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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Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.