Peace will not be achieved in Syria without Iran

At Geneva this week, the government should push for the establishment of a Syria Contact Group involving both Saudi Arabia and Iran.

This week the long-delayed Geneva II peace conference will take place in Switzerland to try and secure agreement on a peaceful political transition in Syria. This conference is so vital to Syria’s future because ending the suffering can ultimately only come by ending the fighting. The conference marks the first time that representatives from the Syrian National Coalition and the Syrian regime will engage in official talks since the start of the conflict.

Yet the truth is that today, the warring parties in Syria still believe they have little reason to compromise and every reason to continue fighting. This is the dangerous dynamic that Geneva II must now seek to change. To do so, it is vital that the key actors are clear about what it is that the conference is aiming to achieve.

First, given the prospect of securing a comprehensive political transition agreement in Geneva looks increasingly unlikely, securing confidence building measures between the parties to the conflict would be a vital next step. Localised ceasefires could help relieve the immediate suffering on the ground, but they could also help create the conditions for progress on political negotiations in the future. So the international community must ensure that these confidence building measures are discussed as part of the main conference agenda, and that tangible and credible progress is made in implementing them once the conference is over.

Second, as well as focusing on localised confidence building measures, the conference must also seek to address the regional dynamics of this conflict. Labour believes that the path to de-escalation in Syria, and ultimately to a peaceful transition, will have to involve the support of key regional players who have themselves become parties to the conflict. The recent deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, made possible by Russia’s participation in the process, has showed us that the role of key adversaries can prove decisive in helping to get Assad to bow to international pressure. 

That is why Labour has long called for the establishment of a Syria Contact Group which would bring together countries like the US and Russia, but also crucially involve Saudi Arabia and Iran. Despite Iran’s non-attendance, this week at Geneva there is the opportunity to get this kind of initiative off the ground.

Finally, within Syria itself, a lack of humanitarian access remains a key barrier to the effective delivery and distribution of aid to those most in need. That is why one specific aim for this week’s conference must be securing agreement on the implementation of the UN Security Council’s Presidential Statement on humanitarian access.

That would involve allowing immediate cross-border aid deliveries and calling on all parties to the conflict to agree on humanitarian pauses in the fighting, including along “key routes” for relief convoys. The onus lies on the Assad regime to now agree to the UN Statement. Given that Russia has already signed up to the statement, at Geneva this week they must be encouraged to use what leverage they over Assad to urge him to now comply.

Geneva II is a vital diplomatic step, but whilst the diplomats meet, the war will continue to rage. Already over 125,000 have died, and Syria’s humanitarian crisis continues to force millions from their homes, with 6.5 million people now displaced within their own country, and over 2.3 million refugees fleeing Syria altogether.

The UN’s António Guterres has warned of a terrifying situation where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not. Last week’s pledging conference was undoubtedly a step forward, and the extra £100 million given by the British government is welcome, but we would like to see even more ambition This is a crisis of historic and horrific proportions, and not just for Syria. Lebanon has taken on almost 900,000, and the UN is predicting refugees could make up to a third of its population within a year.

A still under-reported effect of this social upheaval is the impact it is having on children. Syria used to enjoy a school enrolment rate of 97%, but today, if Syria’s refugees were a country they would have the worst enrolment rate in the world – five times worse than sub Saharan Africa. That’s why Labour have called on ministers to support plans to get Syrian refugee children in Lebanon back into the classroom, through a scheme allowing young Syrians to begin their day after Lebanese children go home.

Working towards agreement on a peaceful political transition remains Syria’s best chance of ending this bloody conflict. So it is vital that diplomatic momentum must not be allowed to wane while the suffering and fighting continue to worsen. The Geneva II Conference this week is a vital step, but for real progress to be made, countries like Britain must work to keep Syria at the top of the diplomatic agenda not just for days, but weeks and months to come. 

Douglas Alexander is shadow foreign secretary

Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary 

Syrian emergency personnel are seen exstinguishing a fire at the scene of a reported airstrike by government forces on the central al-Fardous neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary

Jim Murphy is the shadow international development secretary 

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage