Our response to events in Syria must be built on an understanding of the lessons of history.
Finally, after half of Syria’s population has been displaced and a quarter of a million people have been killed – and probably several years too late – civilian protection has become a focus for the British parliament.
A debate brought on Monday by new Labour MP and former Oxfam policy chief Jo Cox, focussed attention on the urgent need to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. A serious debate over whether the UK should deepen its engagement in Syria is beginning to take place and while more detail is needed before any of the proposals can be properly assessed, here are five core principles that any policy should abide by.
1. Though it sounds simple, the responsibility to protect civilians must be the guiding force of any foreign engagement strategy in Syria. Government policy so far has preferred options that contain the crisis, rather than proactively seeking to protect communities at risk. Thus while the UK has been a leading donor to refugee camps in the Middle East, the same government axed its support for the Mediterranean rescue missions and, until late this summer, continued to frame the Syrian exodus to Europe as economic migration. In 2005, the UK together with all other member states of the United Nations committed to protect civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes – crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide. This commitment, made in response to the failures of Rwanda and Bosnia, has not yet been met in Syria.
2. Legitimacy is key. While the UN Security Council may be in deadlock, with Russia and China using their veto power to stymie international action against the Assad regime, any international engagement in Syria must have the support from the UN General Assembly and from the affected region. The failure of the international community has exposed the limits of the Security Council but until its limits can be addressed, it is crucial that problem solving remains an international process. A Security Council resolution should be sought against against ISIL and if one cannot be found for the protection of civilians from Assad’s forces, legitimacy must come from the people of Syria and the wider international community. The Iraq invasion of 2003, and to an extent the military action in Libya in 2010, have made plain that a broad coalition of military actors are always needed and that unilateral western military decision-making alone cannot be legitimate.
3. Dialogue. Increased rhetoric from Philip Hammond and Tony Blair about countering Russian aggression through western alliances undermines the fact that any meaningful peace deal in Syria will involve Russia. Dialogue with all stakeholders in the Syrian crisis is essential if any agreement is to be found. Whatever military decision is taken, diplomatic and political efforts must continue and an open dialogue must be pursued.
4. Reconciliation. Communities in Syria have become deeply divided according to pro-regime or rebel identities, even if the citizens themselves do not participate in the violence. More broadly, the deep crises in Syria and Iraq have become, if they were not always, part of a wider Shiite/ Sunni divide that threatens to split the entire region. The fanning of identity-based divisions has exacerbated cleavages in community relations, creating patterns of prejudice and fear. Planning for a post-conflict development strategy should begin now, and include massive investment in community-building and inter-faith reconciliation.
5. The final principle must be accountability. Plans must be must be made to ensure that all those suspected of breaching international humanitarian law in the region face justice, either through the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court or local prosecution. International decision makers and international structures such as the UN Security Council must also be accountable for their actions: In the UK, policy making must be transparent and votes carried out free from party politics and whips. Furthermore, the limitations of the UN Security Council to protect the people of Syria must be assessed, addressed, and rectified if the United Nations is to continue to be a relevant instrument of peace and security.