This an editorial I did for the Norwegian magazine Perspective last month. not sure if it is available in UK, but here is the editorial now the magazine is out
The House of Commons vote on Syria, 29 August, triggered a chain of events not only thwarting a war that seemed inevitable that day but also set higher ethical and democratic standards beyond Britain’s shores. Instead of focusing on getting public to back attack on Syria’s despotic regime, western leaders began working with the Russia and United Nations ( which finally got Security Council to agree on the strongest resolution available) to end a bloody civil war by a political settlement and to get an ambitious humanitarian aid programme into action.
Technically, President Barak Obama didn’t need military input from Britain if he had chosen to “punish” the Syrian regime crossing his “ red line” when allegedly deployed nerve gas against civilians. But a president who, in his own words, was “elected to end wars not to start new ones,” wanted a legitimate cover. With American public opinion against war, Mr Obama followed Prime Minister David Cameron’s parliamentary route to let the congress share responsibility for a decision no democratic leader can make lightly.
Restoring the wisdom that people collectively often know better than politicians, Westminster historic vote shifted focus of foreign policy into an ethical dimension of leading collective international efforts to deal with humanitarian crisis and helping refugees, in-line with majority of voters’ concern.
As a result of the commons vote, Britain rating soar in the Middle East region (UK friendship and PM Cameron trustworthiness as a world leader rose in popular Arab media polls from 15 and 13 percent to 66 and 67 percent; while two thirds believed Westminster vote was behind President Obama’s move to seek Congress approval, ).
Recalling parliament from summer recess, Mr Cameron government put a motion calling for joining America to attack Syria. The labour opposition motion only differed in waiting for a United Nation investigation team’s report first. Both were defeated by MPs on all sides, following their constituents’ mood. When whips, from both government and opposition parties, approached their backbenchers to line them up for the vote, the MPs brandished their blackberries with constituents; tweets, emails and messages during a marathon session marking one of our parliamentary democracy finest hours. Majority of British people remain, against military action. Latest poll by MCI showed only 19 percent in favour of joining US attack; while majority (47 percent ) opposed military action in any form but supported increasing aid for refugees (only 16 percent want to stop aid and reject military action).
While public’s priority was humanitarian aid and ending the appalling tragedy in Syria, the political establishment lagged behind. Alarmed at a possible rift with our historic allies across the pond, commentators argued that the commons vote might encourage despotic regimes to commit atrocities; a view shared by only quarter of Britons (24 percent) while majority (53 percent ) said the vote won’t make any difference to behaviour of dictators.
Only 16 percent said the west should always intervene against regimes using chemical weapons but 24 percent said never intervene. Double the figure (44 percent) said sometimes we should intervene under international law for strict objectives mainly humanitarian to save lives or to protect and aid refugees.
“This is the refugee crisis of our time, ” Mr Cameron said when he reported G20 to the commons on September 9, “ A Syrian becomes a refugee every 15 seconds.”
Although there are 6.8 million people inside Syria in need of humanitarian assistance, aid convoys cannot get through to areas under siege because of the fighting, and most major routes between large populations are insecure.
While western leaders in the forefront of taking a joint military action were shackled by democratic vote at home and failed to convince the rest of G20 nations, the commons vote freed Britain to take the lead in St Petersburg organising a special meeting with United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and leaders and representative from European Union, Japan, Turkey, Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Saudi Arabia and America. They agreed “to work together through the UN to secure unfettered humanitarian access inside Syria. ” They pledged to increase the focus of that humanitarian assistance dealing with chemical weapons impact, including providing medicines and decontamination tents and challenging the world to make up the financial shortfall for humanitarian aid by the time the United Nations General Assembly meeting takes place later this month.
Britain added an extra £52 million taking Syria’s aid to £400 Million (Euro 476 M) – Breakdown £131 allocated inside Syria, £82.2 for Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, 79.8 allocated to Lebanon & Jordan, £127 under allocation for Syria & region as affected- while Canada, Italy and Qatar have made a start with contributions totalling an extra £164 million (Euro 195 M).
From historic perspective, there is a strategic dimension to humanitarian aid beyond money and medical supplies. For those inside Syria there is an urgent need for humanitarian access which is different from humanitarian corridors (might require a wide-scale military action), by easing border checks and ensuring pauses in the fighting. Parliament ruling out British involvement in military action gave Mr Cameron a moral authority to call for making major cities accessible to aid agencies, by putting the pressure on or go to the UN for further action if needed. There are historic lessons to learn when refugees issues are limited to providing aid instead of part of a strategic comprehensive settlement.
A third of Syria’s 20 million populations have become refugees according to UN refugee agency UNHCR while 4.25 million people were displaced or made refugees inside the Syria and two million fled the country. The first million fled in two years, the second left in six months according to UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres , predicting two and three quarter millions by end of the year ( 5000-6000 exit Syria daily) . The numbers exclude thousands staying with relatives or friends throughout the region.
Turkey is now host to 463,885 Syrian refugees while 180,000 in Iraq. The pressure on some countries can have far reaching consequences for the whole region. With a population of 6.3 Millions Jordan currently hosts 1.98 million Palestinian refugees arrived or born between 1948 and 1973. The current conflict added 519,676 Syrian refugees.
Lebanon, with population of 4,141 millions, became host to Palestinian refugees who grew to 426,000 in 60 years host; has taken 731,675 Syrians.
Lebanon is made of ethnic, and sectarian mosaic. Not only the Palestinian refugee camps became a breeding-ground for armed groups that dragged Lebanon into conflict with its neighbours, they were major players in long a Lebanese civil war claiming thousands of lives and sucking external powers in and affected Europe and America. Jordan had a bloody experience between 1967 and 1970 with history of airline hijacking.
The most optimists of a possible political settlement in Syria is wary of radicalised armed groups emerging and finding a pool of recruits among an alienated bitter generation in the refugee-camps.
This alone, should get the EU, the Arab nations and rest of the world to follow Britain’s lead in maximising humanitarian efforts and ensuring integrating the return of refugees in any apolitical settlement in Syria.