THE BLOG

Time For The International Community To Step Up Its Efforts On Syria

26/08/2016 09:51
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The heartbreaking tragedy affecting the Syrian people seems to have no end. It is a complex conflict, but the principal responsibility for what is happening rests with President Assad who started the civil war when he turned on his own people because they wanted more freedom. He is now being supported by Russian jets.

The UN estimates that 400,000 people have been killed, with many civilians dying because of Syrian barrel bombs, and millions have been forced to flee their homes. The regime used sarin gas, which is a chemical weapon, in an attack on the Ghouta district in 2013 which killed hundreds - described by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a war crime - and the UN is currently investigating evidence of a toxic gas attack on a rebel-held area of Aleppo earlier this month.

Civilians continue to be killed and hospitals destroyed in Aleppo and elsewhere by deliberate bombing. Doctors and nurses struggle heroically in underground bunkers as they try to treat the wounded. And all the while, much-needed humanitarian aid is denied to communities living under siege. Only three out of sixteen besieged areas were reached by a humanitarian convoy in July and aid has not been allowed into any of the besieged areas so far in August. 13.5 million Syrians are in desperate need of humanitarian supplies.

There are now two urgent priorities for the United Nations and the world community.

The first is to get relief supplies in to the besieged areas, and the second is to achieve a ceasefire and an end to the bombing of civilians.

The UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has worked tirelessly in trying to achieve both, but he needs more help. There is now a proposal for a 48 hour humanitarian pause which must be implemented, but we have seen ceasefires in the past that have not held.

Back in May, Philip Hammond, the then British Foreign Secretary, said that the International Syria Support Group - an alliance of countries trying to end the conflict - had agreed to a UK proposal for the UN World Food Programme to carry out airdrops of supplies if aid continued to be blocked on the ground. Since then the suffering and the sieges have continued and yet no airdrops have taken place. The UK must ensure that the commitment it claimed to have secured is delivered and that aid gets through.

The second priority is to bring an end to the Syrian civil war through a ceasefire and negotiations. There have been attempts at peace talks, but progress has been slow and now seems to have stalled. Fresh efforts must therefore be made to ensure a peace process that can deliver an end to hostilities and a political transition. This is a real test for the United Nations and our collective willingness to act to prevent more bloodshed. There must be a greater sense of urgency, not least because the people of Syria want and deserve so much more from an international community that has failed them so far.

A ceasefire would also bring the bombing of civilians to an end, but in the absence of one consideration should be given to the feasibility of a no-fly zone to protect them. As we have always known, this would be very difficult to achieve, but every possibility should be looked at afresh.

A peace agreement in Syria would also help deal with another serious threat to the people of both Syria and Iraq and that is from Daesh.

In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, Daesh was able to thrive and take territory, most notably Raqqa. It then invaded Iraq.

Daesh's cruelty and deliberate use of terror are scarcely believable. It has carried out torture, beheaded aid workers, engaged in mass murder, enslaved women and used sexual violence including systematic rape, imposed its own interpretation of Islam on communities backed up by savage punishments and sponsored indiscriminate bombings and killings of civilians not only in the region, but all over the world.

Because of the nature of this threat, in November 2015 the United Nations Security Council passed a Resolution calling on member states to take all necessary action to defeat Daesh and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria. This led the UK Parliament to vote to authorise the RAF to join in international coalition airstrikes against Daesh in Syria, following the decision the previous year to undertake airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq after having been asked to help by the democratically-elected Iraqi government and the Kurds who are both fighting to regain control of their country from Daesh.

Since that Syria vote there has been some confusion about the difference between Parliament's decisions on airstrikes against Daesh and the deliberate bombing of civilians by Presidents Assad and Putin. A small number of people talk about "Bombing Syria" as if the UK was somehow responsible for the terrible scenes in Aleppo. This is, of course, completely untrue. The only people responsible for the horror there are the Syrian government and the Russians.

What the UK is doing, along with other nations, is helping Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground. It is action targeted solely and specifically against Daesh and it is being carried out with great precision and skill by the RAF in line with the motion passed by the House of Commons last December which was explicit about 'the importance of seeking to avoid civilian casualties'. Unlike the airstrikes by the Assad regime and the actions of Daesh, which both deliberately target civilians, the UK is ultimately seeking to protect civilians. It is a fundamental distinction.

And it is having an effect. Air strikes are now driving Daesh back. One estimate suggests that in the last 18 months it has lost a quarter of the territory it held. Equipment, command and control sites, supply chains and revenue streams, including oil infrastructure, are all being effectively targeted. The recent liberation of Manbij in Syria from Daesh, which saw the residents celebrating freedom from the brutal oppression they had experienced, is the latest example.

In June this year, a UN inquiry found that Daesh has been committing genocide against the Yazidis and that this amounts to crimes against humanity and war crimes. The House of Commons has voted unanimously to recognise that Christians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria are suffering this genocide. The motion passed called on the UK Government to make an immediate referral to the UN Security Council with a view to conferring jurisdiction upon the International Criminal Court so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. Government Ministers abstained in the vote, but the will of MPs was clear.

Four months have now gone by since that parliamentary vote on genocide and yet the Government has failed to use its privileged position as a member of the UN Security Council to table a draft resolution. Government Ministers fear a Russian veto but that is no reason for not flushing it out because President Putin would then have to explain why he had blocked such a referral. When genocide is happening the United Nations has a duty to act.

The deeply troubling events in Syria are a reminder to us all of exactly why we need an effective United Nations that is capable of dealing with threats to international peace and security.
Seen through the eyes of the Syrian people we have failed collectively to do our job thus far.

It is time our internationalism made its voice heard and its efforts count.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS