EVERY decade or so, the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation —their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence.
It is how history judges us. We have been tested by the Second World War, the genocide in Rwanda and the slaughter in Bosnia, and I believe that Syria is our generation’s test. Will we step up to play our part in stopping the abject horror of the Syrian civil war and the spread of the modern-day fascism of Isis, or will we step to one side, say that it is too complicated, and leave Iran, Russia, Assad and Isis to turn the country into a graveyard? Whatever we decide will stay with us for ever, and I ask that each of us take that responsibility personally.
We must put party politics to one side and focus on what really matters—the protection of Syrian civilians.
Let me first turn to two of the arguments that do most disservice to a serious discussion of this crisis. First, please let us stop casting the humanitarian, diplomatic and military responses as mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not. If we are serious about addressing this crisis, we need to stop pretending that any one of them offers a panacea and instead weave these strands into a coherent strategy. Secondly, let us not be duped into believing that we need to make a choice between dealing with either Assad or Isis. On the surface, this may seem appealing, but it is not an option. There is no choice.
We can, and must, address both Assad and Isis for two principal reasons. First, a sole focus on Isis will not end the conflict and the threats to our interests.
The Assad regime ignited, and continues to drive, the violence in Syria. This year alone, it has killed seven times more civilians than Isis, so a strategy that only focuses on Isis will not end the fighting or the threat to regional stability. It will not stem the tide of desperate refugees pouring into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or trying to get into Europe.
Secondly, and crucially, a myopic focus on Isis will not lead to its defeat. It will not work. Assad is Isis’s biggest recruiting sergeant, and as long as his tyranny continues, so too will Isis’s terror.
No matter what our humanitarian response is to this crisis, it will never be enough. It cannot end the conflict.
That is why we also need to invest far more in diplomatic efforts to find a political solution. We must not let the urgent need to find a political solution cloud our judgment about what a credible one looks like. If four years of continuous vicious conflict have taught us anything, it is that the current regime is no longer capable of bringing peace and stability to Syria.
While I do not believe that there is a purely military solution to this conflict, I do believe that there will be a military component to any viable solution.
The threat from Isis—to the region, to the west and to Syrian and Iraqi civilians—is real and growing. I do not believe it to be ethical to watch from the sidelines as Syrian villages are overrun by Isis fighters who make sex slaves of children, terrorise minority groups and slaughter fellow Muslims. In addition, their call for individual sympathisers to attack westerners anywhere and anytime requires a robust response.
As such, I believe it is time for the Government urgently to consider deterring the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians in Syria through the willingness to consider the prudent and limited use of force.
A no-fly zone would be an enormous military undertaking, and would entail significant risks, particularly now that Russia has joined the regime in the Syrian skies. But what I call a no-bombing zone, enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences, would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process.
To conclude, this conflict has proved time and again its propensity to escalate month on month, year on year. For moral reasons – and national self-interest – we can no longer afford to ignore Syria.
Indeed, inaction will only see a growth in the number of Syrians killed, the number of refugees fleeing and the potential threat to British national security from Isis.
I urge all MPs to look to the best traditions in the history of their parties and to think about the personal role that they can play to protect civilians in Syria and further afield.
Jo Cox is the Labour MP for Batley & Spen who spoke in a Parliamentary debate on civilians in Syria. This is an edited version.