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14 October 2016

Our 2013 vote on Syria created a disastrous vacuum – now we must act

The decision not to act against Assad has contributed to the unfolding disaster. 

By Alison McGovern

How did Syria, a stable, prosperous, middle income country, become a lawless slaughterhouse where war crimes are commonplace? How did this happen in full view of the international community? Why, when the extent of the crisis and its knock-on effects are so obvious, have Britain and our allies been paralysed? How have we become impotent observers in the face of such horror?

For those, like me, who argue that the UK could and should be doing much more in Syria, who believe that inaction has consequences that should weigh on our consciences just as surely as action does, these questions are urgent. Because to understand how to make the case for further UK involvement in Syria, we must understand why we have been unsuccessful so far.

My view is that the disengagement of the UK and our allies from the conflict in Syria, and the way we have limited our action to combatting Daesh, has created a vacuum in which Assad and his backers have been able to perpetrate atrocities seemingly without care or consequence. Our inaction has multiple causes, ranging from lack of understanding about the situation on the ground, both in parliament and amongst the public, to a lack of urgency and the mishandling of key decision points. Fundamentally, there has been a failure both to set a clear strategic direction and to make the case for specific actions as part of that wider strategy.

I think this is an important moment, because it feels like this Gordian knot may be about to be cut. There is now a clear strategic objective – the protection of civilians. There are credible plans to make this happen and a coalition of people willing to prosecute the argument.

When advocating action in Syria, one of the main obstacles has been the sheer complexity of the conflict, with its myriad actors, its intricate politics, and the challenge of geography. This complexity has been exploited by those who spread misinformation, or seek to draw false parallels in order to muddy the waters and shape the narrative in their favour.

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Misinformation is propagated by the Syrian and Russian regimes, and famously by Daesh in their recruitment videos. It spreads like wildfire on social media and is too often repeated by people who should know better. For example I am frequently told that we are “bombing Syria”, when the reality is that UK forces have carried out an incredibly small number of strikes against Daesh in a very limited area.

To simplify the complexity – without resorting to the kind of banal reductionism that is the enemy of good policy – has proved difficult. Votes in the House of Commons will always come down to a relatively simple choice: should we take the proposed action or not?

But this offers numerous avenues for whataboutery or obfuscation. The SNP, for example, currently hide behind the slogan “bread not bombs”, which fits nicely on a placard but doesn’t survive the transition to the world of politics for adults.

And opposition parties are inevitably at the mercy of the government. After all, it is for them to make a proposal and to make the case for the specific action they have decided. This often presents parties with real dilemmas. The 2013 vote on military intervention against Assad is a key example.

There were many on the Labour benches who were not set against action, but who felt the government had completely mishandled the vote. David Cameron’s complete retreat after his defeat was clearly a disaster in hindsight, as it contributed to the vacuum and disengagement which has been central to the unfolding disaster in Syria. We must focus on what we can do now, rather than pick over past choices, but to the extent that we do, it is this 2013 vote that should anchor our reflections. The choice about strikes against Daesh last year was much more straightforward.

To return to the present, I think there is a growing understanding of the reality on the ground, and this has driven a change of mood, both on the green benches and in the country. I want to see a comprehensive strategy that protects civilians. A Sky Data poll earlier this week found significant support for British military involvement to stop the crisis in Aleppo. The mood in the House of Commons was resolute on Tuesday. The scenes we are seeing now, in Aleppo and elsewhere across Syria should focus minds. It is no longer acceptable to turn away.

The question then turns to whether there is anything that the UK can do. I believe that there are a number of tangible steps we can take, using assets in the region to track Syrian and Russia jets and helicopters, airdropping aid, further sanctions against Russia and supporting the French plan to use the ICC to try to hold Putin to account. I also believe the idea of a no-bombing zone, underwritten by a promise to hit Assad regime military targets in response to aggression by the Syrian regime or the Russians, should not be off the table. I am reassured this seems to be being entertained by the foreign secretary. Experts say that even a no-bombing zone just for helicopters, which are being used to drop barrel bombs and chemical weapons, could reduce civilian casualties by up to 90 per cent.

Ultimately, the case for further action is about how you answer two questions. Are we prepared to accept what is happening in Aleppo, and is there anything we could do to help? My view is clear. Faced with the greatest crime of our century, and with the capacity to act to save civilian lives, our principles should compel us to action.

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