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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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.