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Monday 6 July 2015

A response to last Thursday’s debate in the House of Commons

Image via BBC.

PDF version of this letter.

To Members of Parliament,

A response to the House of Commons debate on Britain and International Security, 2 July 2015.

Two points need to be made clear following Thursday’s debate on possible UK action against ISIS in Syria: that protection of civilians must be at the centre of any action, and that the choice to be made in Syria is not between Assad and ISIS.

Protection of Civilians

Syrian civilians need protection from ISIS. Last month saw one of the worst massacres of Syrian civilians by ISIS to date, when 233 to 262 civilians were killed and at least 273 wounded by ISIS in Kobani on 25 June, according to Human Rights Watch. At least 14 children, 67 women, and 18 elderly people were amongst those killed, according to local human rights groups.(1)

That massacre helped bring the total number of Syrian civilians killed by ISIS in June up to 451, according to the Syrian Network For Human Rights. In the same month the Assad regime killed 1,072 civilians. Amongst those killed were 218 children and 124 women. Even in this, one of their worst months of killing, ISIS killed less than half as many Syrian civilians as were killed by Assad.(2)

The vast majority of the civilians killed by Assad are not in areas under ISIS control; they are mostly in areas under the control of Syrian rebels who are fighting both Assad and ISIS.

The majority of those now being killed by Assad are being killed by air attacks. There is a chorus of calls from NGOs and civil society groups inside and outside Syria for action to stop the air attacks.

Last month 81 NGOs including Amnesty International, CARE International, Human Rights Watch, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and The Helen Bamber Foundation, presented a letter to the UN Security Council calling for consequences for violations of UN Security Council Resolution 2139. That resolution, passed in February 2014, demanded an end to bombardment of civilian areas, such as barrel bombing.(3)

In considering action by the UK in Syria, MPs must have protection of civilians foremost in their thoughts. Any action which fails to protect civilians will also fail by any other worthwhile measure.

The choice is not between Assad and ISIS

In the House of Commons debate, Dr Julian Lewis asserted the following:
“In 2013, the Government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that later became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. Those two things are incompatible. It is a choice of two evils.”(4)

In this Dr Lewis ignored a wealth of reporting to the contrary. Syrian rebel forces are fighting both Assad and ISIS. Assad had a long history of backing the precursor of ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq, in order to destabilise any efforts to establish democracy in Iraq. Assad’s government has traded with ISIS, supporting them financially.(5) Assad forces have avoided fighting ISIS for much of the conflict,(6) and have been repeatedly accused of helping ISIS to fight Syrian rebels, most recently by Assad’s air force bombing rebels who were under attack by ISIS.(7)

A related distortion of history was presented in an exchange between John Spellar and Vernon Coaker, where Mr Spellar said the following:
“Before my hon. Friend moves on to the more general issue, will he clarify the fact that the House’s refusal in 2013 to become involved in a brief bombing campaign against Assad—Members of all parties were involved in that decision—has absolutely no logical connection with taking military action against Daesh? Linking the two does not serve the interests of developing a proper national policy.”

This ignores that prior to Assad’s chemical weapons massacre of 21 August 2013, Syrian rebels were already under attack from ISIS as well as from the Assad regime. Denied serious international support in the form of arms and training, Free Syrian Army rebels in Raqqa were easy prey for ISIS invaders. The subsequent decision by the House of Commons to leave the Assad regime unpunished for the mass poisoning of civilians in the suburbs of Damascus left Syrian rebels even more fragile, and emboldened both Assad and ISIS.(8)

It is essential that MPs avoid political expediency in future foreign policy debates and instead face up to the consequences of past decisions on Syria. Those consequences include not just the rise of ISIS, but also tens of thousands more civilians killed by Assad forces, and a more than doubling of the number of Syrian refugees since the 2013 vote.

The Assad dynasty has long nurtured terrorist groups to further its own ends. Assad’s support for terrorist actions in Iraq prior to 2011 is well known. His regime is currently dependent not only on ISIS attacking rebels and distracting the international community from regime crimes, it also relies on more direct support from Hizbollah and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

Accepting the continuation of the Assad dictatorship is not a path to defeating terrorism; instead it is a surrender to Assad’s strategy of promoting terrorism.

Signed on behalf of the Syria Solidarity Movement UK

Sara Afshar
Clara Connolly
Kareen El Beyrouty
Mario Nicholas Hamad
Kellie Strom


(1) Syria: Deliberate Killing of Civilians by ISIS, Human Rights Watch, 3 July 2015.

(2) Syrian Network for Human Rights monthly report, 1 July 2015.

(3) NGOs unite in urging UN Security Council to take urgent action to stop civilian attacks in Syria, 25 June 2015.

(4) Britain and International Security, House of Commons debate, 2 July 2015.

(5) UK welcomes new EU Syria sanctions listings, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 7 March 2015.

(6) Syria, ISIS Have Been ‘Ignoring’ Each Other on Battlefield, Data Suggests, NBC News, 11 December 2014.

(7) Syria: Isis advance on Aleppo aided by Assad regime air strikes, US says, The Guardian, 2 June 2015.

(8) In Raqqa, Islamist Rebels Form a New Regime, Syria Deeply, 16 August 2013.