After a decade of Darfur it’s time to stop appeasing Sudan’s criminal cabal

The number of victims continues to rise.

The UK has appeased some extremely dubious leaders of oppressive regimes over the years. Today, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the start of systematic ethnic cleansing, killing, rape and torture of Darfur’s population, it’s fair to say we have the measure of President Bashir. After all, he remains the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. This is a man – and a criminal regime – we should not do business with.

Yet Her Majesty’s Government continues to do so – from providing taxpayers money to train Sudanese military, police and security personnel to hosting trade delegations to boost UK economic links with the country. Just this month the UK participated in the Doha aid conference which aims to reconstruct war-torn Darfur – committing to continue the £25m the UK has provided yearly. Few would deny that Darfuri’s urgently need reconstruction funds and aid. But the Doha process works directly with the Khartoum regime – the same criminal cabal which continues to bomb Darfuri villages, ethnically cleanse civilians with the wrong religion and skin colour, and deny access to international humanitarian agencies.

This is not only an absurd waste of taxpayers’ money – it’s also insulting and totally disrespectful to Bashir’s victims. No one knows the true figure – the UN stopped counting in 2008 – but estimates suggest at least 200,000 people have so far been killed, with more than 2 million displaced. Just this week, renewed government air strikes and fighting between rebel forces and killed dozens and displaced many more. Working with the regime, on reconstruction, business, or human rights, gives it the international legitimacy it desperately craves, re-focusing attention away from the very reason why Darfur – and the rest of the country – needs our help. Bashir and his cronies have systematically destroyed the potential of an entire nation. Under his iron rule, Sudan has become a ruthless police state, extreme Sharia law is violently imposed, and the ruling party has worked consistently towards a unified pure Arab Islamist state. Millions of citizens have been killed, thousands are still in refugee camps across Sudan’s border with its neighbours, and the stability of the entire region continues to be shaken by his warmongering.

In 2006 William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, lamented that: ‘International attempts to stop the government in Khartoum from killing its own people have been thwarted by other countries more interested in pursuing their economic or political advantage than in promoting human rights.’ We aren’t the worst offender – but the UK insists on continuing to engage with the regime despite the fact they have not kept their word on any of the numerous – worthless – peace agreements they have signed.

The Darfur10 campaign – led by charities and NGO’s like Waging Peace – is a stark reminder to the UK and international community, that the conflict is far from over. Until we see real progress towards peace the UK must take a much more robust stance. This means pressuring the UN to finally implement its many resolutions – starting with freezing the finances of those who orchestrated – and profited – from the genocide and imposing travel bans for high-ranking officials. More importantly, no-fly zones would finally put a stop to government's gunships which continue to bomb Darfuri citizens, and an increased, more active peacekeeping force in the region could start to offer civilians protection from government sponsored violence.

Today should be an opportunity to remember the thousands of Darfuri civilians who have suffered because of this conflict. Yet the fact that the number of victims continues to rise ten years after it began is a sad indictment of the entire international community’s continuing appeasement of this abhorrent regime.


Two girls in Darfur, who lost their homes to the conflict. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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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.