Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Will we fail Syrians again?

Like Aleppo, the city of Ghouta has been slaughtered. Hundreds have died this week alone. The siege must end so that we can get the innocent out and treat the critically injured, writes Alison McGovern

Just over a year ago we watched as Aleppo fell. We watched a city besieged and laid to waste by its own government. There was a brief moment in the days and weeks leading up to it when I really thought the United Kingdom might help. Every day, the UK watched in horror at images of terrified children, injured civilians, and families fleeing for their lives. 200 members of parliament wrote to the government, pleading with them to get aid in, and the vulnerable out.

But we failed.

Since Aleppo, Syrian civilians have continued to be targeted by their own government, while the world has turned away. We said ‘never again’, but they were hollow words. We have seen terrible crimes committed in Syria and elsewhere. We warned as Aleppo fell, that if we did nothing to break the siege this time it was just a matter of where, not if, this would happen again. Well, now we know.

In eastern Ghouta more than 250 people died between Sunday evening and Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and that number has risen every day since. This is the highest toll for a 48 hour period in the war since the sarin gas attack, also on eastern Ghouta in August 2013. This city has been slaughtered.

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Sources say there are around 400,000 civilians currently in eastern Ghouta. This is an area which was supposed to be one of the ‘de-escalation zones’ sponsored by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. The meaninglessness of this designation becomes clearer each day.

At the beginning of the month an attack on Al-Ma’ara National Hospital in Idlib was reported, which left newborn babies temporarily suffocating as their incubators lost power. So far this week 52 children have been reported killed in eastern Ghouta. Cities have been besieged, hospitals and schools targeted, and civilians displaced on a grand scale. At least four chemical weapons attacks have been reported just this year. These are unambiguous war crimes. The ‘de-escalation zones’ are nothing short of a delaying tactic, in a game which uses the lives of innocent children as pawns. What is happening in Syria is not simply a civil war, but is changing the rules of conflict.

This is important because our inaction is ensuring the continuation of this process. The red lines set by president Barack Obama on the use of chemical weapons have been repeatedly and flagrantly abused. And what about the other crimes? Intentionally targeting hospitals should be a red line, too. The global community’s grasp on the limits of conflict slips further away each time Assad targets his civilians.

The United Nations remains the right means to reach a cessation of these crimes, break the sieges, and deliver aid. As the holder of a permanent seat on the security council, the UK has an even greater responsibility to engage with it.

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In 2005 – after learning the lessons of insufficient humanitarian action in Iraq –  the UK signed up to the Responsibility to Protect, which legally binds us to act to protect civilians from mass atrocities when their state fails them. The United Nations gives us the power to act – right now. We should demand an immediate 30 day cessation of hostilities, the delivery of humanitarian aid, the evacuation of the critically ill and wounded, and the lifting of the siege.

No doubt we will say ‘never again’ once more. But we also have the opportunity to make things different next time: by applying an atrocity prevention lens to our policy in future, we can go further to identify early warning signs and policy options for preventing violence before it escalates.

Syria will be remembered as yet another horrific conflict, and this time, one in which the UK neglected its duty to protect civilians. As progressive internationalists, it falls to us to ensure the UK does not look away in the future.  If your heart breaks to think of the slaughtered and injured of Syria, remember that we are capable of better. Think of the country that rescued the persecuted from Kosovo, stepped in to stop brutality in Sierra Leone, and brought vulnerable children to our shores as they fled the Nazis.

Remember, that was our country too.


Alison McGovern is member of parliament for Wirral South and chair of Progress. She tweets @Alison_McGovern



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Alison McGovern MP

is chair of Progress

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