Whitehall has reluctantly admitted that it is unlikely the Prime Minister will go forward with a Commons vote on extending airstrikes against Isil (or Daesh) in Syria. Rumours of this vote have dominated, and even distracted, UK political debate over Syria for months. Now that the Commons’ influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee has firmly brought the debate back to reality, it is time to focus on what the UK can do to help the Syrian people whose lives are at daily risk.
In the four and half years of the Syrian conflict almost 200,000 civilians have been killed, 96 percent are thought to have been killed by President Assad’s forces. Like Bosnia and Rwanda, Syria will be remembered as a humanitarian crisis where civilian groups were purposefully targeted for destruction by their own state. As with Bosnia and Rwanda, the failure (or reluctance) of the international community to identify the dominant perpetrator has been part of the block inhibiting effective international policy responses, to the detriment of the Syrian people.
In response to their failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, the UK, and every other UN member state, has acknowledged their responsibility to act in situations where a state manifestly fails to protect its populations from the gravest crimes – crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and genocide.
In Syria this threshold has long been met; the Assad regime is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against its own civilian population. So too is ISIL suspected of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing against communities of all religions and creeds in Syria and Iraq.
The UK and other UN member states therefore have a responsibility to do all they can to protect civilians from both the Assad government and ISIL.
Since the summer recess, the ongoing suffering of the Syrian people has received much needed attention from many Members of Parliament, from different political parties. The adjournment debate brought by Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley, to discuss civilian protection demonstrated that many in the House believe this is an urgent issue and one that Parliament has the responsibility to address fully. MPs need to continue this debate.
While the decision by Russia to provide military assistance to the Assad government complicates the political situation still further, there are still actions the UK Government could take. A responsible Syria policy would seek to halt the indiscriminate barrel bombing of civilians by the Assad Government; protect civilians at risk from the Syrian Government and ISIL; alleviate the acute humanitarian crisis in Syria; support conditions for dialogue and peace negotiations; and begin preparations for a post-conflict framework for peace in Syria.
It is unlikely that military action on any side will bring a solution to the crisis. Therefore diplomatic efforts remain a crucial component in the pursuit of peace. The UK should complement the new momentum of the Vienna talks to redouble efforts at the United Nations to make plans for a Security Council resolution aimed at protecting civilians in Syria. Disagreement among the permanent members of the Security Council has so far prevented the international community from acting to halt the conflict. This has done nothing for the credibility of the Security Council, the UN’s international standing, or ultimately, the people of Syria. The UK needs to put in political effort and be ready for potentially unpalatable compromises, in order to prepare the Security Council for action.
At the same time, the UK should bolster its efforts to implement and strengthen existing agreements to improve humanitarian access in Syria. The UK must continue to provide support to refugees, including but not limited to providing financial support to those in the affected region, in partnership with host countries. There is great scope here for building capacity among those displaced through programmes that, among other things, promote dialogue and reconciliation.
The UK’s failure to form a coherent policy towards Syria is the symptom of a wider failure: the Government has no clear policy statement on the prevention of atrocities or the protection of civilians. Elevating atrocity prevention to an explicit commitment of UK foreign policy could have saved time and created clearer goals in the debate about how to approach Assad and Isil early on.
There is a need to take stock and consider what measures would help to prevent yet another failure to protect in the future. This should begin with a cross-Government review to examine how to strengthen capacity, coordination and understanding of atrocity prevention across Whitehall.
There are no easy answers for Syria. But the complexity of the situation does not mean that doing nothing is the right thing to do. Now that the thorny issue of airstrikes has been taken off the table, it is up to the Prime Minister to bring a parliamentary debate on how the UK can strengthen its commitment to the Syrian people and uphold the nation’s responsibility to protect the lives of strangers.
Kate Ferguson is Director of Protection Approaches. Alex Buskie is Peace & Security Programmes Officer at the United Nations Association – UK