Newspaper column – Time to enforce Syria’s ceasefire to save lives

1204 FCO questions Syria aid drops 2crObama and Cameron did not intend to cause harm in Syria but containment has been a disaster

By Jo Cox, The Times – 25 May 2016:

I am a huge President Obama fan. I worked on his first campaign in North Carolina in 2008, I admire the leadership he has shown on everything from the financial crisis to climate change and the good advice he gave us recently on Europe. But on Syria both President Obama and the prime minister have been a huge disappointment. Both men made the biggest misjudgment of their time in office when they put Syria on the “too difficult” pile and instead of engaging fully, withdrew and put their faith in a policy of containment.

This judgment – made by both leaders for different reasons – will be judged harshly by history. And the failure of their strategy has had huge repercussions: the biggest refugee crisis in Europe in a generation, the emergence of Isis and all that has followed, the strengthening of a resurgent Russia and most importantly the human suffering that continues unabated for the people of Syria. It’s been nothing short of a foreign policy disaster.

Whereas Iraq has become the great example of what happens when you deploy force with no follow-up strategy. Syria will become the great counter example of what happens when you decide to disengage with no strategy whatsoever.

But there is still time for Cameron to write a postscript to US and UK failures on Syria. Specifically, he should do three things: refocus UK strategy towards the protection of Syrian civilians, get aid to besieged communities and throw the UK’s diplomatic weight behind the fragile peace talks before they fail.

First, the ongoing systematic destruction of civilian communities and infrastructure by the Assad regime and their Russian ally is not just morally unacceptable, but it continues to undermine military efforts to combat terrorism in the region. It creates the conditions of chaos in which extremism thrives and radicalisation is spread. The success of the international coalition against Isis will remain limited so long as civilians are subject to starvation tactics, indiscriminate airstrikes and barrel bombs with impunity.

Having succeeded in securing parliamentary support for a policy of military engagement in the fight against Isis, the British government has yet to come forward with a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of the Syrian conflict: namely the systematic and large-scale targeting of civilians by the Syrian regime and its allies. It is time to now do so.

Second, last week the UK finally started to show the potential of its leadership in securing agreement from the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that if the Assad government continues to block ground access for life-saving assistance then air drops to besieged areas in Syria would begin from June 1. Ensuring this deal is now upheld must be an immediate priority for the British government: at stake is the credibility of British diplomacy and the ISSG itself, as well as thousands of lives.

Third, it is now clear that to succeed, diplomacy on Syria needs the backing of serious pressure to change Syrian government policy. This means imposing robust and clear consequences, including sanctions, for continuous violations of the Cessation of Hostilities, and the military enforcement of UN resolutions on aid and civilian protection.

I don’t believe that either President Obama or the prime minister tried to do harm in Syria but, as is oft said, sometimes all it talks for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. It’s now time to enforce Syria’s ceasefire to save lives.

Mrs Cox has written to the Prime Minister in her role as co-chair of the Friends of Syria APPG. You can read that letter here.

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