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 

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle