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Saturday 3 June 2017

How to plug the manifesto gaps on Syria

By Clara Connolly

What do the election manifestos say on Syria, a crucial issue for any future government? There are some surprises: I’ll highlight policies for each party below, before trying to identify the gaps and outline some proposals from UK Syrian groups (but more widely supported) which could help to end the conflict.

The Conservative Party: 
  • Not one word on Syria.
  • On security, will establish a Commission for Countering Extremism. 

The Labour Party:
  • Will work tirelessly to end the conflict and get the diplomatic process back on track, while fully supporting international efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict the perpetrators of war crimes.
  • Will more generally publish ‘a strategy for protecting civilians in conflict,’ led by a Minister for Peace and Disarmament.

The Liberal Democrats:
  • Will seek new ways to bring an end to the conflict, working with the UN to break the deadlock in the Security Council.
  • Will work to deter the use of chemical and conventional attacks on civilians, and demand humanitarian access and the release of political prisoners. 
  • More generally, supports the UN principle of Responsibility to Protect, will fight ‘isolationist policies’ and states that military intervention is ‘sometimes necessary.’ They will support it ‘when there is a clear legal and/or humanitarian case, endorsed by Parliament, working through international institutions where possible.’

The Scottish National Party:

  • Having ‘led to opposition to the current bombing of Syria’, will seek a political resolution to end the conflict in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2254.
  • On the struggle against Da’esh/ISIS, it must be pursued by more than military means and must include the battle of ideas which demonstrate that international justice can be achieved without recourse to violence and barbarity.

The Green Party:
  • No mention of Syria.
  • More generally, supports an ethical foreign policy which builds capacity for conflict resolution, and ends support for aggressive wars of intervention, with no more arms sales to aggressive regimes.

UK Independence Party:
  • Is proud of its opposition to bombing of Syria in 2013, will work constructively with Donald Trump, argues that the greatest threat to world peace is the spread of radical Islam, and therefore ‘the threshold for seeking to topple anti-Islamist leaders will be very high indeed.’

The Women’s Equality Party:
  • Does not take a Party line on issues it sees as outside its remit—to bring equality to women.

Most surprising gaps

While it’s astonishing that the party currently in government, and with every expectation of continuing after the election, has nothing at all to say about a war in which it is currently deploying its forces, its even more so that this omission has not been challenged in the course of the election campaign. Only the SNP expresses opposition to the current war against Da’esh, and proposes a different way (however vaguely expressed) of defeating it.

Are we to assume then that there is a cross-party consensus (at least in England) in support of the Coalition campaign in Syria? There have been references to the risk of interventionist wars in the campaign, but little explicit criticism of our current actions in Syria. This is indicative of a deep confusion, particularly in the Labour Party, which prevents much needed scrutiny of the current conduct of that war, with its increasing toll of civilian casualties.

Civilian casualties caused by Coalition airstrikes have significantly increased since the advent of Trump as US President, in January 2017.  Syrian groups in the UK have noted and campaigned against this. Why is there no attempt by opposition parties to join with Syrian groups in denouncing this disturbing escalation?

Secondly, on UN diplomacy it is surprising that only the Liberal Democrats can see any problem with proposing more of the same, after five years of fruitless peace talks. They at least recognise the deadly stalemate at the UN Security Council.

The diplomatic process and peace talks

The sixth round of UN talks started in Geneva on 16th May, but Assad has dismissed them as irrelevant and ‘a show for the media.’

The Geneva talks have been overshadowed by the Russian-led Astana talks, conducted without the participation of the US or UN, or the Syrian civil opposition. They have been concentrating on ceasefires. Some hope that these would create some preconditions for longer terms talks at Geneva. They indicate Russia’s desire to avoid being bogged down in Syria. But they also represent Russia’s continuing support for Assad, in setting up rival talks in the face of Geneva’s insistence on political transition.

On 4th May, ‘de-escalation zones’ were proposed for Idlib, Homs, Ghouta and along the border with Jordan. There has been some relief in Idlib as a result, but little in other areas. Regime artillery and bombing attacks continue around Damascus and in Daraa. There is a fatal absence of agreement on how these zones will be enforced. Assad refuses to accept UN peacekeepers; the opposition refuses to accept the preposterous idea of Iran as enforcer because of its active role in supporting Assad.

Civil society groups—particularly of Syrian women—have expressed concern that their views are completely unrepresented in Astana. This has crystallised over the issue of detainees; Families for Freedom wrote of their fear that the militias will negotiate only for their own prisoners (in a prisoner of war swap) at the expense of the tens of thousands of civilians disappeared and detained in Assad’s prisons. The group picketed the Geneva talks on 16th May to highlight this issue.

Perhaps Assad is right—he can afford to ignore Geneva, without some serious attempts to end his ability to bomb, starve and detain his opposition until his country is totally pacified. The Russian intervention on behalf of Assad, in Sept 2016—a critical time for him—led to the fall of Aleppo, enforced evacuations and mass displacements, and a continued aerial onslaught on the areas of displacement, including most seriously a chemical attack in Idlib.

These events have given Assad reason to believe that a total military victory is possible. De Mistura has been accused, with some justification, of allowing fruitless peace talks over years to be a smokescreen for Assad’s continuing war on his people. The same accusation could be levelled at all world leaders. How can Labour then suggest that it will pursue the same failed recipe, presenting it as an alternative option?

If a future UK government wants to help breathe life into peace talks, it must examine what has stalled them so consistently over the last five years. It is certainly not a lack of activity. Successive UN negotiators have been tireless in trying to wheel the parties to the table. The talks have failed for two reasons: despite promises and ‘ceasefires,’ Assad and his allies have not stopped aerial bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure, nor allowed relief to starving towns, nor even acknowledged the hundreds of thousands in secret detention; and secondly, despite increasing pressure to do so from the great powers, the opposition refuses to accept a political transition that includes a role for Assad. It cannot do so without losing all credibility with its constituents. And Assad refuses to discuss transition from power at all.

Contrast the ‘peace at any price’ scenario proposed for Syria (with the price to be paid by Syrians, in a grotesquely unequal contest with the regime and it’s allies) with Labour, SNP, and Green recognition in relation to Palestinian peace talks in their manifestos, that there must be just terms and conditions. At the very least, this approach must be extended to Syria.

War Crimes

To its credit, the Labour Manifesto supports international efforts to bring justice for war crime in Syria. But Syria, not being a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) cannot be prosecuted there except by a vote of the UN Security Council, which Russia has blocked.

The difficulty is not investigation: masses of evidence has already been gathered and filed by dedicated international lawyers, including from the UK. The difficulty is prosecution—particularly finding a venue—and of course apprehending the perpetrators to face trial. The UN General Assembly, recognising the hopelessness of defeating the Russian veto on giving jurisdiction to the ICC, recently called on national and regional courts to try such cases, and set up a team to help prepare prosecution cases.

There have been some hopeful developments in the last months: a Spanish court has filed a case against regime officials, in the name of a Spanish citizen, sister of a victim of Assad killed under torture, and Germany’s Chief Prosecutor has accepted a case filed by torture survivors. There has also been a successful prosecution of an opposition fighter: an asylum seeker in Austria has been convicted of murder for shooting unarmed Syrian Army prisoners.

If Labour is serious about ending impunity for war crimes in Syria, it should respond to the call of the UN to promote the national (or European) courts to pursue such cases, in collaboration with UK based lawyers and Syrian refugees based here, who may be able file cases themselves, or identify and act for family members.

UN resolutions on humanitarian access and stopping the bombing of civilians

It is remarkable that there is no explicit mention in the manifestos of the UN’s role in protecting Syrian civilians in conflict, and it abject failure to do so to date. Only the Liberal Democrats say they ‘will work to deter attacks on civilians’ but do not say how they propose to do this. There has been a six year stalemate at the UN Security Council concerning enforcement of their protection resolutions; in recognition of this there could have been support for the Uniting for Peace procedure which the UN General Assembly can use to counter the veto of a UN Security Council minority. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada raised this issue in his first address to the UN Assembly last October.

While recognising its limitations (the General Assembly can only recommend action, it cannot enforce) it would be helpful to explore the potential of this procedure, given the support it has already received among progressive member states of the UN.

Modest proposals

Having noted some omissions, I would like to draw attention to proposals prepared by UK Syrian groups in the run up to the election which might help to plug the gaps. They are a shortlist of various proposals made over the years - relatively modest and practicable, which may help to bring the war to an end. At least they will help to break the vicious stalemate in the peace talks, as described above. For a longer explanation see the full document.
  1. Affirm the democratic right of Syrians to choose their own future free from dictatorship and terror.

  2. Call for the UK to track and publish details of military aircraft flights by the Assad regime and Russia that may be responsible for unlawful attacks on civilians.

  3. Call for drone aid airdrops to besieged civilians to provide immediate relief and add pressure for full ground access.

  4. Call for the UK to help enforce an end to attacks against civilian targets by the Assad regime and its allies.

  5. Call for widened sanctions against the Assad regime and its supporters for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  6. Call for the UK to pursue all avenues to bring perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice, including through universal jurisdiction as well as international legal mechanisms.

  7. Call for the UK to pursue a ‘Uniting for Peace’ vote in the UN General assembly recommending action to protect civilians.

  8. Demand the highest standards of accountability of all our Coalition partners for air strikes taking place in Syria.

The Labour Manifesto includes a welcome proposal to publish a strategy for protecting civilians in conflict. Well, Syrian groups have a recipe with at least some of the ingredients needed: minimise civilian casualties, protect civilian infrastructure, ensure access to relief, monitor and sanction human rights abuses.

Let’s take one item from the list: aid airdrops. The UK Government has the capacity for this and has done so, in Iraq. Detailed proposals have been developed to use drones, avoiding risk of attacks on UK aircrews. Does Labour regard the delivery of food and medicine as an ‘intervention’ and hence taboo? Will they urge instead that we should leave it to the UN to break the sieges?

But we know that the UN won’t, not without the prior agreement of the regime, which is never forthcoming except after waves of international pressure (such as over the starving towns of Madaya, and Daraya). Otherwise the airdrops and airlifts of the UN World Food Programme for Syria go exclusively to the regime. This is despite five UN Resolutions over three years demanding access to besieged areas, authorising access without regime permission.

A recognition of these facts has led to significant cross-party support for the airdrops initiative. It was one of Jo Cox’s last campaigns; just before her death she had managed to also persuade European parliamentarians to sign up to it. A future Government could straightaway do this: the groundwork has been done in Parliament and it needs only a further push to be successful in obtaining agreement.

Limits on the doctrine of state sovereignty.

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), supported by the Liberal Democrats in their manifesto, was endorsed by all members states at the UN summit of 2005. It challenges the absolute right of states to sovereignty when they fail in their responsibility to protect their citizens from mass atrocity crimes and gross human rights abuses. The R2P doctrine gives the UN Security Council the task of determining action where a state fails in its responsibility, and it can involve interventions other than military, such as diplomatic preventative measures. It proceeds from consideration of the rights of citizens rather than the rights of sovereign states.

It differs from the principle of humanitarian intervention which also sets limits on state sovereignty, and was used to justify for example the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the protection of Iraqi Kurds by a No-Fly Zone. Both interventions were effective in stopping mass atrocity crimes, although conducted without an explicit UN Security Council mandate. This principle has been more widely criticised as a cover for strong Western states to act with impunity against weaker ones. But I am raising it for discussion, alongside the more narrowly constrained Responsibility to Protect doctrine, because of the proven impossibility of overcoming the Russian veto in the UN Security Council when it comes to intervention of any kind in Syria.

No meaningful discussion of foreign policy on Syria can exclude at least consideration of the limits of state sovereignty, in the event of mass human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The SNP, Greens and Labour—with their common emphasis on seeking peaceful conflict resolution, despite the obvious failures to date—avoid this issue entirely. It’s understandable that the disaster of Iraq should cause the political pendulum to swing towards isolation, but there remains a serious debate to be had, post Chilcot, on how the world community can re-forge its international forums and instruments to assist civilians at the mercy of murderous governments. The alternative is to risk branding every opposition to tyranny, whether peaceful or under arms, as terrorist, to be trapped in an endless and counterproductive ‘war on terror’ which addresses none of the underlying causes.

What the Syrian groups are proposing during the election process does not include a war of regime change against the Syrian regime, but limited humanitarian measures, which can be taken by our own Government alone or with others, to alleviate the desperate plight of civilians, halt further displacement, and create a breathing space leading to a real chance of peace. I ask the candidates from all parties to consider them seriously.