Destitute: a Syrian refugee family from Aleppo in a shelter in Istanbul. (Photo: Getty)
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Three years since war began in Syria, ordinary people remain the real victims

If there was a time when military action could have protected civilian lives, it has long passed.

It was more of a childish prank than an act of sedition but the 15 young boys caught painting anti-government graffiti on the walls of their school in Deraa, southern Syria, in March 2011 were arrested and tortured all the same. Their detention set in motion the familiar pattern of escalating popular protests and increasingly violent police crackdowns. Three years later, as many as 140,000 Syrians are dead and the 15 schoolboys are long forgotten. First, the dead become martyrs: not just sons and daughters, but political symbols. Then they become statistics.

If there was a time when military action – the bombing of strategic targets and the imposition of a no-fly zone – could have protected civilian lives, it has long passed. Yet on the third anniversary of Syria’s civil war and after the failure of the peace talks in February, it is worth reflecting on the stories of human struggle and suffering.

“The politics of Syria are everywhere – but the people are not,” the UN humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, observed after visiting Damascus in 2013. This is so often the case. A few weeks have passed since the men and women in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv toppled their thuggish president and already they have lost control of their revolution.

I returned to Libya’s capital, Tripoli, a few months after it was liberated. I remember, even more clearly than the new Libyan flag fluttering from the rooftops, the posters of the martyrs hung on every street corner. Today, however, most Libyans are so wrapped up in the everyday terror of gun battles and kidnappings that they don’t want to recall those first deaths or how they ended up where they are now.

In Syria this collective amnesia is all the more tragic and harmful. This is a “war on Syrian civilians”, according to Human Rights Watch, but we don’t like to think of it that way. Hospitals and schools have been targeted by all groups; once-lively neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble; whole towns have found themselves under medieval-style sieges, their inhabitants forced to eat stray cats or dogs to survive. Yet the international charities are struggling to attract private donors. “There’s no clear sense of who the ‘good guys’ are,” Michael Klosson, a Save the Children executive, told the Washington Post last year.

The problem isn’t just financial. Even the UK government, which has pledged £500m in aid, can be accused of humanitarian neglect. Rather than making periodic demands for President Bashar al-Assad to step down and backing the “friendly” opposition, it should have kept its diplomatic focus on protecting the rights of civilians.

The international flow of arms and money to Syria’s armed groups hasn’t ended the impasse; it has made it bloodier. Assad can see no reason to back down; nor are various groups that want to kill each other likely to agree to a power-sharing deal. The one area where there have been breakthroughs in negotiations is in limited humanitarian deals: the temporary, imperfect ceasefire in Homs, which allowed aid to trickle in and civilians to be evacuated out of the besieged city in February, and the prisoner exchange achieved between the government in Damascus and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front on 10 March.

On 22 February, the UN Security Council passed a resolution requiring all sides in the conflict to permit the passage of humanitarian aid and warned of “further steps” if they did not comply. This was small but not insignificant progress: Russia might have baulked at an earlier version threatening sanctions but at least it signed, together with China. The greater challenge will be implementation and the focus should be on achieving the co-operation of key influencers, such as Russia (the Crimea crisis won’t help with that), Iran, China and the Gulf states. Even piecemeal local agreements alleviate some suffering and there is a chance that tiny victories could open the way for bigger ones: extended ceasefires that could be a possible precursor to peace talks.

I spoke recently to Rola Hallam, a British-Syrian doctor who volunteers for the charity Hand in Hand for Syria. She told me about Dr Amr, one of the last physician-anaesthetists left in Aleppo. He refuses to leave his besieged home town and has worked 18-hour days for many months on end. Amid the cruelty and chaos, there are Syrians such as Amr who refuse to give up and who are finding their own peaceful means of resistance. For every hate-filled fighter, there’s a volunteer offering to retrain as a medical worker, or a teacher who crosses battlefields daily to get to work, or a young man or woman prepared to smuggle food and medicine into cities under siege, knowing that every trip they make could be their last. Their stories are important, because it will be these Syrians, not the armed rebels, who will one day rebuild their society.

Occasionally when I watch footage of bombed-out Syrian cities on the news, I try to picture the country I visited in 2010. Syria today is an alien, distant landscape but I remember the solemn beauty of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and the bustling Old City nearby, the courtyard restaurants that smelled of grilled meat and sickly shisha smoke and were popular with tourists, as well as the poky shopfronts crammed full of Iznik pottery, silver bangles and factory-made pashminas.

“You live in Libya? Muammar al-Gaddafi is crazy,” one shopkeeper said to me with a laugh as his friend did a cheerful impression of a madman. That Syria is hard to reconcile with what exists today.

Almost three years ago, 15 schoolboys were tortured for scrawling anti-government graffiti on walls and ordinary Syrians risked their lives to express their anger. That story still matters now. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.