We must remember that Syria is not Iraq – and build a plan for action


civil war in Syria under President Assad

I’ve been an internationalist for as long as I can remember – from supporting the anti-Apartheid movement in the 80’s to campaigning for the recognition of Palestine in the last few years. Internationalism is one of the reasons I joined the Labour Party.

Because our party has a proud record. From the thirties and the International Brigades, where thousands from our movement stood shoulder to shoulder against fascism during the Spanish Civil War, to the modern day humanitarian interventions led by Labour in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, stopping ethnic cleansing in its tracks.

I am proud of our history, of the role we have played in standing up to tyranny and putting the protection of civilians first.

I don’t believe this internationalism is an accident. Rather, it stems from our ideology, from our belief in equality and justice. Our belief that all people have the same right to peace, justice and prosperity no matter where they live. Where we act (not only stand) in solidarity with those oppressed and marginalised.

My personal internationalism is what led me to my first career. For ten years I worked as an aid worker and spent time in war zones from Palestine to Sudan, Afghanistan to Congo.

I have seen first-hand the horror of war and its brutal impact. I’ve met 10 year old child soldiers with memories no child should have to live with. I’ve sat down with Afghan elders with battle-weary eyes. In Gaza I’ve met mothers who have lost half their families to war and I’ve held the hands of Darfuri women, gang raped – because no one was there to protect them.

These experiences get under your skin. They become personal. And today they are what motivate me to demand that we do more to address the slaughter in Syria.

President Assad and the civil war in Syria is, I believe, the greatest test of our generation – it is certainly the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. It is a test that so far, as a party and as a nation, we have failed.

The international community’s inept response has overseen the first wide scale use of chemical weapons in a generation, the spawning of the cancer that is ISIS and the greatest refugee crisis Europe has seen since the second world war. It has been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy.

The first responsibility for the paucity of UK policy on Syria sits squarely with the Government who have mishandled and misjudged this from the start.

Yet in the face of their incompetence, my party has too often been mute. Setting out a list of things we don’t want to happen rather than a clear plan for what we do.

So how have we allowed this to happen?

In my view it is first and foremost because of Iraq.

It was the Labour Party’s darkest hour. A decision that contributed to hundreds of thousands of lost lives.

I opposed the war in Iraq because I believed the risk to civilian lives was too high and their protection was never the central objective, or even a high priority. I knew, as we all knew, that President Bush wasn’t motivated by protecting civilians but by weapons of mass destruction and a misguided neo-con view of the US strategic interest.

But we must remember that Syria is not Iraq.

We have to learn the lessons of Iraq, without being paralysed by it. We have to learn the lessons of Iraq without forgetting the lessons of Bosnia or Rwanda.

The history of Iraq overshadows us all – it should. But its legacy is already awful enough without supplementing it with a new legacy – of turning the other way when confronted with Syria.

I believe the Labour Party can still help to reframe this debate. To advocate for a comprehensive strategy built on three strands; humanitarian, diplomatic and military, with the protection of civilians as its central objective.

With this objective in mind it must start from the premise that we must address the twin horrors of ISIS and of Assad. Although the facts get little attention, it is Assad who is responsible for 75% of the civilians killed – not ISIS – and the vast majority of refugees are fleeing from him and his barrel bombs. So just focusing on ISIS will not stop this crisis, and by alienating moderate Sunni’s it will probably strengthen them.

On the humanitarian strand, this has to include an ambitious international plan to deal with the refugee crisis in the region, and a much more generous UK offer to help refugees in Europe. The November G20 Summit in Turkey offers a moment for a break-through on the former and it should be used.

Secondly, we have to push the Prime Minister to give Syria far more high level diplomatic attention in order to get Assad to the negotiating table. Russia’s intervention makes the route to a political settlement more complicated – but let’s remember their engagement is a sign of desperation not of strength – they thought Assad was about to fall. Whether they know it already or not – they will quickly be looking for a political route out of this crisis.

And thirdly, on the military strand, as well as action against ISIS it is time to draw a red line on the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of Syrian civilians by the Assad regime. I believe the best proposal to achieve this is the creation of a limited ‘no bombing zone’ which could be enforced by US, French and UK naval assets already in the region.

Pursuing just one of these strands will not work – military action alone is not a solution, nor is a strategy that only seeks to talk, nor is just responding with more aid. Without all three components we cannot protect innocent civilians.

Tonight I will set out this case in more detail at an adjournment debate in the House of Commons. I don’t pretend that there are easy answers or that there aren’t real risks. But I know from experience that wishing away those tough choices does a disservice to those in greatest danger.

The debate on Syria will intensify in the coming weeks, I hope that we in the Labour Party will once again help lead that debate. It is only if we do so that the protection of Syrian civilians will get the attention it deserves.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…