TWO years ago, a Government motion on Syria was defeated in the House of Commons. Tabled in the wake of a chemical weapons attack that outraged the world, the motion sought to condemn the attack and give, in principle, support for airstrikes against the Assad regime that had wrought it.
Since that vote, badly handled on both sides of the House of Commons, British policy on Syria has wandered aimlessly, a deadly mix of timidity and confusion. The lack of a coherent response, not just by Britain but by the wider international community, has allowed the situation in Syria to fester into the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. The international community put Syria on the “too difficult to deal with” pile and we now see the consequences of that – from the creation of ISIS to a new refugee surge.
Yet, despite the rapidly-growing crisis, our Government still obfuscates, fixated on the symptoms of the crisis instead of its causes. That must change and Britain and the international community must develop a strategy that tackles the crisis head on.
In my view there are three core elements to the strategy; addressing the humanitarian crisis, a military plan and a coherent diplomatic initiative.
Firstly, on the humanitarian front. Almost a quarter of a million people have been killed and 12 million have been forced to flee their homes in terror since the start of this crisis – the vast majority have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Yet in their sheer desperation to rebuild their lives, many have boarded the death boats of the Mediterranean or put themselves into the hands of human traffickers.
Over the years the way the UK Government, irrespective of the party in power, has responded to such human disasters has always made me proud of my country – from Kosovo to Sierra Leone, from the Asian tsunami to the recent Ebola outbreak.
And yet in August 2015 it took the tiny, limp body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach to create a public outcry and shame our Prime Minister into action. His offer this week to help 4,000 Syrians a year over the course of this Parliament, though welcome, is wholly inadequate in the face of such human tragedy. We can and should do much more to help.
The Government deserves credit for leading the regional humanitarian effort and must continue to do so. But the UN’s regional refugee plan remains just 35 per cent funded and last month saw severe cuts to food rations for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
Secondly, we need a robust but targeted military approach. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no war-monger. I opposed the Iraq war and worked for a decade as an Oxfam aid worker – but this isn’t Iraq. This is a humanitarian crisis.
I don’t believe there will be a military solution to this conflict but I do believe there will be a military component to it. The vast majority of the fighting will be done by people from the region and by Syrians themselves, but that doesn’t mean that the UK shouldn’t play a role.
The UK should consider two things in my view. First – already under discussion – is whether the UK can reduce ISIS’s capacity by targeting them with air strikes in Syria alongside Iraq. The PM’s case so far has been unconvincing but as part of a coherent strategy it is worth considering.
Second, the UK should also seriously discuss the merits of enforcing – with others – a no-fly-zone. Much of the discussion about the UK’s response to Syria focuses on ISIS – but this is not the main threat to the Syrian people: President Assad’s troops and their allies this year alone have killed six times more civilians than ISIS and since the war began the difference is more like 35-1.
Assad’s most despicable tactic is the barrel bomb. They are old oil barrels, filled with explosives, nails, petrol and sometimes even chemicals. Dropped from helicopters over heavily-populated areas, they are savage, crude, entirely indiscriminate and deadly.
Third is the diplomatic track. This may need progress on the other two strands to make it viable but there is certainly fresh energy following the Iran nuclear deal.
Of course, none of this will deal with the crisis overnight. Nothing can. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But despite all of the dangers and difficult judgements that lie ahead, burying our head in the sand is not an option. We must face up to this crisis and do all that we can to resolve it.
Jo Cox is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen.