Syria: My thoughts on the last few days and those to come
Later today, Parliament will hear from the Prime Minister on the actions she took following the apparent chemical weapons attack on the people of Douma in Syria on the 7th April 2018 – including, I hope, her reasoning for the targeted military actions that took place over the weekend.
The sheer horrors of the scenes that we have emerged of dead young children and their families on the floors of their homes having been killed as a result of chemical weapons, rightly pricked the consciences of everyone who saw them.
They are a stark reminder of the awful events that continue to unfold in Syria because of a bloody civil war that has seen 500,000 people killed and displaced millions of Syrian civilians. 95% of the civilian casualties have been as a result of actions by the forces allied to President Assad.
Since the Chemical Weapons attack, I have received no guidance or briefing from the government nor have I received any information regarding the operation that took place over the weekend. So what I know is nothing more that I have read in the papers and from the Prime Ministers public statements.
What we do know is that on the 14th April, British, American and French forces undertook air-strikes on Syrian regime targets which were believed to be part of the Assad regimes illegal use of chemical weapons.
The World Health Organisation has also stated that it’s operatives on the ground in Syria have treated 500 people in Douma who presented with symptoms consistent with those that would manifest as a result of chemical weapon and nerve agent usage.
I had hoped to use our return to Parliament today to press the government on what they know about the Assad regime’s chemical weapon attack and the intelligence shared by our allies with us.
Instead, like the majority of the British public I’ve had to swim through the information released to the press by the government and the swathe of inaccurate and deliberately false information being spread across social media.
This has been incredibly frustrating, shown a distinct lack of transparency and I know has furthered polarised debate on this issue.
Whatever your stance on the action taken, and whilst the PM might have the legal powers to do via the use of the Royal Prerogative, I’m deeply uncomfortable that Parliament has been circumvented in this way. I’ve been given no information to justify or to undermine the weekend’s actions before Parliament reconvened.
The statement this afternoon should, therefore, look at what the longer term strategy is for bringing this bloody war to and end as well as ensuring that the United Kingdom is doing all it can to support the Syrian refugees who find themselves fleeing the Assad regime.
Britain has offered refuge to just 11,000 people while Germany has sought to help half a million. We can and must do more to support those who need our help.
I am also clear that the use of chemical weapons is an abhorrent and illegal act that, cannot go unchallenged by the international community. It had been my preference for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to have time to investigate.
But the evidence so far suggests that the Assad regime has used Chlorine on his own people.
This is only one of a history of occasions when Assad and the Syrian regime have used banned chemical weapons during this civil war.
Clearly the Prime Minister, her cabinet and members of the Privy Council are confident in the assertion that President Assad was behind the attack in direct contravention of the 1925 Geneva protocol, 1993 Chemical Weapons Conventions Ban and 2014 agreement for Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons agreed under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2118.
A resolution supported unanimously (including by the Russian Federation) and reaffirmed the UN’s position that the proliferation of chemical weapons, as well as their means of delivery, constitutes a threat to international peace and security.
As I write, I read that the Syrian government and the Russian Federation are blocking the OPCW access to the site of the attack and I’m forced to ask myself why? The Russian Federation, as a permanent member of the Security Council, are a vital component to bringing peace to Syria.
Yet instead of playing their part in bringing peace, they’ve sought to downplay the seriousness of the situation, even suggesting Britain staged the alleged attack.
What is clear is that there is no military solution to Syria. Since 2011, there has been a series of concerted Peace process efforts which have failed.
But we should redouble our diplomatic efforts which include a sustained and concerted campaign to prevent Russia from continually vetoing UN resolutions on investigations and sanctions against Syria and for it to use its power to bring about a diplomatic solution.
Russian is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council to be actively engaged in the ongoing civil war. They have the power – and therefore the responsibility – to use that power to assist in bringing about a lasting ceasefire.
And any protest designed to bring about the end of the war and put a stop to this conflict should be squarely aimed at the Russians.
Because even if our military action at the weekend prevent or deter further chemical weapons attacks, President Assad continues to butcher his way across Syria, killing thousands of innocent civilians through the use of conventional warfare.
I stress again, 95% of the civilian deaths in Syria have been as a result of Assad’s forces, backed by Iran and Russia. This cannot continue.
This afternoon when explaining her actions to Parliament and the country the Prime Minister has to explain what these limited airstrikes achieved and what the government intends to do next.
How will Britain lead the way to restart peace talks and ensure a diplomatic and peaceful end to the civil war in Syria. Will Britain reassess its policy on refugees from the area and urge allies to do so too.
If the Prime Minister doesn’t do this, her words about protecting civilians in Syria will seem at best hollow and at worst a cynical justification for military action without the support or consultation of Parliament.
We need to hear what the Prime Ministers plans are to support the 7 million refugees, displaced out of Syria – currently we have offered sanctuary in the UK to just 11,000.
As a nation we have opted not to intervene in the civil war, we have chosen to allow the Syrian civil war to play out to a natural conclusion and if that is our choice, then we should be under no illusion that our decision not to act has a consequence and we should be prepared to support those Syrian refugees who are impacted by those consequences.
In 2003 I joined hundreds of thousands of people in marching against the Iraq War. I did so, because I felt the UN weapon inspectors needed more time to complete their work to establish the facts and that diplomatic efforts should always be exhausted before military action is ever taken.
I believed that then and still do so now. Yet the humanitarian disasters of Srebrenica, Rwanda and Myanmar remind me of what happens when the international community fails to act or does too slowly.
It’s a fine balancing act, between ascertaining the facts and not allowing the complexity of a situation to prevent slaughter. Was the Prime Minister’s decision to join the military action at the weekend legal?
I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer. But is the use of chemical weapons a red line that the international community must act against? Yes and It’s time to act collectively.
The international community must take united and decisive action against a deliberate flouting of resolution 2118 that puts international peace and security at risk.
Britain and the other members of the UN Security Council, including the Russian Federation, must rise to the occasion that presents itself in Syria and has escalated over the past week.
Selective military operations in Syria will not bring peace to the region, it might slow down the rate of death but only a diplomatic and political solution will bring long term security to the region.
It’s vital that in the coming days, Britain plays its role in restarting this process and give Syrians the hope of a better future.