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Sunday, 15 April 2018

Questions to ask after UK action in Syria

  • What do Syrians say?
  • What does the British public think?
  • Did this action really protect people in Syria?
  • Was this action legal?
  • Will this action protect people in the UK, or put them in danger?
  • Will this action escalate the war?
  • Doesn’t Libya prove that anything we do makes things worse?
  • What effect will this have on the search for a political solution?
  • What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?
  • What next?

The UK Government has joined the governments of the United States and France in military action against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than forty people, many of them children.

The action consisted of limited targeted missile and air strikes against three military targets carried out in the space of under an hour.

What questions should we ask in debating this action? Here are some to consider.

Is Theresa May in breach of international law?

By Clara Connolly

Whether the 13th April intervention in Syria by the US, France and the UK was within the parameters of international law is not the only nor perhaps even the most significant question. But it is the nub of the criticism of UK Government action by the Leader of the Opposition and internationally by Russia and the Syrian Arab Republic, so it is worth considering.

The legal justification is based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’ using arguments outlined by the Labour government in the case of Kosovo in 1998/9. The legal case for humanitarian intervention without UN Security Council approval was rehearsed again in 2013, when action against Syria was debated in Parliament after a major chemical attack on civilians.

Sir Bethlehem gives a useful reading list on the history and development of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. He makes clear that it is neither codified in international law, nor established in the UN Charter, which prioritises the sovereignty of states and the illegitimacy of interference by outside bodies. The UN makes an exception of self defence, and grants itself the power to intervene when ‘international peace and security’ is threatened. So where does that leave the justification for action outside the UN, when it cannot agree on what action to take?

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Robin Cook’s legacy and Labour’s response to the chemical weapons massacre

We have written to Labour MPs with our concerns over Labour’s response to the latest chemical attack in Douma, Syria. We are concerned that:

  • Labour ignored the UN-OPCW’s 2017 verdict on Assad’s use of nerve agent
  • Emily Thornberry suggested spending UK money on the Assad regime
  • Labour has lost touch with Robin Cook’s true legacy on protecting civilians


ON LABOUR’S RESPONSE TO LAST YEAR’S ATTACK

Responding to the chemical attack in Douma, Syria, that killed over forty civilians, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has called for “an urgent independent investigation” and said that “once this investigation is complete” those responsible must be held to account.

Emily Thornberry took the same approach last year after the April 2017 Khan Sheikhoun sarin nerve agent attack that killed over seventy Syrian civilians including tens of children. Then she criticised the US military response and called for a UN investigation leading to international action.

The UN and the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) did investigate Khan Sheikhoun and in November last year found the Assad regime responsible. The Leadership Panel of the OPCW-UN Joint Investigative Mechanism wrote to to the UN Secretary-General that it was “confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin at Khan Shaykhun on 4 April 2017.”

Russia responded by blocking the joint investigation with its Security Council veto. As for Emily Thornberry, far from calling for any action against Assad after the UN-OPCW investigation’s guilty verdict, she instead stood up in the House of Commons in December and suggested Assad be left in place and the regime be granted international funding for reconstruction.


OUR DINNER DATE WITH EMILY

We and other SyriaUK activists recently gatecrashed a fundraising dinner hosted by the Shadow Foreign Secretary in her Islington South constituency.

We distributed a special menu to diners setting out some of Emily Thornberry’s recent unsavoury offerings on Syria, and calling for an alternative policy menu focused on protecting civilians. In order to glide among diners without causing undue alarm or hostility, we posed as waiters.

Our title was “Don’t give Assad Syria on a plate,” because of Emily Thornberry’s worrying remarks in Parliament in December when she floated a proposal to keep Assad in power.

Her exact words in a question to Boris Johnson on 11 December:

“… may I ask specifically what conclusions he reached from his discussions on the prospects for a political solution to end the fighting in Syria? Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria?”

Along with the Labour Campaign for International Development, we wrote a joint letter to the Shadow Foreign Secretary making clear our objections, only to receive a rude reply where Emily Thornberry denied responsibility for her own words.


NO UK TAXPAYER MONEY FOR ASSAD

In Emily Thornberry’s scenario, she suggested that international assistance—in other words UK taxpayers’ money—could help pick up the bill for reconstruction of the towns and cities bombed by Assad and Putin, while leaving Assad still in power.

Assad’s regime in Syria is based as much on economic exploitation as political repression. Assad family members and cronies control major parts of the economy in regime-held Syria, and already profit from Damascus-based UN aid operations which are unable to operate independently of the regime’s mafia-like control. Investing in regime-held Syria would not only be rewarding the perpetrators of the worst set of atrocities this century, it would further entrench the corruption and exploitation that was a primary driver of the first 2011 protests against Assad’s regime.

Back in October 2017, Emily Thornberry made clear to one of our fellow activists that she supported reconstruction funding even with Assad still in place. He raised with her the issue of detainees. As many as 200,000 civilians have been detained or disappeared by regime security forces. Photographic evidence shows several thousand corpses of those tortured to death in Assad’s prisons. But Emily Thornberry’s response was to say that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”

The UN Commission of Inquiry into Syria in a recent report said that reconstruction aid should depend on the release of detainees, on criminal accountability for perpetrators of torture and killing, and on truth and justice for the survivors and the families of victims.


ROBIN COOK’S LEGACY

Writing recently in the Mirror, Emily Thornberry commemorated Robin Cook’s famous resignation speech opposing the Iraq war. She quoted his words, ‘Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement, and a world order governed by rules.’

In Syria, that world order governed by rules is being destroyed daily by Assad and Putin’s flouting of all UN resolutions passed since 2013: resolutions banning use of chemical weapons, demanding an end to bombardment of populated areas, demanding an end to sieges against civilians, authorising unrestricted humanitarian access by UN agencies.

When we remember Robin Cook’s legacy, let us also remember Kosovo where he stood up to Russia’s bullying and supported humanitarian action to enforce the declared will of the UN Security Council. Read his words on Kosovo in 1999, on national interest and upholding international law, when he said “one should not commit servicemen to take the risk of military action unless our national interest is engaged,” but that “I firmly believe that upholding international law is in our international interest.”

Robin Cook noted then that Serbia was on NATO’s border, as is Syria. He noted that NATO credibility as a guarantor of international agreements was at stake if Milosevic was allowed to trampled on agreements with impunity. On refugees, he said that “they should be able to return to their homes under international protection.”

Today the entire credibility of UN authority, UN structures, UN agencies, as well as the very concept of international humanitarian law, is at stake. Will Emily Thornberry now show the same resolve now as Robin Cook did then? Will she reject appeasement of Putin, and stand up for the enforcement of international law for the security of all, and for international protection to allow Syrians to live in their homes in peace?

Labour’s own credibility is also at stake, with Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Syria receiving the endorsement of former BNP leader Nick Griffin. Some may be confused when the Labour leader condemns violence ‘on all sides’ without blaming Assad in particular. Nick Griffin, a long-time supporter of Assad, clearly believes he understands Corbyn very well.

We are now at a decision point. After this latest chemical weapons outrage, with the Assad regime’s responsibility for previous attacks already established by the UN and the OPCW, will Labour MPs now show that Labour is capable of supporting action to punish the guilty and protect the innocent?

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Assad’s latest chemical weapons massacre of civilians

  • UK POLITICIANS NEED TO STEP UP
  • IMPUNITY ENDANGERS EVERYBODY

The Assad regime has once again used chemical weapons to massacre civilians in Eastern Ghouta.

At least 42 people are reported killed according to Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets). Other reports from the scene put the number killed much higher.

More than 500 people were brought for medical treatment, the majority of them women and children, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

Areas of Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus were the site of the Assad regime’s deadliest chemical weapons attack in 2013 when at least 1,400 people were killed with Sarin nerve agent.

Since then the Assad regime has repeatedly used chlorine chemical weapons in attacks on civilians, including in Eastern Ghouta.

And this time last year the Assad regime killed over 70 people including tens of children in a nerve agent attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib.

From medical reports, this latest attack appears to have combined nerve agent with chlorine. The Assad regime is reported to have previously combined the two to mask its use of nerve agent.

UK politicians need to step forward.

UK MPs who blocked action following Assad’s 2013 nerve agent massacre have a particular responsibility today to face up to the consequences of inaction both for Syria’s people and for the UK's own security.

We have seen the normalisation of chemical weapons use in Syria be followed by the use of chemical weapons within the UK.

Impunity endangers everybody.

It is time to stop Assad now. Deny the Assad regime its use of military means to terrorise and kill Syria’s people. Ground Assad’s air force with targeted strikes against his airbases. Silence Assad’s heavy weapons. End Assad’s use of the weapons of total war against civilian communities.

It is time to stop Putin by imposing overwhelming economic costs, not just for Putin’s actions in Europe and in the UK, but also for Putin’s actions in aiding Assad’s campaign of mass murder.

We have heard for years that there is no military solution. But the UK has sent its diplomats to do the impossible by denying them the military and economic means to exert pressure for a political solution.

To enable a political solution, deny Assad and his allies their military options.

Protect civilians.

The UK has been intervening militarily in Syria against ISIS since 2015.

What the UK has not done is enforce any of the series of UN resolutions broken every day by Assad and his backers.

What the UK has not done is protect civilians.

If we choose, we have the power to save lives.

Extract from SAMS press release:

On Saturday, April 7th, at 7:45 PM local time, amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighborhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases -the majority of whom are women and children- were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.

During clinical examination, medical staff observed bradycardia, wheezing and coarse bronchial sounds. One of the injured was declared dead on arrival. Other patients were treated with humidified oxygen and bronchodilators, after which their condition improved. In several cases involving more severe exposure to the chemical agents, medical staff put patients on a ventilator, including four children. Six casualties were reported at the center, one of whom was a woman who had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

Civil Defense volunteers have reported more than 42 casualties found dead in their homes, with similar clinical symptoms of cyanosis and corneal burns. Civil defense volunteers were unable to evacuate the bodies due to the intensity of the odor and the lack of protective equipment. The reported symptoms indicate that the victims suffocated from the exposure to toxic chemicals, most likely an organophosphate element.

Following the chemical attack, the target site and the surrounding area of the hospital receiving the injured were attacked with an explosive barrel, which hindered the ability of the ambulances to reach the victims.

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets) have documented nearly 200 uses of chemical weapons in Syria since 2012. Previous United Nations Security Council Resolutions on this matter have failed in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Full SAMS press release.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Syria Solidarity UK serves up a surprise at Emily Thornberry’s dinner

Syria Solidarity UK had an unexpected surprise for Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry during her Spring Fundraising Dinner at Frederick’s Restaurant in Islington.

With the title, “Don’t give Assad Syria on a plate,” Syria Solidarity UK’s “waiters” politely presented Shadow Foreign Secretary and her guests with the unappetising bill of fare that is Emily’s record on Syria.

Emily Thornberry has suggested in Parliament that the UK might make a deal with Russia to keep Assad in power, with the UK taxpayer picking up a bill for reconstruction of cities bombed by Putin and Assad.

Emily Thornberry has dismissed the hundreds of thousands of people detained and tortured by the Assad regime as “a few political prisoners” whose fate should not be a bar to paying UK money for the reconstruction of Syria under the regime.

Emily Thornberry has also spoken approvingly of the regime’s forced displacement of Syrian civilians from Homs, describing it as an evacuation of terrorists.

A recent article by Emily Thornberry in The Guardian discussed Syria with no mention of the war crimes committed by Assad and Russia. It was written in the midst of the regime’s starvation siege and relentless bombardment of civilian communities in Eastern Ghouta.

Emily Thornberry has not properly held the UK government and its Coalition partners to account for their failure to protect civilians, and for the enormous civilian death toll inflicted by the Coalition.

Syria Solidarity UK want an alternative policy menu on Syria. An ethical policy on Syria must put protecting civilians as its first priority.

Our three courses:

  • We need a Labour policy on Syria that puts protecting civilians first.
  • We need a Labour policy that commits to stopping Assad’s crimes.
  • We need all parties and all members of Parliament to unite in supporting action to end the slaughter.


See our full menu (PDF).

Read more about Labour and Syria.