As war accelerates again in Syria it’s time for us to act

“Time is running out to save Syria’s ceasefire” warned Dr Haytham Alhamwi of the Manchester-based Syrian Rethink Rebuild Society three weeks ago “otherwise Assad will get the message that he can persist with ever more egregious violations”. Now the always limited ‘cessation of hostilities’ is, in the words of UN envoy Staffan de Mistura “barely alive“.

On Thursday one of free Aleppo’s last remaining paediatricians was killed along with colleagues and patients in the “broader pattern of systematic targeting of hospitals by the government of Bashar al-Assad”. The Syrian government is doing what it always does when dragged to the negotiating table: distract, prevaricate and take the opportunity to step up repression of non-violent activists and organise a security build-up for the outright military victory Assad promised no sooner had the ceasefire been agreed.

As I wrote in November and December last year, the doom of the current peace process was effectively confirmed before it had begun, due to the continuing failure to hold Assad to account; to exert the kind of pressure necessary to make him calculate that he has more to lose from fighting than from talking seriously. The Syrian opposition is far from perfect of course, but most of the mainstream factions managed to cobble together a negotiating team and platform and despite serious reservations came to Geneva willing to discuss the implementation of the principles upon which these talks are based. It is worth reminding ourselves that these were established years ago and in addition to committing both sides to a ceasefire include:

  • the withdrawal of all Syrian Government troops and heavy weapons from population centres to their barracks to facilitate a sustained cessation of violence
  • [intensifying] the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities.

And of course, they commit both sides to a process designed to lead to a transition of power. But with the US, Russia and the UN “willing to compromise on Mr Assad’s fate in order to concentrate on IS, despite ever more evidence of industrial-scale torture by the regime, including sodomy, burning using welding torches, and castration” it is putting it mildly to say that “it will be hard to find peace”.

For peace to have a chance, Syrians must have faith that the process offers them safety. A good place to start would be the breaking of the regime’s sieges of civilian population centres, as called for by Syrian community organisations and as supported by our own MPs Tom Brake, Greg Mulholland and Baroness Lindsay Northover in their signatures to an open letter noting that:

This month, the UN carried out its first successful airdrop into the city of Deir Ezzor, proving that there are options we could take to alleviate the worst of the hunger in Syria. If we can drop food to Deir Ezzor, we can drop it to places like Daraya and all besieged areas in Syria.

Our Syria policy made in York this March calls for us to “investigate the creation of humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones over Syria.” I would do this and go further. If we and our allies are not willing to protect Syrian civilians ourselves, we should warn Assad and Russia that we will finally let Syrians defend themselves and gradually release modern anti-aircraft weapons to certain of the more mainstream opposition groups. This threat can be made privately so as not to put Assad and his backers in a position where they stand to lose face. But if we don’t concentrate minds then we can forget about saving the current peace process.

Nearly everyone who knows Syria has been surprised that the cessation of hostilities has lasted this long. But unless we can urgently apply the pressure needed to get the peace process on track we face years more war, terrorism, population outflows, state collapse and political instability. It is time to act.

Anyone wanting further information on Syria and on the opinions of Syrians living here, elsewhere in the diaspora and inside Syria are invited to follow the Liberal Democrats for Syrian Freedom, Peace and Reconstruction or to email us on [email protected]. Please also sign the petition in support of the women of Daraya who are asking for aid drops.

* Jonathan Brown is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Chichester Party and founder of the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria.

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  • Please, No! Despite your biased articles, there are no “good guys” in this conflict….As the UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said “Violence is soaring back to the levels we saw prior to the cessation of hostilities”. Reports of new military build-ups revealed a “monstrous disregard for civilian lives by all parties to the conflict,”….
    It appears some have learned little/nothing from us ‘acting’ in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…

  • john jefferson 30th Apr '16 - 11:43am

    I really find it absurd to read this biased report… this is all one sided and for the rebels who have taken up arms against Assad …. what do you expect him to do ? …. and the rebels are mere puppets of the west and Turkey plus Saudi Arabia…. But these countries are absolved from crimes they commit….. I am really disappointed in Liberal democrats. Maybe the republicans and democrats should take up arms against each other in USA and sort things out this way in their own country.

  • It seems it is agreed that Assad is on the brink of victory and we must ask ourselves if, given the options, we are content that such an outcome is in the best interests of the Syrian people, their human security and the implications of that for everyone else concerned. I am in no doubt that Assad is culpable for the miseries that have ensued and the political survival of his regime seems utterly unacceptable. Our present policies do nothing to challenge this however. Russia and Iran will be emboldened and we will have failed to defend the populace against their tyrant and the refugees will not return. This cannot be the answer. To escalate the proxy war this has become is understandably a trepidous step, but if we are trying to lessen the bloodshed by holding back, then we will not achieve it, it will come regardless, only by another way. This war is destabilising Europe.

  • David Evershed 30th Apr '16 - 11:54am

    Syria is another example of Sunni supporting groups against Shia supporting groups in the Middle East (as we call it).

    The foundation of any Middle East peace lies with resolving the religious and cultural differences between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. It will take a long time but the sooner they start the sooner there will be a resolution.

  • David Cooper 30th Apr '16 - 12:25pm

    @…we must ask ourselves if, given the options, we are content that such an outcome is in the best interests of the Syrian people…

    A novel idea: the Syrian people, not us, should decide what is in their best interests.

  • john jefferson 30th Apr '16 - 1:16pm

    It is so blatant to me that if I don’t agree with Lib Dem Voice then my posts will not see your comment section ….what you guys need is yes yes ok and you are right ? then I am with you ?

  • john jefferson 30th Apr '16 - 1:30pm

    Thank you for posting my comment Lib’s but Ben you have had to much western propaganda from the media … please read my post… would it be right if some Arab state arms the UK Labour if they see the West spring? …. It is the USA and UK with France that cause all these wars in the middle east…. I mean this what threat was Libya to any other country? the leader was giving his people a fair deal… what did Clinton say” We came ,we saw, he died” and a big laugh. All because Gadafi wanted payment in gold and not dollars.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 2:35pm

    @expats – yes, there are good guys.

    They’re the millions of Syrians fleeing for their lives.

    They’re the White Helmets – volunteers, pulling the dead and injured out of the rubble, and who are being targeted by the Syrian regime:

    They’re the people who have set up the Local Coordination Committees who provide a semblance of governance and public services to the parts of Syria where they have overthrown Baathist rule:

    They are the volunteers providing secular education to the children of Syria who have been abandoned – or bombed – by their own government:

    They are the diaspora communities who get urgent humanitarian supplies to desperate Syrians inside the country and in the refugee camps:

    They are the doctors and nurses risking their lives to provide medical care to Syrias who have been abandoned by the world:

    So yes, expats, there are good guys. And I unashamedly support them. I find it unacceptable that in the modern world wholesale destruction – gas attacks, prison camps, starvation seiges – against a civilian population is allowed.

    @john jefferson – the Syrian people rose up in peaceful protest against the government and resorted arms only in response to widescale and bloody violence against civilians. If the outside world will not defend people, then they should be allowed to defend themselves.

    @David Evershed – sectarianism has undoubtedly poisoned the conflict in Syria, as it has others in the Middle East, but it is not at the root cause of the war. People of all faiths rose up against one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes on the planet, and there are still secular and democratic forces at work within the opposition. Violence begets violence and simply ‘letting them fight among themselves’ is not only deeply insulting to the many people (on both sides, it has to be said) who are not motivated by sectarianism, but it is recipe for years more slaughter.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 2:47pm

    @David Cooper – quite right. They Syrian population right now are calling out in desperation for an end to the bombing, for food to be allowed to communities under seige and for the release of political detainees.

    Without these things there is no peace process.

    The ‘cessation of hostilities’ was never total and there have been violations from all sides from the beginning. But the frequency and scale of violations from the regime has been rapidly increasing in recent weeks. Unless the regime is forced to negotiate, along the parameters set out in the various peace accords and enshrined in UN resolutions then things can and will get much, much worse.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Apr '16 - 2:48pm

    The face saving idea for Assad sounds good, and I agree war needs to be an option, but the big plan by Syrian activists seems to be to team up with Al-Qaeda and what is the evidence that they are less prone to tortue and atrocities than Assad? It’s affected my trust when I’ve seen people try to say it is simply a three sided war with moderate rebels, ISIS and Assad. Al-Qaeda are not moderate.

    Helping out al-Qaeda is a red line for me and I will consider any plan that doesn’t include them unless I see evidence for genocide being planned or happening.

    What is the UN evidence for the torture chambers? Why can’t we get Russia to close them down? Can we try putting pressure on Russia first before we go in all guns blazing and possibly end up with a major war against Russia and Iran? Is helping refugees not a better solution that turning Syria into even more of an all out war zone?

    Previous plans to go in all guns blazing failed to have public support and we would have likely ended up in a war against Russia and Iran without public support and we could have very well lost it due to our lack of commitment.

    Action also needs to be taken on the hospital bombing. More economic sanctions perhaps.

    Oh and when it comes to sieges I’ve seen moderate rebels and even some western commentators give tacit support to them by saying food aid drops in regime held areas are counter productive because it draws more people into the Assad camp.

    By the way: France is meeting Putin later in the year so good luck trying to get them on board for war. It will basically be only Britain in Europe who would make a major contribution.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 3:16pm

    @Eddie Sammon – I should be clear that providing anti-aircraft weapons (or rather, allowing others to provide them) is not my preferred option. But it should be on the table and one we should consider if there isn’t rapid progress towards ending attacks on civilians.

    Even to call it a three-sided war is an over-simplification, but most Syrians do not support al-Qaida aligned Nusra Front. Indeed, when the cessation of hostilities began, protests errupted against Nusra as well as against the regime:

    But I think Syrians can be forgiven not wanting to pick too much of a fight with them right now, seeing as Nusra have protected them against ISIS and even more so against the regime. Syrians are well aware of the long term danger Nusra pose, but as you will have noticed, Syrians are not blessed with an abundance of allies leaping to their aid.

    The evidence for regime torture chambers is longstanding and not really disputed:
    The regime ran many notorious prisons well before the uprising.

    Of course, Putin’s pet RT deny the evidence, but they’ve also been distorting evidence taken from the scene of the Aleppo hospital bombing to try to shift the blame from the regime or Russia to Nusra:

    We can’t get Russia to close the torture chambers down because the regime is essentially blackmailing its Russian backers. The regime survives only through systematic terror. Without the threat of torture and death for any opponents, the regime could not survive. So leaving aside the fact that Putin has long been willing to associate with allies who commit outrageous human rights violations, Putin is unlikely to apply pressure on Assad now.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 3:17pm

    As for food aid drops – most food aid has been seized by the regime and distribution is influenced, if not controlled altogether by the regime, so yes, it does act as a magnet for people. But Syrian civil society organisations are calling for food drops to areas which are beseiged by the regime, thereby sidestepping the regime’s efforts to starve the population into submission.

    I reiterate that I am not advocating going to war with Russia. I am saying that we should use the tools at our disposal to bring relief to civilians inside Syria, and that as a last resort (albeit one we need to consider very soon if it’s not to be entirely too late) we should enable Syrians to defend themselves. The goal being to drive Russia to drive Assad back to a ceasefire and to negotiations.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 3:58pm

    To return to the point about listening to Syrians… This is the statement put out today at the demonstration in London and supported by the major Syrian UK civil society organisations:

    Aleppo Hospital bombing: Statement by Syrian groups in the UK

    The bombing of another hospital in Aleppo by Assad’s air force, killing patients and medical workers, is the action of a lawless gangster organisation. Every Security Council resolution on Syria has been brazenly flouted, and every agreement broken.

    That Assad’s criminal air force is still at liberty to fly and bomb is a stain on the reputation of the UN Security Council, a stain on every one of the permanent member governments, a stain on NATO that allows this to continue a few kilometres across its southern border.

    These killings, after five years of Assad’s slaughter of civilians, are a stain on every political party inthe UK, on every politician in Britain who has failed to stand up for the right of civilians for protection.

    The UK needs to take action to enforce UN resolutions and ground Assad’s air force.

    the UK needs to answer the call of Syrian doctors for air drips to besieged civilians.

    To stand by is to be complicit in the crime.

    Syria Solidarity UK
    Syrian British Medical Association
    Kurds House
    Rethink Rebuild Society
    Peace and Justice for Syria
    Syrian Association of Yorkshire
    Syrian Platform for Peace
    Syrian Society of Nottinghamshire
    Syrian Welsh Society

  • Ben Midgley 30th Apr '16 - 5:47pm

    So, it seems pretty clear we have the capability to prevent Aleppo falling through humanitarian aid, and yes, if needs be, to provide the cover to ensure that aid gets through and the distribution efforts are not frustrated. To do so would not be an act of aggression, and it would be a response to the calls from within, it would also maintain the pressure on Assad, who like others like him, turned his arms on unarmed civilians in the pursuit of democratic reforms.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Apr '16 - 7:52pm

    The airstrike on the hospital seems deliberate. We still need to maintain a bit of caution though. The regime has anti-aircraft weapons and plenty of ground troops so we can’t just send our troops and pilots on a de facto suicide mission.

    Even before the anti aircraft weapons were installed Russia was guarding the area with ships, so this was never an easy task, unless there was secret intelligence saying otherwise.

    I see two options:

    1. Fund rebels and engage in a proxy war to act as leverage to bring Assad and Russia to the table.

    2. Launch an all out military attack on Syria. Planes, ground-troops – the lot.

    What we can’t do is send our troops on a de facto suicide mission in a half-bothered attempt to get Assad out of there because we’ll probably only end up losing and we could have focused on helping refugees instead.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Apr '16 - 11:30pm

    @Eddie Sammon – Agreed. Sending our troops to fight the Russians would indeed pour petrol on the fire, as would using our aircraft to attack Russian positions or shoot down their bombers.

    It’s not what I’m suggesting.

    Providing sufficient support to enable the rebels to defeat the regime seems to me to be almost impossible now that the regime has drawn Russia directly into the fighting. The regime was probably on the verge of (an admittedly long and drawn out) collapse before Russia’s mass bombing campaign, but with this kind of Russian backing, defeat seems unlikely.

    So the best bet seems to be to apply sufficient pressure on Russia and particularly the regime to force them back to the negotiating table. Even then, it is very hard to see what talks for achieve, but it looks like the least bad of a bunch of terrible options. And they will only have a chance of success if the pressure is kept up.

    The alternative is to continue with our defacto current policy. Ally ourselves with Assad and bomb ISIS while he destroys Aleppo, creates another couple of million refugees and starves millions more Syrians to the point that famine defeats them.

    Which still doesn’t answer the question of who is going to fight ISIS on the ground. The Kurds can’t and won’t do it in the large swathes of Syria where the Kurdish population is tiny or non-existent. The regime will only do it with continued Russian, Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan troops put at its disposal. That is of course assuming the regime prioritises fighting ISIS over turning on the Kurdish autonomous cantons and crushing them too.

    Nor does it answer what is going to happen to the millions of Syrian refugees who will clearly never be able to return home.

  • Jonathan Brown 1st May '16 - 12:27am

    MSF are also campaigning on the issue of attacks on medical facilities:

    Hospitals, doctors and patients are not a target. “Last year in Syria alone, one medical facility was bombed each week”

    Amnesty report similar:

    “Syrian and Russian forces have been deliberately attacking health facilities in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. But what is truly egregious is that wiping out hospitals appears to have become part of their military strategy”

  • Eddie Sammon 1st May '16 - 1:01am

    Hi Jonathan, I tried to find you on Twitter. I tweeted your article to Tom Brake and Tim Farron. I agree we need action on this and the bombing of the hospital in Aleppo could provide added impetus.

    MSF have even stopped sharing the locations of their hospitals in case they are purposefully bombed. They must be very afraid to do that.

    Careful action – let’s see if as a community of nations we can work something positive out!

  • Jonathan Brown 1st May '16 - 1:26am

    @Eddie Sammon – thanks. I’m @libintervention although I’m not a prolific twitterer.

    Hopefully people reading it will peruse the comments too, as there are some important details and clarifications which had to be cut from an already long article.

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