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Hilary Aked

Worlds apart: Labour and Tories on Syria and beyond

Labour leader Corbyn (R) differs with Deputy Leader Watson (L) on Syria policy [AFP]

Date of publication: 24 April, 2017

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Comment: With a UK general election just six weeks away, Hilary Aked takes a look at the gulf separating Britain's two major parties on foreign policy in the Arab world.
In the wake of the snap general election called by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, voters concerned about policy on the Middle East face a stark choice.                         
                             
On Syria, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for "silence and inaction" in the face of atrocities in Syria.
 
A longstanding anti-war activist, Corbyn has faced the uncomfortable position of being protested against by the Syria Solidarity UK campaign group and activists for failing to condemn Bashar al-Assad's regime, and its Russian supporters.
 
Corbyn has argued against military intervention in Syria and this stance has also put him at odds with other members of his own party, notably deputy leader Tom Watson.
 
Watson referred to US strikes earlier this month as a "proportionate response" to the chemical weapon attack that killed at least 70 people in Idlib province. Meanwhile, Corbyn issued a statement which said "unilateral military action without legal authorisation or independent verification risks intensifying a multi-sided conflict that has already killed hundreds of thousands of people" and called for peace talks to be resumed.
 
By contrast, the Conservatives have long supported military intervention. When former Prime Minister David Cameron proposed strikes on Islamic State group (IS) in December 2015, then Home Secretary Theresa May was among those who voted in favour. She backed Trump's recent strikes to the hilt, consonant with her general policy of toeing Washington's line.
Corbyn has argued against military intervention in Syria and this stance has also put him at odds with other members of his own party
Similarly, Conservative Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the US president "made the right call by resorting to careful and narrowly focused military action".
 
In British politics, the shadow of Iraq still hangs over debates over military intervention in the Middle East. May has tried to distance herself from the failed invasion that underpins so much of the crisis still burning in the county.

While some do not see Corbyn as a credible challenger for Prime Minister, on this point he rightly called out her hypocrisy, pointing out her support for the disastrous Iraq intervention which he consistently opposed. 
 
On refugees, the Conservatives' compassion appears to have dissipated. While in Jordan in early April, an extra £160 million aid was pledged to countries neighbouring Syria which are hosting refugees. The chief purpose, of course, was to marginally improve conditions there in order to stop migration here. 
Watson referred to US strikes earlier this month as a 'proportionate response' to the chemical weapon attack that killed at least 70 people in Idlib province
May clearly understands the Brexit vote purely as the victory of British (or perhaps mostly English) anti-immigration sentiment.
 
Corbyn, on the other hand, travelled to a refugee camp in France and has called for the UK to "extend the hand of humanity" to those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. When Cameron stated that the UK would accept 20,000 refugees by 2020, Corbyn said that number was not high enough. Under Theresa May, the UK looks unlikely to reach even the paltry target set by her predecessor.  
 
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Conservatives have a rapidly intensifying record of cosying up to repressive regimes. On a visit to Saudi Arabia, Theresa May made vague noises about how her presence as a "woman leader" could set an example - but made no direct criticisms of the kingdom's policies.
 
In fact, her ministers have refused to halt weapons exports to Saudi, even when advised they could be used to kill civilians in Yemen. On these grounds, the Labour leader has accused May's government of being ready to "sacrifice human rights and security on the altar of the arms trade".

Corbyn recently reiterated his call for an immediate end to arms sales to Riyadh, a call which May continues to ignore even as the humanitarian situation in Yemen grows despicably bleak.
 
Corbyn has been a longstanding friend to the Palestinian people, albeit a more cautious once since becoming party leader and having to deal with the influential Labour Friends of Israel lobby group.
Corbyn recently reiterated his call for an immediate end to arms sales to Riyadh, a call which May continues to ignore
Compare this to Theresa May, who has told Conservative Friends of Israel that this year’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration - a document from imperial-era Britain which contributed hugely to Israeli settler-colonialism and Palestinian dispossession - will be marked with "pride".
 
She has sent an emissary to Israel to begin negotiating a trade deal for when the UK leaves the European Union and the Conservative government is also pressing ahead with unethical and anti-democratic moves to repress the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

In the run up to the UK's June 8 general election, the vast gaps between the positions of the two main party leaders on almost every issue in the Middle East could not be clearer.

On Sunday, Conservatives immediately pounced on remarks made by Corbyn that he might, if elected, suspend airstrikes on Syria, demonstrating their willingness to exploit Labour's disarray.

Lacking a single coherent message from the Left, the idiom "better the devil you know" could end up as a guiding principle for swing voters - to the benefit of Theresa May.  

Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom.

Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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