Andrew Mitchell writes jointly with Jo Cox MP...
Every decade, the world is tested with a conflict that breaks the mould, one that is so horrific and so inhumane that new thinking and bold leadership are required to address it. The response of politicians to the crisis becomes emblematic of their generation, their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us. Rwanda and Bosnia in the 90s, Kosovo and Sierra Leone at the millennium, Iraq and now Syria.
Syria is our generation’s test, our responsibility. A conflict so horrific that more than half of its people have been forced to flee their homes. Yet the international community’s response through the UN has been woefully inadequate.
For more than four years, the world has alternated between ignoring Syria, wringing its hands in despair and treating it as a pawn in cynical power play. It’s been awful to watch, but this crisis has been addressed much less through the prism of the Syrian people than – at various times – Ukraine, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia/US relations. It has even been caught up in UK parliamentary point scoring. It’s been about anything but the people it most affects.
The international community has failed, even on its own terms. This game of grand strategic chess hasn’t been grand or strategic, it’s been self-defeating and inept. The deadlock between Russia and the US and the wider diplomatic stalemate helped put Syria on the “too difficult” pile led to its complete neglect and helped create space for the cancer that is Isis to take hold. Meanwhile, desperate civilians have fled, in huge numbers creating a new refugee crisis. Far from advancing anyone’s strategic aims, the crisis in Syria has undermined everybody’s interests in the region and created threats to wider peace and stability.It has been a masterclass in how not to address a crisis.
In our view, it is time get back to basics, to see the crisis in Syria as (radical though it may sound) primarily about Syria and Syrians. To approach the crisis ethically: asking how we can best protect civilians. This ethical approach to Syria has three core elements to it, none of which is easy, but all of which are critical.
As important is Europe’s response to the refugee crisis: bolstering search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean and providing safe and legal routes for people to claim asylum will go a huge distance to ending the needless deaths at sea as well as sending a message to the Syrian people in their hour of need. The UK needs to push for a more ambitious collective response.
What is critical in advancing any military component is that the protection of civilians must be at the centre of the mission. This objective becomes ever more imperative in the light of Russia’s bombing in recent days. We need a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens. The creation of safe havens inside Syria would eventually offer sanctuary from both the actions of Assad and Isis, as we cannot focus on Isis without an equal focus on Assad. They would save lives, reduce radicalisation and help to slow down the refugee exodus.
The approach of focusing on civilian protection will also make a political solution more likely. Preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted. Of course, a military approach by itself won’t work, nor will any of the other components. Only through an integrated strategy with the protection of civilians at its core can we rescue something from this crisis.
As two people from different parties, and from different generations and backgrounds, there is a lot we disagree on. But as two people who have both worked for many years at different ends of the humanitarian aid spectrum – as an aid worker and as secretary of state for international development – we agree on one thing: there is nothing ethical about standing to one side when civilians are being murdered and maimed. There was no excuse in Bosnia, nor Rwanda and there isn’t now.
This article was first published in The Observer here.