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Sep 2, 2013

Support for Syrian missile strike could test Labor unity

The Labor Party takes a far more nuanced view of Syria than recent bellicose statements from the Foreign Minister would suggest.

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As the US prepares to rain down cruise missiles on Damascus, the Labor government has declared its support for unilateral action, claiming that a targeted airstrike is the only way to send a message to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad over his widely reported use of chemical weapons. But deep down, some on the Labor frontbench may be squeamish about toeing the party line.

On Saturday in Sydney hundreds of protesters waving “Hands off Syria” placards took to the streets to warn US President Barack Obama off military action, joining thousands in London and Washington. Foreign Minister Bob Carr was unbowed, claiming a strike was warranted and that the Obama administration could be trusted to carry out the attack: “We think that if a government in this day and age uses chemical weapons against innocent men, women and children, it deserves a response.”

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who likes to speak on Syria at every opportunity because it makes him look like an international statesman, has suggested that Australia could use its presidency of the UN Security Council to slap down a veto-wielding Russia by making a statement in favour of intervention. The PM has also been keen to expose Tony Abbott’s lack of foreign affairs experience, bigging up briefings from departmental officials and stating that the Opposition Leader wanted to “wish away” the conflict because it wasn’t his “preferred field of operations”.

Interestingly, while Abbott has slammed the use of sarin gas on rebels as an “abomination”, he has shied away from committing Australia to a military role, stating that although it was important to “support our friends and allies”, Security Council resolutions were pending and the Mediterranean region was outside Australia’s sphere of influence. On Insiders yesterday Abbott unwisely characterised the conflict as between “baddies and baddies”, drawing ridicule from Rudd.

But there remains substantial scepticism within the Labor Party about the wisdom of launching an assault, especially among MPs whose electorates contain strong Alawite communities (the Alawite sect, loyal to al-Assad, makes up around 12% of Syria’s population of 23 million).

For example, at an as-yet unreported speech at a “Hands off Syria” gala dinner on April 20, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke strongly about Syria’s history as a “secular state where people were able to live side by side with respect.”

“It is absolutely vital that respect and tolerance return,” Albanese said, calling the grave situation in Syria “nothing short of an humanitarian crisis”.

To strong applause, the then-local government minister said it was important not to let foreign forces use Syria as the venue for a proxy war:

“I note that there are of course as often happens with international conflict people who seek to engage by proxy their conflict in another country. It is it is absolutely important that Syria’s future be determined by those people in Syria and not forces outside Syria who seek to wage a proxy battle.”

Albanese, a recent visitor at the Alawi Centre in Carrington Road, Marrickville, in his electorate of Grayndler, recalled meeting with top al-Assad international media adviser and former government minister Bouthaina Shaaban on a Canberra visit a few years back:

“I’ve had the honour of meeting Minister Shaaban when she visited Canberra just a few years ago. A sophisticated leader in Middle East, a sophisticated, impressive leader from a part of the world that is indeed the cradle of civilisation and of course the birthplace of the three great monotheistic religions.”

Albanese explained his overall take on the issue thus:

“It is absolutely vital that peace and respect return to Syria…the reason I engage in political activity is very much to advance peace, to advance harmony, to support tough tolerance, to support multiculturalism, and to support respect for each other … I once again state my preparedness to do what I can on behalf of the local [Syrian] community in terms of assisting individuals or assisting issues of which are genuinely of such great concern.”

Lebanese community leader Sheikh Kamel Wehbe also spoke at the dinner in defence of Syria.

Crikey understands that there are numerous Left-aligned Labor MPs in caucus that are equally reticent about the prospect of Syria turning into another Iraq and are dismayed that Rudd and Carr have been beating the drum of war as an election draws near.

In February 2012, Albanese slapped down Zionist Melbourne Ports MP Michael Danby, who called in a Labor caucus meeting for local Syrian diplomats to be expelled from Canberra. Albanese said diplomatic staff provided vital services for the community. Syrian charge d’affaires, Jawdat Ali, was expelled by Carr three months later.

The split among progressives has been mirrored elsewhere. On Saturday, Democracy for America, the organisation founded out of Howard Dean’s anti-war 2004 presidential run, sent out an email to supporters in which it conceded it was rent down the middle on military action and therefore couldn’t advocate for an official position.

Albanese told Crikey this afternoon that “As a supporter of democracy, I have consistently opposed political violence in Syria and I am absolutely horrified at recent reports that chemical weapons have been used in defiance of international law.”

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