On Tuesday of last week, Planet Syria activists spoke at an event at the House of Commons. Titled Planet Syria: The view from Syria’s non-violent civil society activists, the event was hosted by Gisela Stuart MP and organised with the help of Syria Solidarity UK. Speaking on behalf of Planet Syria were Assaad Al-Achi of Baytna Syria, and Mustafa Haid of Dawlaty.
Planet Syria is a coalition of 107 nonviolent civil society groups caught between the Syrian government and ISIS that are struggling for a democratic, just and pluralistic society. These groups believe deeply in human rights and in the necessity of protecting civilian life in Syria. Planet Syria represents Syria’s largest civil society grouping and its peace movement. This movement is based on consultations with nonviolent activists from across Syria on what they think are ways to resolve this conflict.
Planet Syria aims to end the violence in Syria by seeking international support to end the aerial attacks and killings carried out by the Syrian Government, and to bring about inclusive, internationally backed peace talks. The Planet Syria statement says, “we need the barrel bombs to stop—even if it takes a ‘no-fly zone’—and meaningful peace talks. They need to happen together.”
Read the complete Planet Syria statement at planetsyria.org.
Baytna Syria is a leading institution fostering the Syrian civil society movement. It promotes an inclusive and democratic future for all Syrians, thus laying the foundation for long term stability across the country. It was founded with help from the Danish government. Through the Danish Syria Programme, which main focus is on stabilisation, Denmark provides substantial support to the Baytna Civil Society Centre in Gaziantep. Besides from its role as a civil society hub in Gaziantep, Baytna conducts capacity building activities and runs a small-grants mechanism providing support to a broad range of civil society initiatives inside Syria.
Read more at baytnasyria.org.
The Dawlaty Foundation, a Syrian nonprofit foundation that works with nonviolent activists on capacity building, democratic transition and transitional justice in Syria. They produce print and audiovisual materials on these topics (including comics!) and hold training courses and conferences.
Read more at dawlaty.org.
As the UK government considers extending anti-ISIS strikes into Syria, this event was a valuable chance for MPs and peers to hear from civil society activists on the front line of the fight against extremism. Their message was clear: A narrow targeting of ISIS without also addressing the greater violence being unleashed by the Assad regime is not the way to defeat extremism in Syria. Civilian protection against air attacks in particular is essential, not just to save lives but also to allow the strengthening of civil society and thereby help the population to resist extremist forces.
Planet Syria’s view on UK Syria policy (PDF)
Daniel Adamson, guest editor of the current issue of New Internationalist focusing on Syrian civil society activists was also at the event. He picked out one story from the issue, that of Dr Majed Abu Ali, one of the volunteer medics who treated victims of the 2013 Ghouta chemical weapons massacre. Forced eventually to leave Syria to keep his young family safe, Majed’s story illustrated how the refugee crisis, driven mostly by the violence of the Assad regime, is a tragedy not just for those who flee, but also for the fractured and depleted society they leave behind.
Syria’s good guys: New Internationalist, September 2015, Issue 485.
Also present at the event was Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former soldier who advises UK based charity Syria Relief on treating the victims of chemical weapons attacks. As well as talking about the impact of Assad’s air attacks on hospitals–every bombed hospital in Syria was bombed by Assad’s forces—he also gave his thoughts on the practicalities of enforcing an end to barrel bombing. He explained that this was much easier to do than generally realised, and that Assad’s helicopters could be prevented from bombing by naval weapons systems with no need to target what remains of Assad’s air defences.
We’re missing the point about Syrian refugees, by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon.
Amongst the MPs and peers listening to the Syrian visitors and asking questions was Jo Cox MP. She has since written a clear argument for doing more: Syria is not Iraq—we must take action now. In her article she takes a clear view that both ISIS and the refugee crisis are consequences of inaction, and that we need to deal with cause as well as effects. She writes:
Two years ago, a Government motion on Syria was defeated in the House of Commons. Tabled in the wake of a chemical weapons attack that outraged the world, the motion sought to condemn the attack and give, in principle, support for airstrikes against the Assad regime that had wrought it.Read the rest.
Since that vote, badly handled on both sides of the House of Commons, British policy on Syria has wandered aimlessly, a deadly mix of timidity and confusion. The lack of a coherent response, not just by Britain but by the wider international community, has allowed the situation in Syria to fester into the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. The international community put Syria on the “too difficult to deal with” pile and we now see the consequences of that – from the creation of ISIS to a new refugee surge.
The first step in formulating a workable strategy on Syria is to listen to Syrians. Our thanks to Gisela Stuart MP for hosting this event, and to all those who came to hear what Syrians have to say.