Syrians cannot afford for next year to be like this year

Violence, hunger and disease have become facts of life for millions. More can be done to alleviate their suffering, and more must be done.

Today, Ed Miliband has joined other party leaders in a joint statement on the deteriorating situation in Syria. As the leaders say, this humanitarian crisis transcends party politics.

For the people of Syria, 2013 has been a dreadful year. Chemical weapons, summary executions, rape, torture, kidnappings, and polio. Death and disease on an unimaginable scale - the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, the most sustained assault on human rights since the wars in the Balkans. Evidence has even emerged of snipers targeting children, and the summary execution of children as young as one. Whilst the humanitarian crisis deepens, some have lost their humanity.

There can be no justification for any cold-blooded murder of civilians, but for the deliberate slaughter of infants there can be no reason, no matter how twisted the logic. But this is Syria in 2013. Already, more than 100,000 have died. More than 9 million are in desperate need of humanitarian support - 2.5 million of those trapped beyond our reach, half a million literally under siege.

The danger is that we see those huge figures as just a list of statistics. But each number is also a harrowing story. Like Somaya, the 14 year old girl from Damascus, who told Human Rights Watch about the horror of seeing her friends shot in the head. Or Jamila, a grandmother close to the border, who told Save the Children of her families’ daily fear that the crying of a starving infant may attract the bullets of armed men.

Only a political solution can stop the fighting, but effective aid can alleviate the suffering. More than 2 million refugees have already fled to neighbouring countries, accompanied by more suffering and need than we can imagine - malnutrition and disease, sick and old to be cared for, young to be educated. For countries like Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon that is no light burden.

And it’s not just refugees crossing borders. What infects Syria, passes to her neighbours. Instability, violence and disease do not stop at checkpoints. We have all been horrified by the re-emergence of polio in Syria - 14 years after the country had eradicated the disease. This is a country that neighbours Europe. Polio has re-emerged on our doorstep.

This is what UK aid is fighting. In and around Syria, British government and the British public's donations are saving lives, and if it stops things getting worse it won’t just help those on the ground. The UK has already spent more than £500m supporting those affected by this conflict - and will rightly spend more before this crisis is over. But if we don’t get things right now we could lose much more. So we need to get things right today, and that means aid has got to be as fast and effective. But at the moment three big things are holding us back.

First, the UN appeal is still woefully under-funded. As always, the UK is doing our bit, but other prosperous nations have got to put their hands in their pocket too. In September, Oxfam-produced evidence which suggests France, Qatar, and Russia are all giving less than half of their fair share. In the run up to January’s donor conference in Kuwait, we should be insisting that every country with the means to do so is fulfilling their responsibility to do so.

Second, we have got to make sure that humanitarian relief is getting through - beyond Damascus and across the whole country. People are dying from easily preventable and treatable diseases because they are simply out of reach. That has got to change - NGOs must be given the access they need to save lives.

And third, we have got to do more to protect the right to an education for Syrian children. Of course the top priority must be saving lives, but the decline in education really matters. Two million Syrian children dropped out of school in 2013 alone. One in five Syrian schools have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of refugees have now been left with no proper schooling at all.

A generation of Syrian children without education would be a disaster for them, for their country, for the Middle East and for the international community as a whole. No-one wants to see that – and we have to everything we can to stop it from happening. Every humanitarian crisis requires the right blend of immediate relief and planning for the future. For the future security and prosperity of Syria and its neighbours getting children back in school is crucial. For young and old, the crisis in Syria has gone on too long, and it’s getting worse. Violence, hunger and disease have become facts of life for millions. More can be done to alleviate their suffering, and more must be done. Syrians cannot afford for next year to be just like this year.

At least 30 people were killed and many others wounded on Tuesday December 24, 2013 after Syrian army helicopters dropped 'barrel bombs' on Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary and Labour MP for East Renfrewshire

Photo: Getty
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.