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Civilians in Syria

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:00 pm on 12th October 2015.

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Photo of Jo Cox Jo Cox Labour, Batley and Spen 10:00 pm, 12th October 2015

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will come on to that subject later in the speech.

I shall now turn to the Conservative party’s record. For four years the Government have categorically failed on Syria, and it is not just the UK that should be judged so harshly. The failure to develop and then implement an effective strategy on Syria left this conflict free to create a horrendous European refugee crisis and provide a haven for the barbarism of ISIS to take root, allowed chemical weapons to be used unchallenged and even emboldened Russia. In particular, since the Prime Minister’s mishandling of the 2013 Syria vote, the Government have let this crisis fester on the “too difficult to deal with” pile. There has been no credible strategy, nor courage, nor leadership; instead we have had chaos and incoherence interspersed with the occasional gesture. Indeed, it has been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy and a stark lesson on what happens when we ignore a crisis of this magnitude. Britain—with our proud tradition in international affairs, our seat on the UN Security Council and one of the best diplomatic, humanitarian and military services in the world—has been a political pygmy in this crisis.

None of us have a proud history in this affair. If we are to put this right, we must put that behind us; we must put party politics to one side and focus on what really matters—the protection of Syrian civilians.

Let me first turn to two of the arguments that do most disservice to a serious discussion of this crisis. First, please let us stop casting the humanitarian, diplomatic and military responses as mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not. If we are serious about addressing this crisis, we need to stop pretending that any one of them offers a panacea and instead weave these strands into a coherent strategy. Secondly, let us not be duped into believing that we need to make a choice between dealing with either Assad or ISIS. On the surface, this may seem appealing, but it is not an option. There is no choice.

We can, and must, address both Assad and ISIS for two principal reasons. First, a sole focus on ISIS will not end the conflict and the threats to our interests. The Assad regime ignited, and continues to drive, the violence in Syria. This year alone, it has killed seven times more civilians than ISIS, so a strategy that only focuses on ISIS will not end the fighting or the threat to regional stability. It will not stem the tide of desperate refugees pouring into Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, or trying to get into Europe.

Secondly, and crucially, a myopic focus on ISIS will not lead to its defeat. It will not work. Assad is ISIS’s biggest recruiting sergeant, and as long as his tyranny continues, so too will ISIS’s terror. Indeed, a sole focus on ISIS while ignoring the regime’s ongoing bombardment of civilians risks inadvertently strengthening the jihadis’ narrative, which is fuelled by the idea that the west is colluding with Shi’a forces in Tehran and Damascus in a crusade to subjugate Sunni Arabs. That is why, to make good on our past failures, to protect our interests and to live up to our proudest traditions, we need urgently to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy.

I believe that there are three core elements to such a strategy, none of which is easy and all of which are critical. First, I shall talk about the humanitarian aspect. Four years on from the start of the conflict, there are now 240,000 dead—some credible estimates put the figure at over 330,000—and more than 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The scale of the human disaster is breathtaking. One area in which the UK Government have shown considerable and commendable leadership is in the regional humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, where we have led the way with the US and our European partners. I now urge the Government to go further.

As the Minister will be aware, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are in the region and those countries are buckling under the strain. The G20 summit in Turkey in November should be marked by the launch of an ambitious plan to meet refugees’ urgent needs, to invest in their education and livelihoods and to support Syria’s neighbours in reconstruction and development. Equally important is the UK’s response to the refugee crisis, which has, to date, been woefully inadequate. Taking 20,000 refugees over five years is simply not good enough; it sends an awful message about how seriously we take civilian protection. Whether it is the response to the drownings in the Mediterranean or our offer to take Syrian refugees, the Prime Minister has been pushed into climbdown after climbdown, embarrassed into action by the humanity of the British public. It is time for him to lead, not follow.

But let us be clear that, no matter what our humanitarian response is to this crisis, it will never be enough. It cannot end the conflict. That is why we also need to invest far more in diplomatic efforts to find a political solution. There are clearly no easy answers, but we can at least be clear on the principles. First, this needs to be a much higher-level conversation. We saw some improvement in that respect at the UN General Assembly last month and in the reopening of the UK’s embassy in Tehran. However, the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister need to make it clear that ending the conflict in Syria is their No.1 international priority, and to challenge other world leaders to match their commitment.

Secondly, we must not let the urgent need to find a political solution cloud our judgment about what a credible one looks like. If four years of continuous vicious conflict have taught us anything, it is that the current regime is no longer capable of bringing peace and stability to Syria. Whatever its exact complexion and character, and whatever the complex negotiations and compromises needed to get there, a credible political solution has to involve a transition to a new Government that represent all Syrians and that enjoy sufficient trust and legitimacy that all but the delusional fanatics of ISIS will be willing to lower their guns and work together to rebuild their country. Russia’s recent intervention makes the route to a political settlement more complicated but it does not change the necessity for one. A political solution is the only way to end the conflict between the regime and the opposition in Syria. Only when that conflict has ended can ISIS and the handful of other extremists allied to Al-Qaeda be defeated.

The third element of the strategy has to be military. While I do not believe that there is a purely military solution to this conflict, I do believe that there will be a military component to any viable solution.

The threat from ISIS—to the region, to the west and to Syrian and Iraqi civilians—is real and growing. I do not believe it to be ethical to watch from the sidelines as Syrian villages are overrun by ISIS fighters who make sex slaves of children, terrorise minority groups and slaughter fellow Muslims. In addition, their call for individual sympathisers to attack westerners anywhere and anytime requires a robust response.

The estimated 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, many of whom hold western passports and can therefore travel freely in Europe, present a real and serious threat to us here in the UK. In addition, ISIS’s spread to new havens in Libya, the Sinai peninsula, Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere convinces me of the need for active UK involvement—but only if that is part of a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians and end the conflict.