Syria’s current humanitarian crisis stems in part from Britain and America’s failure to take military action against President Assad four years ago, aid minister Alistair Burt has declared.
The International Development Minister said that the UK Parliament’s vote against intervention in 2013 gave Assad the “green light” to kill many more Syrians and helped fuel today’s refugee misery.
Burt said that the lesson from the British vote – which heavily influenced Barack Obama’s refusal to retaliate against the regime’s use of chemical weapons - was that non-intervention had “consequences” that could last for years.
Speaking to HuffPost UK as part of our Christmas appeal for Syrian refugees, he said that while the UK government had provided nearly £2.5bn in aid, the only solution to the country’s long term problems was political change.
Burt praised Unicef for its work in the region, and said crucial work was being done to combat domestic abuse, child labour and illiteracy in the refugee camps, all of which have been issues raised by campaigners.
The minister pointed to the record amounts of British aid going to Syria, and praised the public for their generosity in responding to appeals for more cash.
In 2013, the Assad regime was alleged to have murdered hundreds of people with a sarin gas attack near Damascus.
Tory MPs wary of repeating the mistakes of Iraq teamed up with Ed Miliband’s Labour party to defeat David Cameron’s plans to launch air strikes in retaliation.
Within days, Obama backed off his own ‘red line’ pledge to take action and instead worked with Russia to ask Syria to voluntarily disarm its chemical weapons. This year, Assad was again accused of launching a sarin attack in Idlib.
Burt said that the vote had proved a decisive moment which showed Assad he could continue to kill his people without any response from the West, while Russia and others increased their influence.
“It was seen as a green light by Assad in killing his people. He didn’t need to kill them exclusively through chemical means, he killed them through mechanical means. He continued his war against his own people,” he said
“And the green light was also seen by other powers, Iran and Russia, who then moved into the space vacated by the United States with consequences which we have seen.”
Burt admitted that the British public, including his own constituents, were weary of military intervention because of the mistakes of Iraq.
“Let’s be very clear it wasn’t individual parties in Parliament. Nine out of ten of the letters I received as a minister and as a constituency MP said ‘don’t touch this with a bargepole, don’t do this’.
“The British people said very clearly don’t get involved. I thought we should, which is why I both advocated and voted the way I did.
“No one knows what would have happened had the vote been passed and had the United States enforced a red line. What we do know is what happened because we didn’t.”
The minister said that the main aim of air strikes was to show Assad that he had to start negotiations with opposition groups on a new political settlement for Syria.
“What we were trying to do was not to take war to Syria. What we were trying to do was to let Assad know that if he expected a military victory he wasn’t going to achieve one. There were people who would stand in his way. And that was an attempt to drive him to the negotiating table because when you’re winning you don’t negotiate,” he said.
“It would have given a bolstering to the armed Opposition, not the extremists who were beginning to come in. It would have provided the balance needed to get the negotiations going and that chance was lost and therefore the conflict continued.”
Burt added that as a Foreign Office minister he knew how difficult the judgement calls were, but the UK had to learn from the failures on Syria.
“There’s no finger wagging from me on Middle East. We are all dealing with incredibly difficult and complex areas. But we learn from experience of what to do and what not to do.
“And the thing we learned in 2013 is all actions have consequences. Even if you decide not to intervene, it has a consequence. Up until then people only thought there was the consequence of intervening. Now we know that’s not strictly true.
“It doesn’t make the decisions we are going to make in the future any easier, but at least it puts in the balance that things happen if you don’t do something as well as things happening if you do.”
Burt said that while the UK was funding great work with refugees, the dominant fact was that Assad was still in power.
“The frustration we have of course is that we can’t make the running. The running is made by those who are practically on the ground, which is the Russians and the Iranians and the regime. So we support the Opposition and work through the UN process.
“We are working incredibly hard at the diplomacy and peace efforts because ultimately it’s only a resolution of these conflicts, whether it’s Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, it’s only political resolution that will deal with it.”
The British Government’s main focus now was on aid to help those in need.
“When there are so many things happening in the region, there is a temptation that people will think it’s slipped off the radar screen. Well it’s not slipped off our radar screen.
“If you watch the news regularly and you care about the world, I can imagine people being hit by one thing after another and they can’t see any resolution to some of these things
“Keeping some things in the forefront of people’s minds is important. But also [we] try and give people a sense that people are working on them to try and end them. War is not wallpaper which should be there all the time.”
As the seventh largest aid donor in the world, the UK’s international development cash makes a big difference in Syria and elsewhere, he said.
The minister has visited Azraq, home to one of the biggest refugee camps in Jordan, to see for himself the difference being made by organisations like Unicef and UNHCR [the UN High Commission for Refugees].
“The level of aid and support for the Syrian crisis is greater than any other amount we have ever put in. £2.46 bn since it all started. That has provided 26 million monthly food rations, 10 million medical checks, 1.1m children provided with an education.”
Unicef has warned in recent weeks that 90,000 school-age children are not getting an education in some refugee camps, with some as young as 12 being forced into child labour.
Burt said that the UK had made education a central part of its aid effort.
“Schools in Lebanon and Jordan are quite remarkable. They’ve been effectively working double shifts in schools, they will educate local children in the morning and refugee children in the afternoon. We are providing money to support over a million children now getting education in Lebanon and Jordan and other refugee areas.
“Education has moved rapidly up the scale. A few years ago educating children in camps was not particularly formalised now we have something called ‘No Lost Generation’ to support children in conflict. We were one of the founder donors for this Unicef project, we’ve contributed nearly half a billion pounds to this, not just for Syria.
“In 2011 in Syria, 98% of children were in school with an 80% literacy rate. Now a third of children from Syria aren’t in schools, 40% of them have been damaged or destroyed. That’s now an entire secondary school generation, you were 11 in 2011 you’d be 17 now.”
‘Socialisation’ projects to help combat domestic abuse and bullying were important, he said, as well as targeted mental health support. In Azraq boys were being taught how to queue properly to get daily water.
“It was how you queued and how you gave people space so there was an order so that somebody didn’t push in, a big boy did not hit a small boy to get to the water first.
“And actually because violence has become endemic in what they’ve seen the counselling that goes on with children in the camps to make them appreciate there is a different way to live is really important.”
One Unicef survey found that 66% of children in the camps suffered from domestic violence.
“We are aware of domestic abuse being quite a greater problem in the region than people might imagine,” Burt said.
“I went to a school in Jordan and it’s not just bullying child on child, it’s domestic abuse when a child might get hit before coming to school and the first thing they do when they get to school is hit somebody else. So it’s a real problem.”
Child labour was a particular concern, and agencies and donors were working to combat the problem.
“You want to take away the incentives. You want help to provide work for adults in the camp and more work permits, and education for the children. I saw this in Azraq in operation. Being very honest about it, the camps need strong policing and security too.
“To imagine everyone who is in a camp is a saint would be naïve. There are things you’ve got to watch out for. Those skilled in running camps know this, like gender violence – we make sure we contribute to sanitation that is well-lit so that women are not going out in the dark at night, where they are prey to be attacked.
“You can build in things that make things like child labour and violence less likely.”
Burt added that counselling for young refugees was crucial to the wider mission in the camps.
“Mental health issues used to be barely considered. Now that’s really up there, a recognition of people who have really experienced trauma particularly the children, and some of their drawings of what they’ve escaped from is particularly affecting. There is money and support.
“In the Syrian conflict, our aid money has helped to provide access for over 140,000 children to counselling and mental health provision, for those who have been displaced.”