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While we avert our eyes from Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, Syrian children are dying

This is not just another conflict. This is the re-writing of the rules of conflict.

I recently had the privilege of talking to Holocaust survivors about their hopes for the new National Holocaust Memorial. The words of Martin Stern, a Theresienstadt camp survivor, will stay with me for years to come. With great clarity and conviction, he offered a reminder of the cost of international inaction in the face of mass atrocities. “Nobody can bring back the six million who were killed,” he said. “​All we can do is work upon the future.”

Yet the current situation in Syria demonstrates how far we are from ensuring “​never again” is a reality. In the past 72 hours, more than 250 people have been reported as killed in Eastern Ghouta. On Monday, Syria’s daily death toll reached its highest point in three years. Whatever anyone says about the “de-escalation” of this conflict, the news indicates that the past weeks have been some of the deadliest days for Syrian civilians. Chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing and attacks on medical facilities have returned with a vengeance in 2018.

Right now, the Syrian government and its backers are playing a game with the UN. The stakes are the highest possible: the lives of young children. At the beginning of the month an attack on Al-Ma'ara National Hospital in Idlib was reported, which left new-born babies temporarily suffocating as their incubators lost power. So far this week 52 children have been reported killed in Eastern Ghouta.

To prevent further massacres in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib, the UK must support the UN Security Council in demanding an immediate 30 days cessation of hostilities, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the evacuation of the critically ill and wounded, and the lifting of the siege.

Last year, countries with the power to make a difference failed the people of Aleppo. As the opposition-held east of the city fell, news bulletins and social media blasted the images of terrified men, women and children in Aleppo onto our screens. We watched in horror as civilians were killed in their homes, bombs blasted hospitals and schools out of service and thousands of people fled in search of safety. More than 200 MPs from across the House came together to demand the government do all it could to get aid to Syrians to break the siege of Aleppo. 

We told the government then: if we fail Aleppo, another area will be next. And it has been devastatingly so. But now it is much, much worse. Syrians are still suffering, but the world has stopped watching.

Take this example. As a member of the local council of Ma'rat al-Noman in Idlib, Rawan and three of her colleagues were busy at work when the sudden strafing of a plane was followed by a massive boom. Dust and pieces of concrete blinded them and all they could do was follow the shouting of colleagues calling them to safety. As they tried to find shelter, another explosion hit just outside the building they had evacuated, blowing out the doors and the windows of the local council building. 

Rawan survived but her suffering should never have happened. Syrians were promised they could live safely in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, their security supposedly guaranteed by the Russian brokered de-escalation zones during the Astana negotiations last May. As a key political and military backer of the Syrian regime, Russia had a responsibility to make sure that Rawan and her loved ones are protected. The people of Syria have been failed utterly, and the peaceful future they had been promised by the Russians has lost every shred of credibility.

Far away from the immense suffering in Eastern Ghouta, the Russians are still attempting to play peacemaker on the international stage. The UK government did not take part in last month's Sochi Conference, as the UN-led processes are the peace talks we ought to back.

Yet, we must do more to influence Russia and get them back to the UN-led political engagement, with all the accountably that entails. At the Brussels Conference, our government needs to guarantee no UK money is spent on reconstruction until these conditions are met and there are improvements on the ground for the people of Syria. 

To ensure the aspirations of both Martin, the Holocaust survivor, and Rawan, the local councillor in Idlib, our government cannot sit back and allow another Aleppo to happen. All member states of the UN – including Russia and led by the UK – signed up to the Responsibility to Protect in 2005. The principle makes clear that states bear the primary responsibility to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes. If a state fails to uphold this responsibility – as the Syrian government has repeatedly done – then the states have a moral and legal obligation to act. 

Right now, this means demanding a cessation of hostilities, breaking the sieges and getting aid in. Starvation and the withholding of medical treatment are barbaric acts. This is not just another conflict. This is the re-writing of the rules of conflict before our eyes.

Our responsibilities and our interests in sustaining the rules-based order do not start or end with Syria. That is why our government should heed the words of Martin and make changes to ensure we are better placed to predict atrocities and then acting to prevent them. This includes supporting the establishment of an Atrocity Prevention Centre, similar to the United States’ Holocaust Memorial Museum and its Centre for the Prevention of Genocide. Such an independent institution would identify early warning signs and policy options for preventing violence before it escalates into mass atrocities.

These initiatives would be a bulwark against the understandable tendency – as we have seen on the journey from Aleppo to Eastern Ghouta – to want to look the other way. They would be a first steps to ensure that Britain never again just watches and waits when the next Rwanda, the next Srebrenica, the next Aleppo comes.

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South and the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group Friends of Syria. 

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game