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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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