Friday, 21 July 2017

Syria’s crime story



Syria looks bloody awful and impossible to deal with.

Any sane person would want to run a mile.

Over five million Syrians have run much further.

But if we—you and me—don’t deal with it, the awfulness won’t stop. It will get worse. It will spread further. It will last longer. It will get even harder to deal with.

What can we do? Lots. There is lots we can do. There is lots we need to do. But first we need to recognise the threat to all of us if we continue to fail.

Syria is the world’s biggest crime scene. It’s the crime of the century. And the crime wave has spread through the whole neighbourhood and beyond.

The scale of the crime in Syria is impossible to take in. When we turn to a crime novel for light relief, we read of one or two people being murdered, and the entire plot revolves around identifying and stopping the killer. In Syria, something like half a million people have been killed. One organisation alone has gathered names and details of over 209,000 individual civilians violently killed, with the vast majority, over 196,000, killed by the Assad regime and its allies.

Assad is the main killer. But because he and his allies have killed hundreds of thousands of ordinary adults and children, rather than just the one or two of a crime novel, we don’t get a neat detective story where he is tracked down and brought to justice. Instead of a police cell, he has a seat at the UN. Instead of a trial, he is cajoled to join in negotiations in Geneva. Instead of justice, he is offered bribes of billions of reconstruction money if only he will make a deal.

In a crime novel, why is it so important to catch the criminal? People die for all sorts of reasons—very few by murder. But crime threatens society more widely. Stopping crime, stopping killers, isn’t just about stopping a threat to a few individuals, it is about protecting an entire society from a breakdown in trust.

To prosper, a society needs trust. For our everyday dealings with each other to run smoothly, we need to be able to trust that we are not all out to rob or injure each other. And when someone violates that trust, we need to know we can rely on each other to stop them from repeating that violation.

International relations similarly require trust. Without trust we are unable to travel, unable to trade over any distance. Without trust we face piracy, plunder, and war.

There will always be some violations of trust in international relations as within nations’ own societies. Maintaining trust depends on sincere collective efforts to counter those violations.

The failure on Syria has torn an enormous hole in that international trust. Governments cannot trust governments that are openly opposed to them, but now also find they cannot trust governments that are supposed to be their allies. And the international lack of trust then spreads into national societies with heightened xenophobia and extremism.

The unravelling goes like this: Assad sees himself free to shoot, torture, bomb and poison Syrian men, women, children, by the thousands. International governments show themselves unwilling to join in collective action to stop him, judging the risk too great. UN resolutions and all the other instruments of diplomacy are revealed as a sham.

And as governments find it easier to tolerate Syrians being murdered in Syria than to stand together against Assad, why not tolerate them drowning in the Mediterranean? The judgement is similar: the political risk of uniting in offering safe passage is deemed too great.

Then the same applies when we reach Europe’s shore: brutality triumphs over unity. If murder abroad and drowning offshore is acceptable, how different is it inside Europe’s borders?

In Europe, instead of an effective collective humanitarian response, we’ve had separate states fracturing into individual responses of varying degrees of brutality. This hasn’t just harmed Syrians arriving to Europe, it continues to harm European societies. If a Syrian could be beaten, or robbed, or detained without charge in a European country yesterday, who else can be beaten or robbed or detained in that country today? And which country will it happen in tomorrow?

This unravelling of trust has gone so far that we risk losing sight of where it begins. It has gone on so long we risk believing this is how the world must be.

So what can we do? First, recognise that crimes on the scale seen in Syria are not an internal issue but an international threat. They threaten all of our societies and all of humanity. They threaten us, our friends, our families, our children. Stopping these crimes in Syria is a matter of self defence.

Second, understand that we may need to use force. The UK and other states accept the need to use force against international non-state criminal threats in Syria: against Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Assad regime is equally an international criminal threat, even though it clings to the trappings of a state.

Third, understand that to restore trust we have to protect civilians. Assad’s crime is the mass slaughter of civilians, and the deliberate destruction of any civil society outside the control of the regime. Merely prosecuting a few individuals at some future date will not restore trust either within Syria or internationally.

Protecting civilians is not a simple task for today or tomorrow. It requires long term commitment to protecting Syrian lives and protecting and supporting independent Syrian civil society. It requires showing trust and earning trust, not a hit and run action followed by handover to the next authoritarian offering security in exchange for an arms deal.

We have so far failed on Syria because of individual and collective failures of comprehension, of imagination, of morality, and of courage. Changing that is not just a task for leaders; it is a task for all of us in understanding our own personal stake in the outcome of Syria’s crime story.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Jo Cox’s compassion on Syria had no borders—nor should ours

By Dr Yasmine Nahlawi, Dr Mohammad Isreb and Kellie Strom

First published by the i paper

Today marks the first anniversary of the murder of Jo Cox, who was a great friend, a beautiful soul, and a true humanitarian.

While the entire country grieves for Jo, for Syrians in the UK her death represents a double blow.

In Jo we lost a voice for tolerance and inclusion, a voice to counter racism and xenophobia.

Syrian refugees particularly appreciated her strong compassion, which lives on in the Jo Cox Foundation’s support for Hope Not Hate, and in the Great Get Together events marking this anniversary.

But for Jo, supporting refugees was not enough. She also wanted to help those Syrians still inside Syria, the ones unable to escape.

• Supporting Syrians

She supported Syria Civil Defence, the rescuers known as the White Helmets. In parliament, Jo made one central demand: protect civilians. She didn’t just sympathise with Syrians, she fought for their rights with relentless passion.

Many on both the left and the right are content with the UK’s role in accepting refugees, delivering humanitarian aid, and fighting only ISIS.

But Jo understood that the refugee crisis, the humanitarian crisis, and the terrorism threat all stemmed from a single atrocity: Bashar al-Assad’s war against those Syrian civilians who opposed his rule.

Jo rejected the suggestion that we ‘need to make a choice between dealing with either Assad or ISIS.’ She recognised that ‘Assad is ISIS’s biggest recruiting sergeant, and as long as his tyranny continues, so too will ISIS’s terror.’

She advocated a comprehensive approach to Syria involving humanitarian, diplomatic, and military measures.

• More than words

Those three aspects of UK policy—diplomatic, military, humanitarian—remain out of sync. British diplomats demand an end to the killing, but have nothing to give force to their words.

Britain’s military focuses only on ISIS, constrained from acting to stop Assad’s bombing, or even from acting when Assad uses chemical weapons.

Britain’s aid workers deliver record amounts of aid, but don’t have the backing from government to do aid airdrops to besieged communities.

An ever-worsening situation for civilians in Syria and refugees outside Syria is matched by a strengthening of pro-Assad forces dominated by militias, by Iran’s foreign fighters, and by Hezbollah, who are a growing terrorist threat.

ISIS is pushed back, but there is no end to terror in sight.

Jo’s analysis has proven true: fail to protect civilians and we fail by every other measure.

• Where are we now?

Jo would have been utterly disappointed to see that her calls for a no-bombing zone and aid drops, including in her last speech as an MP, were ignored.

The UK has stood by as residents of cities such as Daraya and East Aleppo were forced from their homes by starvation sieges and air attacks.

She would have been horrified by the chemical attack on the city of Khan Sheihoun in April, and by the continued daily bombardment of hospitals and residential areas by Assad and Putin, most recently in Daraa.

What would she have thought of the US strike in response to the chemical attack?

She did call for the UK to use the threat of just such a targeted response as a deterrent, not just against chemical attacks but against all bombing of civilians.

Her aim would have been to stop the killing, not to stop just one type of weapon.

• Jo’s legacy on Syria

Jo would clearly have found it unacceptable that the International Coalition against ISIS is now itself killing hundreds of civilians in Syria, outpacing even Assad and Russia’s toll in the month of May. The Coalition even reportedly used white phosphorous on the city of Raqqah.

The RAF is not implicated in these escalating killings. But as UK Syrians recently wrote to the Prime Minister, the UK is ‘a major partner in the Coalition, with a British officer as deputy commander, and therefore carries joint responsibility for such actions.’

In the aftermath of her murder, Jo’s brave and passionate work for Syria was praised by UK political leaders from both major parties. The reality, however, is that her legacy on Syria has not been honoured in Westminster.

• Compassion without borders

In reflecting on today’s anniversary, let us renew our commitment to the ideals to which Jo pledged her life.

Let us embrace our diversity as a country and advocate for tolerance. And let us make a fresh start for Syria with civilian protection at the core of our policy.

Let us ensure accountability for our own actions and those of our allies. Let us listen to Syrians, and work for a solution that respects Syrians’ rights and enables them to enjoy a peaceful future in a free Syria.

Jo’s ideals and her compassion were not limited by borders. Let them not limit ours.


Dr Yasmine Nahlawi is Research and Policy Coordinator for Rethink Rebuild Society, a Manchester-based Syrian advocacy and community organisation.

Dr Mohammad Isreb is a member of the Syrian Association of Yorkshire.

Kellie Strom is Secretariat to the Friends of Syria All-Party Parliamentary Group and a member of Syria Solidarity UK.