Just over a week ago – on Wednesday 2nd December – the House of Commons voted to support British participation in the Coalition bombing of ISIS in Syria. The discussion that preceded the vote was lengthy and wide ranging. However its quality was highly variable. Some MPs, like Gerald Kaufmann (a former Shadow Foreign Secretary), demonstrated a clear understanding of the nature of the Assad regime, who he described as” murders” that he “would be delighted to see got rid of”.
There were good contributions from MPs who had visited the region recently: Mary Creagh (Shadow International Development Secretary ) who had visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, expressed regrets that she had not voted for action against the Assad regime in 2013 and urged “We need a ceasefire, a political settlement, and a path to democratic elections”; while Natalie McGarry who had visited the Kurdish region of Syria, called for “the creation of a safe no-bomb zone in Syria”.
However other MPs set themselves up as instant “experts” on contentious questions, making snap judgements with very little knowledge to back them up. There was widespread scepticism voiced across the House in the government’s claim of 70 000 moderate armed oppositionists who could follow up coalition bombing and move into areas liberated from ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn drew on the briefing he had been provided by Patrick Cockburn to make an ill-informed reference to “the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country”. But no one seemed to have read the article by Charles Lister, probably the leading expert on jihadist groups in Syria, that provided a detailed catalogue of “moderate” forces in Syria closely tallying with the 70 000 figure, despite the fact that it had appeared 5 days previously.
In other discussions Syrians were treated like political footballs: Jeremy Corbyn quoted from a letter that had been sent by a Syrian to bolster his case against participation in the Syrian bombing, while Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach quoted another letter that had been sent to MPs by Syrians to support her arguments in favour of bombing ISIS in Syria. But neither displayed much interest in the real issue concerning Syrians – that of protection of Syrian civilians from the ravages of the Syrian regime and its allies.
However there was one red thread that ran through many of the speeches – a promise that as much effort would be put into the resolution of the Syrian conflict as into the dropping of bombs on ISIS.
The resolution adopted by the House of Commons stated:
This House … notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement
A similar message was conveyed by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn:
We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hopes of achieving a ceasefire that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of—they just want to be able to go home. (my emphasis)
These fine words, and the many like them, will probably be forgotten in the coming months by those who uttered them, but in uttering them the House of Commons has effectively entered into a contract with Syrians: they have promised them relief from the terrible violence they are currently subjected to, and a clear movement towards a political order in which the aspirations that took them to the streets in 2011 can be realised – freedom, dignity, and democracy.
Will Vienna provide that? I remain highly sceptical, but whatever happens we should hold the House of Commons – especially Cameron, Benn and Corbyn ‑ to their word. if Vienna starts to fail Syrians and their supporters have the right to demand forthright actions that will deliver what has been promised.
The timetable for the Vienna process is lengthy, but there are clear milestones that can be used to track its progress. It promises immediate “confidence building measures”, the first of which is the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. To this we can add steps which are self-evident although not spelled out in Vienna: the release of detainees; and an end to the bombing of civilians. Nobody in their right mind could imagine a peace process unfolding without these minimal conditions being met.
But we cannot assume that the orators of last Wednesday will have the attention span necessary to monitor whether or not these things are actually happening. That is a task that must fall to civil society activists in Syria and the solidarity movement internationally.
Let me start that monitoring by reporting what happened in Syria on 2 December 1015 while Parliament was deliberating:
- 26 civilians were killed, including 8 children: 16 at the hands of the regime and 10 under the impact of Russian bombs
- 12 Free Syrian Army fighters died in combat with ISIS (not only from the “non-existent” FSA but in a place where according to Corbyn they don’t exist ‑ Northern Aleppo)
Over the coming months I plan to continue tracing the progress of the Vienna plan and to provide periodic reports on this blog, under the heading Vienna Watch.