Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

‘Global Britain’ should be a statement of moral leadership, not just a slogan

As refugees continue to pour out of war-torn Syria, Britain must do more to hold its government to account, writes Toby Dickinson

Jordan accommodates around 660,000 registered Syrian refugees. Prince William and Jeremy Corbyn met a few of them at the weekend, Corbyn marveling on Twitter that, at the Zaatari refugee camp ‘they are doing an enormous amount to help themselves’, developing a solar energy plant so that ‘now, the whole camp is powered by solar energy’. Maybe this gives Syrians fleeing Assad’s chemical attacks and barrel bombs something to look forward to: if they make it across the border to Jordan, they can contribute to Jordan’s emission reduction targets.

This morning, as Russian and Syrian forces continue to bomb and shell villages in Daraa in south west Syria, the Jordanian government announced that it is unable to accommodate any more refugees. The Foreign Office said it was ‘deeply concerned’ by the reports of air and artillery attacks and the civilian deaths they have caused. Just not quite concerned enough to take effective action.

Proclaimed compassion is not enough. If the world lacks the political will to destroy the Syrian air force, which – with Russian support – gives Assad’s army its asymmetric advantage over the Syrian opposition, then the bare minimum we should do is expose them and their crimes. Aid workers and journalists in Syria demonstrate incredible bravery in horrendous conditions as they expose Bashar al-Assad and Vladmir Putin’s criminal behaviour, including chemical attacks and air and artillery bombardments of civilians. But it should not fall solely on their shoulders. Naming and shaming the Russian and Syrian air forces and their political leaders every time they bomb civilian targets in Syria is a straightforward and necessary task. Politicians including Progress chair Alison McGovern, and specialist advisers to aid agencies like Hamish de Bretton-Gordon have both called for the government to step up and show leadership.

The Royal Air Force and its coalition partners in the Middle East have the equipment – airborne and ground-based long range surveillance radars – to track, identify and report aircraft operating over Syria. It is possible to say with a high degree of confidence what those aircraft are doing. This is specialist but routine business for the RAF; it already has personnel in Cyprus and the Middle East tracking aircraft in the region as part of the counter-Daesh coalition.

Can we? Yes, we have the right people and the right equipment in the region. The Ministry of Defence already has procedures to declassify this kind of radar data, and has done so in the past, for example when reporting on Russian bombers operating in the North Sea.

Should we? Yes, Putin and Assad should be called out for their shameful, criminal behaviour. The independent Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that the Assad regime conducted 93 barrel bomb attacks in May 2018 alone. The United Kingdom should play a role in attributing responsibility for these attacks. In our 2017 manifesto we pledged to work tirelessly to end the conflict in Syria ‘fully supporting international efforts to investigate, prosecute and convict the perpetrators of war crimes’. Identifying responsibility for those crimes is something we should be doing now.

Must we? Absolutely. If the international community lacks the political will to resolve the conflict in Syria, it must at least insist that parties to the conflict uphold international humanitarian law. Is ‘Global Britain’ a statement of moral leadership, or just a slogan?


Toby Dickinson is an International Security Policy Adviser and Progress member. He served in the RAF for 16 years, including some time conducting air surveillance and control in the Middle East. He tweets @TobyDickinson


Photo: [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Toby Dickinson

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