On Syria, Ed Miliband deserves praise not poison


David Cameron has a streak of petty, bullying arrogance which often reveals itself at Prime Ministers’ Questions – very un-Prime Ministerial. Now his henchmen have been trying to spin his humiliating defeat by Parliament into an unedifying character assassination of Ed Miliband.

It wasn’t Miliband who attempted to grandstand by bouncing Parliament prematurely into attacking Syria.

The Labour Leader hasn’t been responsible for perhaps the most monumentally misjudged British foreign policy in recent times.

Cameron began two years ago demanding regime change – which didn’t work. Then he resourced the rebel forces – which failed too. Then he tried to send arms to the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that: perhaps he forgot the series of protests by MPs culminating in the vote opposing his policy by 114 to 1 on 11 July on a backbench motion moved by Tories?

When first phoned last week by the PM and informed of his intentions to recall Parliament at short notice, Ed Miliband initially offered to cooperate – as was his duty. The hideous chemical weapons attack revolted everyone.

But he was not prepared to support an ill-judged and rushed decision to use military force: before the UN weapons inspectors had reported, before the UN Security Council had even debated and voted on the basis of the evidence presented, and before the wider impact of military action on the region had been properly weighed up. Ed has been consistent ever since he was elected Labour leader three years ago: these are the lessons of Iraq. We have to learn them.

Instead Cameron insisted Parliament vote ahead of the evidence– and Parliament refused to be bounced. No amount of poisonous Tory briefing can escape that truth.

Yes, on Wednesday backbench and frontbench Labour MPs made it clear they were unwilling to go along with the PM. As did many Tories too – though Number 10 ignored them, in a way the Labour Leader did not of his Party.

But the real problem is that Cameron on Thursday gave absolutely no sense of where this was all going to lead to. What would happen after a military strike – ‘surgical’ or not? What about collateral civilian casualties, retaliatory attacks, escalatory consequences?

Although they do indeed cross a red line in warfare, chemical weapons actually account for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria. What would Parliament be asked to do next?

If Cameron had all along been dovish over Syria and come to MPs saying: ‘we simply must stop chemical attacks’, maybe he might have achieved a different result. But he has been repeatedly and publicly straining at the leash of British military intervention for over a year now. The chemical attack simply seemed like an excuse to do what he had long wanted.

The fundamental flaw in the position of the government, the US and its allies, is to see Syria as a battle between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.

It’s a civil war: a quagmire involving Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran, the US versus Russia, with Al Qaida fighters increasingly prominent amongst the rebel forces.

Assad has the backing of 40 per cent of the population who may fear his ruthless dictatorship, but fear much more becoming victims of genocide or Sunni extremism.

Surely if western military strikes toppled Assad without a settlement in place, there could be even greater chaos and carnage in a powder keg of a region?

There can be no military victory by either side. The alternative is to drop a failed British policy and promote a negotiated settlement between Assad and his enemies. However impossible that looks today, it’s the only way to solve this bloody and increasingly dangerous war.

If Cameron stopped his poisonous spin and changed course he would find Miliband and MPs of all Parties willing partners.