Originally published on the Guardian website 26/01/2017
There have been some flickers of hope from Syrian peace talks taking place in Astana this week. The negotiations led by Russia, Iran and Turkey may yet pave the way to a sustainable ceasefire deal, but even this will not erase the fact that the international community’s record on Syria is a bloody and shameful one.
Nearly six years after peaceful protesters took to the streets of Damascus, more than 300,000 people and been killed and millions displaced by war that has seen international norms violated, chemical weapons deployed against civilians, and the barbaric tactics of siege and starvation used by a state against its own citizens.
Late last year, I read a letter from the White Helmets, Syria’s brave volunteer rescue force, to the British parliament. The letter was written during the Russia-backed siege on then rebel-held Aleppo, and read: “We cannot believe that one of the world’s most powerful countries, in the full glare of the media, will allow 279,000 people to be starved and bombed to death.” But stand by we did. Day after day on our TV screens, we watched as terrified civilians were hounded into smaller and smaller zones in the centre of old Aleppo.
We failed to act to protect civilians in Aleppo, but that should not end the debate about what we can do for Syria. There are still thousands of civilians living in besieged cities and towns across the country, many under attack not just from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad but also from proscribed terrorist organisations such as Islamic State and Hezbollah. These terrorists will not respect any ceasefire: the men, women and children suffering at their hands need our help. A comprehensive UK strategy to protect civilians in Syria, including by facilitating urgent aid delivery, is sorely needed.
The UN doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, which the UK championed and signed up to in 2005, says that if a government is manifestly failing to protect its own people, other states should do all they can – including using military force when it is the only option – to prevent mass atrocities. Far from honouring the resolution, the UK has stood transfixed and impotent in the face of the greatest crime of our century. By failing to act to prevent Assad’s brutality, Britain – along with the US and other liberal western nations – left the way clear for Russia to take the initiative.
Reluctance to act in Syria may have been understandable in the context of our recent involvement in the Middle East but it has had dire consequences both for people in Syria and for international law, which is now hanging by a thread. Russia's actions and their shameful sabotaging of the UN process have rewritten the rules of conflict and threaten the entire international order. It is time to reassert our values, starting with the belief that the international community must honour the commitment made in 2005 to protect civilians.
This is the argument made by a report launched today at Policy Exchange which looks at the reasons for and consequences of Britain’s retreat to kneejerk anti-interventionism. The report was started by my friend Jo Cox, before she died, in partnership with Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat.
It was a privilege to be asked to help finish the report, and to contribute to Jo’s legacy. In the piece, Tom and I argue that the willingness to act to prevent mass atrocities – and, by extension, to intervene militarily in exceptional circumstances – is an essential part of Britain’s role in the world. We urge our fellow parliamentarians, and the public, to look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan to the wider lessons of intervention.
These include times where we intervened successfully – such as Sierra Leone and Kosovo – and prevented mass atrocities; as well as instances – such as Bosnia, Darfur, and Rwanda – where our collective failure to act had disastrous consequences.
As Britain embarks on the process of forging a new role outside the EU, our international obligations must be at the heart of our thinking. It is dangerous to believe we can ignore fundamental challenges facing our friends and allies. Much as we may not want to confront it, the deteriorating international environment means we are likely to face more calls for the UK to take a lead. If Theresa May is serious about her ambition for a “Global Britain” then she should be using her meeting with Donald Trump this week to press the case for greater engagement in Syria and make it clear that the UK stands ready to do what is necessary to protect civilians.
In the wake of Aleppo, and with daunting challenges ahead, we must realise that both action and inaction have consequences. As Jo Cox always argued, we cannot stand by in the face of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. It is not in Britain’s national interest, nor in the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable in the world.