Diane Abbott tells BBC: Russia a greater threat to world peace than America

Transcript of Diane Abbott's grilling by BBC's Nick Robinson on Syria

Nick Robinson: Do you believe that dictators should pay a price for dropping chemical gas on children?

Diane Abbott: Of course. The use of chemical weapons is horrific; whether it’s in the killing fields of Syria or even if it’s in English county towns. But first of all we need to get the evidence. It’s the US defence secretary, Mattis, who says we don’t have all the evidence. That’s why we’re calling for an independent UN-led investigation of the horrific chemical weapons attacks, but the other issue is this: we’ve heard from the gentleman that you just had on air that there are many elements in opposition to Assad and I think it was Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, who said recently the real danger is that what starts out as a justified punishment for the use of chemical weapons ends up with the Royal Air Force serving as the air arm of the jihadi extremist rebels in Syria. So first of all we have to get the evidence.

NR: ​Let’s start with that then, the evidence. Clarify what it is that Labour needs. Macron says he has the evidence; inspectors are going in this weekend from the OPCW. If they confirm that chemical weapons were used would that be enough for the Labour party?

DA: ​Let’s see what the inspectors come up with. All I’m saying to you… it’s not just the Labour party, the US defence secretary is saying we don’t have all the evidence.

NR: ​Sure but we’re interviewing the Labour party rather than him, so what is enough for the Labour party?

DA: ​Let’s see what the inspectors come up with but at the moment, as I say, even in the US there’s an understanding that we don’t have all the evidence.

NR:​You say let’s see but Jeremy Corbyn has issued a statement this morning in which he doesn’t refer to the weapons inspectors. He calls for an independent UN-led investigation. How likely do you think it is that there will be an independent UN-led investigation?

DA: ​Labour believes in the rule of the law and we hope that there will be an independent UN-led investigation.

NR: ​Why wasn’t there one after the last chemical attack? Why hasn’t there been a single UN-led investigation since the Syrian war began eight years ago?

DA: ​We have to go forward and we have to go forward on the basis of the facts and the evidence…

NR:​ You’re calling for something that hasn’t happened for eight years so why hasn’t it happened?

DA:​ We think it should happen.

NR:​ Why hasn’t it happened?

DA:​ You’d have to ask the UN but we think…

NR: ​I’ll tell you why it hasn’t happened, because Russia have vetoed such a call six times.

DA:​ The Labour party believes that there is no military solution to the situation in Syria. There is a political…

NR: ​Imagine you’re in office now, Jeremy Corbyn, we know, thinks there could be an election by the end of the year. He would be Prime Minister in No 10, you would be sitting around a war cabinet table, you recommend that the UN should investigate and officials say to you ‘it’s a very interesting idea minister but Russia has vetoed such an investigation six times and they will do it again.’ So what now?

DA:​ There has to be a political negotiation because you’re never going to solve the situation in Syria whilst Assad has the tacit support of Russia…

NR: ​I’m asking you a specific question: if Russia vetoes, what you are calling for in the Labour party – which they have done six times already – what would be the reaction of a Labour government in that circumstance?

DA: ​We would press on trying to bring people to the table. We believe that more bombing is not the answer to the crisis in Syria.

NR:​ But at the beginning you see, you answered the question ‘should dictators pay a price for dropping chemical gas on children?’ Yes, you said. But you would call for something that’s never happened and you’ve just admitted probably won’t happen now. What price would Assad pay for dropping gas on children?​

DA:​ There is a response which falls short of more bombing. We believe there needs to be a co-ordinated international drive to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement. That’s what has to happen.

NR:​ We’ve just heard from the leader of the Syrian opposition parties, these are the leaders recognised by the UN. They had talks this week at the UN; leaders recognised in all Western capitals. He says that doesn’t work and Assad has ignored all calls for talks. The Russians have ignored calls for those formal talks.

DA:​ There are many elements on the ground in Syria. If we believe there is no possibility of a political resolution that is to give up all hope. We can’t afford to give up on the people of Syria. I have visited refugee camps across Europe – Calais, Lebanon, Lesbos – and have seen the personal tragedies caused by this war in Syria and we cannot afford to give up hope in what would be the only resolution, a political negotiation.

NR:​ What would happen if Jeremy Corbyn were Prime Minister and you were Home Secretary, you would call for something that hasn’t happened up until now and you would say, if President Macron picked up the phone and said to Jeremy Corbyn ‘there is evidence; there should be military action. There is a red line to stop chemical weapons use.’ You’d say to Monsieur Macron we disagree, we’re not in favour?​

DA:​ We cannot give up on the political situation and the British public knows this. The majority of the British public are against military intervention in Syria because they know that these military interventions can become open-ended. I remind you of Afghanistan. We were in Afghanistan for 13 years; it cost us £40bn. 456 soldiers died. These interventions can become open-ended. That’s why the British public…

NR:​ But in a sense though aren’t you hinting at what is your real position, and Jeremy Corbyn’s position, which is it’s appalling what’s happening in Syria, you’re morally repulsed but you don’t believe in military action in any circumstances at all. You believe it’s wrong?

DA:​ No. We…

NR:​ What are the circumstances, if you say no, in which you would back military action?

DA:​ There was the Second World War.

NR:​ I meant in this scenario, in Syria are there any circumstances in which you would ever back the use of military force?

DA:​ There is no evidence to show…

NR:​ Forgive me, that’s not my question. Are there any circumstances…

DA:​ Let me answer it in my own way. There is no evidence to show that further bombing in Syria will make the region more stable​. What we’re interested in, in the end, is making…

NR:​ Are there any circumstances in which would you would ever?

DA:​ What the Labour party’s interested in is making the region more stable and maybe some of those Syrian refugees I’ve seen across Europe – enabling them to go back.

NR:​ Are there any circumstances in which Labour would back military action?

DA:​​ What we’re interested in is an end to the violence.

NR:​ The answer’s is no, isn’t it?

DA:​ No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying what we’re interested in is an end to the violence and we don’t believe that further bombing in this situation will bring an end to the violence.

NR:​ Do you believe that Russia or the US are a greater threat to world peace?

DA:​ I think that the current situation in Syria, actually, is a threat to world peace and we know that one of the issues with bringing Assad to the negotiating table is the current support he has from Russia.

NR:​ Is that a question you don’t feel you can answer, whether Russia is a bigger threat to the world than the United States?

DA:​ At this point, after Salisbury, and with the unremitting support of Russia for Assad, you have to say Russia isn’t bringing forward the cause of world peace.

NR:​ Sure. But you can’t say it’s a bigger threat than the US? Just so we’re clear.

DA:​ It’s clear that at this point, Russia, its role in Syria, what we believe beyond reasonable doubt is its role in the poison gas attacks in Salisbury, is a greater threat to world peace than the United States. It would be outrageous for the government not to bring military action in Syria to parliament for parliament to have a vote. The Tories used to think that. William Hague said in 2011 ‘we will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting parliament om military action’, and the reason they’re not doing it is they’re frightened they’ll lose the vote.

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