“My overarching instinct, right from being an MP, was the debate on Syria had been completely skewed for two years, since the last failed vote that the prime minister brought [in 2013]. We’d taken Syria off the table – the government had taken Syria off the table in terms of having a comprehensive strategy – and the real conflict dynamic, which real Syrians were talking about, wasn’t reflected at all in policy conversations here.
It was all heavily skewed towards the refugee crisis and ISIS, rather than the civil war happening inside Syria and the actions of the Assad government. That wasn’t part of the narrative, other than a sort of general, ‘We’re not in favour of Assad’. But there was no ‘So, what are we going to do about the fact that civilians are being slaughtered or starved or isolated as an act of war?
There’s a thriving civil society, against the odds. I mean, it’s amazing that there is still a civil society inside Syria.
The first thing that Syrian civil society wants is all of the confidence-building measures that the Syrian opposition are arguing for: the end to besiegement, the cessation of hostilities, the ceasefire, the stop to aerial bombardment, the end to the barrel bombs, a no-fly zone, a no-bombing zone – that’s what they seem to be wholly united in arguing for.
Second thing: many organisations, whether it’s the White Helmets or others, have got really creative ideas about how to operate under the siege and civil war conditions. They’ve got really interesting ideas about channelling money, getting aid in, thinking creatively about how they operate, which DfID [Department for International Development] should be listening to.
And then the third thing is about giving airtime to civil society groups, making sure that they get more time on panels– and making sure this is representative of the diversity of civil society views as well, whether that’s women’s groups, or the White Helmets, or NGOs, or just doctors or people who are literally trying to get on with making society function in response to the humanitarian crisis.”
“What did you think of the 2013 vote [on intervention in Syria]?”
“I thought it was incredibly badly handled by the prime minister, in terms of a lack of a parliamentary strategy, and an explanation of what was going on, and I felt that the Labour Party put politics above content, and the whole thing felt to me badly managed, and led to the worst possible result, which was essentially taking any action off the table forever.
Now at the time I wasn’t wholly convinced that airstrikes at that stage and military intervention was the right thing, but I think to have put down a marker and said, “If you use chemical weapons against your own civilians we will respond as an international community”, and then not respond, I just think sent exactly the wrong message.
All moderate Syrians watched that and felt betrayed. The US watched it and took its action off the table, and what I feel happened then is the government turned away for two years while Syria went up in flames.”