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10 April 2017

Alison McGovern: Do I regret my 2013 vote on Syria? This is what actually keeps me up at night

No one can know for sure what would have happened if we intervened in 2013 in Syria. But we do know we are not doing enough now. 

By Alison McGovern

My phone is in my right hand. My left hand is at my temple.

I am listening to a voice scream ever louder down the phone line at me. But I know that however much the shouting goes on I will reply calmly. I will explain my point of view. She will not like it, but that is not the point. I am entitled to my view; to use the words I wish.

And I won’t stumble because the person I am speaking to has lost control, or at least might sounds as though they have done so to the listener.

This conversation is not pleasant. But the fact is, we are on live radio, and I volunteered to give this interview. And I wouldn’t be the first person that Julia Hartley-Brewer has attempted to brow-beat. I did know it was coming. I did agree to the interview knowing that.

But there was a part of me that hoped the subject matter at hand would mean, yes, hard questions, but equally, an acceptance that there are no easy answers. 

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Syria. A country in which there has been such brutality, such outrages to human dignity that I would persist through any number of hours of unpleasant interview to draw attention to its plight. Radio presenters can take shots all day long. If it keeps people talking about Syria, then fine.

And of course. Of course interviewers want to ask about 2013. We had a chance to vote for military strikes following Assad’s use chemical weapons over 3 years ago. In the House of Commons, we turned down the chance to back David Cameron and Barack Obama then. Look at what has happened since – death and displacement beyond imagination. Isn’t it natural to ask the politicians who voted against if they regret that vote now? Would you regret it? Would you regret not trusting Cameron then?

So, when I am challenged on that point, I understand the urge of some to ask, do you regret it: yes or no? Yes or no. Yes or no. Yes. Or No. I myself have had over three years to ask myself that question. Yes or No. Yes. Or no. I have lived with that choice every day. Never fully knowing if there should be blame or not. Always contemplating what might be my own grievous fault.

Do I regret it, then? If only there were a “yes or no” answer. To have an answer would mean knowing all the consequences if we had in fact voted to take action in 2013. Would we have had the political will to match military action with sufficient humanitarian protection? Finding the balance is hard. There is still today not enough co-ordination between the armed forces – who can uniquely change the balance of risks for Assad – and those who work to deliver vital life-saving equipment and to rescue civilians. And I am sure that this was the case back in 2013, too. I do not know if the UK would have made the right choices.

Lives could have been saved, perhaps, but there would have been lives lost too. No one has a god’s-eye view. No one can know.

And, practically speaking, the Tories in power since 2010 have ridden on, rather than enhanced, the UK’s global reputation. When Labour was in power, we made the Department for International Development an institution, and legislated for aid spending. With the Tories’ failure on refugees, and their focus on using aid as so-called “soft-power” – rather than as an end in itself – they have steadily undermined our standing in relation to the humanitarian imperative. So, backing the Tories rarely fills me with confidence.

We will never know. There is no answer.

However, this is no council of despair. We have to be informed by the past, but we do not have to be bound by it. Just because we cannot have an all seeing, god-like view of our past decisions, it does not mean we cannot challenge the British government to do better now.  

If you are feeling in despair watching the scenes from Syria, here are three things that the British government could now be doing in our name. 

Firstly, the Prime Minister should come to the House of Commons and present a strategy to protect civilian life in Syria. This means getting aid out of the UN warehouses in the region, and by opening up humanitarian corridors, or creating safe zones, or using airdrops, getting this aid effectively delivered – especially vital medical supplies. It means working out how to stop the bombing, using no-fly or no-bombing zones. It means getting vulnerable people out of Syria who need life-saving medical care to a hospital that can treat them.

It means maintaining, above all else, the international humanitarian law. Hospitals, schools and emergency services are not legitimate targets, even in a warzone. This principle protects us all and must be defended.

Secondly, we should maintain our stance on accountability. There are already experts building up evidence which can be used in future prosecutions. These efforts must be supported by our government. It is not enough to say: “One day, Assad will face justice.” We must start now to make it so.

Thirdly, we must change our position on refugees. There are very vulnerable Syrians who need care and protection to stay alive. We have not done enough. Britain has said that we will remain opening and welcoming to the world, despite Brexit. But this is not evident when we have closed off routes to support those who most need refuge in our care. This approach must change before our standing in the world is irreparably diminished. Let us resolve to back the UN scheme for resettling vulnerable Syrian refugees, in the knowledge that the families of the children whose lives we could save will pay us back ten-fold in their efforts for our country if we showed this faith in them.

We can attempt to do all of this. But I get asked the 2013 question. Again and again. At the heart of my response here is the conflict between the political imperative to answer the damn question, and the philosophical dilemma of there being no real answer to the question of what if the world had been different. We don’t truly know, and to pronounce with simple certainty is not enough. All I can do is address the situation as it is, with the gravity it deserves, and hope that my colleagues do the same.

Because just because we do not have an answer to every question, that doesn’t mean we are unsure of our values. Faced with a Prime Minister who appears to find it easier to talk about Easter eggs that to address the toughest humanitarian crisis of our age with sufficient seriousness, we see that we have to take this challenge on.

We will continue live with grave risk and uncertainty. We have to make the hardest of choices. But to constantly step back from the world and shrug “nothing can be done with certainty, therefore do nothing” is a mistake right now in 2017. Whatever our doubts – our own uncertainties – we have to carry on.

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