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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.

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