear and present threat from Daesh, the gravity of the decision that rests upon the shoulders and the conscience of every single one of us and the lives we hold in our hands tonight.
RH: And as his master Mr Blair would have said: we feel the hand of history on those same shoulders that reach down to those oh so conscious hands. But at least Blair had a bit of self-awareness, and prefaced it by saying “now is not the time for cliches”).
BENN: And whatever decision we reach, I hope we will treat one another with respect.
RH: Because when you’re discussing whether we should dice up kids with shrapnel, the most important thing is to be polite.
(CUT… complimenting a long list of other people who made speeches – who does he think he is, the PM? Oh. I see now!)
BENN: The question which confronts us in a very, very complex conflict is at its heart very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the yoke, the cruel yoke, of Daesh? The carnage in Paris brought home to us the clear and present danger we face from them. It could have just as easily been London, or Glasgow, or Leeds or Birmingham and it could still be. And I believe that we have a moral and a practical duty to extend the action we are already taking in Iraq to Syria. And I am also clear, and I say this to my colleagues, that the conditions set out in the emergency resolution passed at the Labour party conference in September have been met.
RH: They definitely haven’t. Conditions 1 and 2 have not been met, and with conditions 3 and 4 it is too early to tell.
BENN: We now have a clear and unambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 2249, paragraph 5 of which specifically calls on member states to take all necessary measures to redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by Isil, and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.
So the United Nations is asking us to do something. It is asking us to do something now. It is asking us to act in Syria as well as in Iraq. And it was a Labour government that helped to found the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. And why did we do so? Because we wanted the nations of the world, working together, to deal with threats to international peace and security – and Daesh is unquestionably that.
So given that the United Nations has passed this resolution, given that such action would be lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter – because every state has the right to defend itself – why would we not uphold the settled will of the United Nations, particularly when there is such support from within the region including from Iraq. We are part of a coalition of over 60 countries, standing together shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose their ideology and their brutality.
RH: This is a highly complex legal area, and while it is a “clear and unambiguous” call to take action against ISIL/Daesh, Resolution 2249 does not invoke Chapter 7, which mandates military action. Some lawyers believe the self-defence argument, used repeatedly by Benn, can only be used if there is a real and imminent threat, not merely an intention or an unspecified threat some time in the future.
BENN: Now Mr Speaker, all of us understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. They are the best hope we have of achieving a cease-fire. That would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional government and elections. And why is that vital? Both because it will help in the defeat of Daesh, and because it would enable millions of Syrians, who have been forced to flee, to do what every refugee dreams of: they just want to be able to go home.
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 ez-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 ‘apostates engaged in prostitution and vice’. If it had happened here, they could have been our children. And we know that they are plotting more attacks.
RH: The attacker in Sousse, Tunisia had never been abroad, and was radicalised in Tunisia itself. In the case of the Russian airliner which came down over Sinai, Benn is getting ahead of the evidence. Egyptian authorities are still examining the black box and trying to recover data from the voice recorder. While security experts think that a missile from an ISIS-related group in the Sinai is unlikely, there are still three extant possiblities: a bomb planted on board, technical failure, and human error. If it were a bomb on board, it suggests again an attack from someone based in the local country, most likely on the airport staff. The ISIS group based in the Sinai claimed the attack was “in response to Russian air strikes that killed hundreds of Muslims on Syrian land”. So how does Benn think that launching similar attacks in Syria will make Britons safer? As we already know, the attackers in Paris were from Belgium and France, again observing the killing of Muslims in Syria and Iraq, and seeking revenge.
BENN: 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?
RH: As shown above, the argument for bombing Syria for the sake of self-defence and national security is completely specious. FFS, do we really need to repeat the security services’ conclusion that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 substantially increased the risk of terrorist attack, as tragically proven on 7/7? Surely everyone knows that? Surely Benn himself knows that? I’m beginning to think he’s a bare-faced liar. He can’t possibly be that stupid.
BENN: 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 airstrikes in Iraq where Daesh’s hold has been reduced and we are already doing everything but engage in airstrikes in Syria – should we not play our full part?
RH: Britain’s ruthless pursuit of imperial interests in the Middle East is as historic as France’s, so within Benn’s imperialist conceptual framework, this makes perfect sense.
BENN: It has been argued in the debate that airstrikes 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 Kobani. 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.
RH: This is a completely separate argument, and should be made in the style: although it increases the risk for UK citizens, it is our duty to stop the expansion of ISIL/Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Benn muddles them up. When you’re voting to kill people, you can’t write something that reads like a last-minute student essay, to be ripped to shreds by your tutor. In any case, the extent to which bombing is effective is disputed, and may have been lied about by the US government. In July 2015 there was an unprecedented mass whistle-blowing from the US intelligence community (“Intelgate”), where “more than 50 intelligence analysts at Centcom have formally complained that reports on the Islamic State and the Nusra Front — Al Qaeda’s Syria branch — have been repeatedly altered by senior intelligence officials to fit with the Obama administration’s insistence that the US is winning the war against the two militant groups.” I wonder where Benn is getting his information.
BENN: Now, I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather, we act to protect civilians from Daesh – who target innocent people.
RH: Given ISIL/Daesh’s modus operandi in towns and cities, hiding in tunnels and bunkers or among civilians, this is meaningless and heartless rhetoric. He also callously ignores the pleas from civilians in Raqqa not to bomb published on Sunday in The Observer.
BENN: Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there’s been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I’ll tell you what else we know, is whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number.
RH: Here Benn culpably narrows the range of numbers for anti-Daesh Syrian rebel forces. Robert Fisk on Monday wrote: “At one point last week, one of Cameron’s satraps was even referring to this phantom army as “ground troops”. I doubt if there are 700 active “moderate” foot soldiers in Syria – and I am being very generous, for the figure may be nearer 70 – let alone 70,000.” Benn has himself become a satrap in selecting the figures he has, and by using the ridiculous term “ground troops”. If the number is 70, should we bomb ISIL/Daesh strongholds in the hope of preserving 30 or 40? How would bombing have this effect? The reality is that so-called “moderates” have been cooperating with Islamists in Syria for some time, and in some cases converting to their side.
BENN: And so to suggest, Mr Speaker, that airstrikes should not take place until the Syrian civil war has come to an end is, I think, to miss the urgency of the terrorist threat that Daesh poses to us and others, and I think misunderstands the nature and objectives of the extension to airstrikes that is being proposed. And of course we should take action. It is not a contradiction between the two to cut off Daesh’s support in the form of money and fighters and weapons, and of course we should give humanitarian aid, and of course we should offer shelter to more refugees including in this country and yes we should commit to play our full part in helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.
Now I accept that there are legitimate arguments, and we have heard them in the debate, for not taking this form of action now. And it is also clear that many members have wrestled, and who knows, in the time that is left, may still be wrestling, with what the right thing to do is. But I say the threat is now, and there are rarely, if ever, perfect circumstances in which to deploy military forces. Now we heard very powerful testimony from the honorable member for Eddisbury earlier when she quoted that passage, and I just want to read what Karwan Jamal Tahir, the Kurdistan regional government high representative in London, said last week and I quote: ‘Last June, Daesh captured one third of Iraq over night and a few months later attacked the Kurdistan region. Swift airstrikes by Britain, America and France, and the actions of our own Peshmerga, saved us. We now have a border of 650 miles with Daesh. We’ve pushed them back, and recently captured Sinjar. Again, Western airstrikes were vital. But the old border between Iraq and Syria does not exist. Daesh fighters come and go across this fictional boundary.’ And that is the argument Mr Speaker, for treating the two countries as one, if we are serious about defeating Daesh.
RH: There is actually a well-known political division between the government in Iraqi Kurdistan quoted by Benn and the Kurds of the YPG currently fighting ISIL/Daesh in Syria. The YPG consider the Iraqi Kurdistan government to be pro-imperialist, whereas they are anti- all imperialist forces, be they Turkish, Russian, US, British or French, and favour a non-sectarian, radically democratic communal state. Benn does not mention them.
BENN: 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 in this chamber 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.
RH: The Labour Party has definitely not always done that, but let that pass. This is perhaps the most spurious part of Benn’s speech. The dubious, and neo-conservative, political science which equates radical Islamism (itself a number of different ideologies) with the European fascist movement is much derided. As security expert Daniel Benjamin wrote: “there is no sense in which jihadists embrace fascist ideology as it was developed by Mussolini or anyone else who was associated with the term.” Back in 2008, US federal agencies stopped using the term “Islamo-fascism”, as it was considered offensive, pejorative and confusing. Why is Benn still clinging to this old canard?
BENN: 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 the motion tonight.
RH: And why, might I add, were so many Labour colleagues persuaded by this? Is it not their job to research an issue as important as raining bombs on other people, so they could be well enough informed to reject this drivel?