Author Archives: Jonathan Brown

Freedom Across Borders

Since April this year, Russian and Syrian aircraft have bombed over twenty-five hospitals inside the Idlib ‘Deconfliction’ Zone in northwest Syria, prompting hundreds of thousands of Syrians, many of whom have already been internally displaced, to flee once again. The UN watches helplessly as most of the rest of the world turns its back on the country, uncomfortably grateful that this ongoing horror story rarely makes headlines any more.

Even now, Syrian civil society activists struggle on, attempting to provide basic health and rescue services and to resist the brutality of both the regime and its allies and the …

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Assad, Appeasement, Aleppo and the Collapse of International Law

The latest ceasefire in Syria failed – and was always going to fail – due to a complete lack of will to enforce its provisions. This failure of the international community to respond to the worst humanitarian crisis of a generation is eroding the system of international laws and norms that underpin democratic societies.

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March with Medics Under Fire – ‘Newbie’ Saleyha Ahsan leads the way

Many Lib Dems will remember Junior Doctor Saleyha Ahsan’s rousing conference rally speech (37:45) in York, in which she joined the party ‘live on air’ and blasted Hunt for his attacks on our NHS. Of course, you may also recognise her from her work on the BBC’s ‘Trust Me I’m A Doctor’ or know her from the 2013 BBC documentary ‘Saving Syria’s Children’ in which, while working in Atareb Hospital in northern Syria she was required to help treat the dozens of casualties brought in from one of the Assad …

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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.

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Five years into a revolution betrayed – Liberal Democrats need to build links with Syrians


Note, this post contains descriptions of torture that some readers may find distressing.

Five years ago, on Friday 18th March 2011, Syrian civilians in the southern town of Deraa took to the streets to demand freedom, dignity and a fair future. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and his coterie responded immediately with deadly force, and over the following weeks more and more protesters were shot down, more and more mourners were murdered while attending funerals and more and more innocent Syrians were rounded up for torture – in many cases never to be seen again.

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Syrian Conflict: What is the strategy for dealing with the failure of the Vienna talks?


I opposed the government’s (and this party’s) support for air strikes against ISIS in Syria not because I think there is a credible alternative to confronting them militarily, nor because I don’t wish to stand with our allies, nor because I doubt that air strikes helped saved large numbers of Kurdish lives in both Iraq and Syria. I opposed them because while they can and ought to be part of a strategy for defeating ISIS, the government’s Syria policy is full of contradictions and I don’t think it can succeed. Largely because it does not put the protection of civilian life in Syria at its heart and so will not mesh with the priorities of the people living and dying in the country.

While a lot of the recent debate has been about UK politics, principles, pacifism, opportunism, leadership and rebellion, comparatively little was actually said about Syria and even less was heard from actual Syrians. Faith in the Vienna peace talks as being the only or at least best chance for a negotiated peace is misplaced. This statement from Syrian community representatives in the UK makes the case eloquently: 

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Syrian conflict: Assad and the mirage of a diplomatic solution

Photo by Kafranbel Syrian Revolution

Such is the scale of our political failure concerning the Syrian conflict that the only options left open to us are terrible ones.  Though I think much of the opposition to the air strikes is mistaken, it is with a heavy heart that I speak out in opposition to air strikes on ISIS in Syria too.

ISIS will clearly only be defeated militarily, and I’m happy that the UK should be part of that.  Air strikes were almost certainly essential in enabling the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to survive ISIS’ sudden onslaught in August 2014.

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Turkey, the Kurds & Syria – an Opportunity for Diplomacy?

'Syrians demonstrate for protection outside the US Embassy'. by Jonathan Brown

Syrians demonstrate for protection outside the US Embassy, London – photo by Jonathan Brown

Although the relentless misery in Syria rarely makes the headlines these days, I wonder if we now have another brief window of opportunity to do something positive.

“Turkey and the United States have agreed on the outlines of a de facto “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border … … a plan to drive the Islamic State out of a 68-mile-long area west of the Euphrates River and reaching into the province of Aleppo that would then come under the control of the Syrian opposition.”

The context is a major escalation of violence against Turkey by ISIS and the PKK, and by Turkey against both ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. A concerted diplomatic push now could reap real benefits, but if we miss this chance too, we could be looking at yet another moment at which the conflict intensifies and spreads further.

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Opinion: Race, reckoning and renewal? The EMLD leadership hustings

EMLD HustingsOn 30th June the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats held a dramatic leadership hustings, described by Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, and guest chair as Tim and Norman’s “most difficult, yet most inspiring hustings event to date in front of a largely BME audience.”

It was certainly the highlight of the campaign for me. In his blog, Mark Pack noted that Simon took questions on themes, “intervening with follow ups and switching to the floor on regular occasions to explore issues in greater depth.” Both candidates handled a range of questions from a sceptical, if still hopeful audience, but whichever of them wins it is clear that they – and the party as a whole – has a lot of work to do to regain the trust and confidence of a great many ethnic minority party members and members of the wider public.

EMLD’s Marisha Ray had some revealing stats: for any given ethnicity except white British, the proportion of new members self-identifying as such were at best half as numerous as we would expect given the racial makeup of the UK today. This is worrying, especially in light of Mark Pack and former Cambridge MP David Howarth’s research finding that those describing themselves as ‘not white British’ are disproportionately likely to share values that ought to make them natural Liberal Democrats. Indeed, Simon Woolley revealed that the winning margin in many of our Tory-facing seats was smaller than the BME vote. Had the Liberal Democrats successfully courted it, we might have rather more MPs today.

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Opinion: Lib Demonstrating – Let’s be bold, loud and visible!

Human Rights Act DemoSaturday 30th May was one of the best political days I’ve had in years. Not only was I demonstrating in support of the Human Rights Act but I was doing so with hundreds of other Liberal Democrats. Too much of our protesting in recent years has been behind the scenes. I wasn’t a member of the party when Charles Kennedy was proudly leading Liberal Democrats in opposition to the Iraq war, but it meant a lot to me and stuck with me. I think it’s time to get out there again – make sure our fellow citizens can see the #fightback!

The human rights demonstration was so inspiring for me not just because we were out there in force again – with our leaders, our activists, our banners, and so on, but because we were there with our supporters too. I spoke with lots of people who were not party members, but many of whom were thinking about joining and were taking the opportunity to chat with our leadership contenders as well as activists like me. They appreciated us being there. And it was really nice to be there with them.

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Opinion: The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the need for a no-fly zone

Jonathan BrownOn Tuesday 7th April Planet Syria organised a global day of solidarity with Syrians campaigning against dictatorship and extremism. A coalition of Syrian civil and human rights activists including the famous White Helmets asked for people to remember Syria and send a message showing that they care. Over the last 4 years an amazing country I used to call home has been reduced to rubble and an amazing people ripped apart in one of the worst humanitarian disasters in a generation.

Syrians are calling for 2 steps to reverse the ever-worsening conflict: the implementation of a No Fly Zone followed by support for serious peace talks. The various ways in which such a no fly zone could be implemented are explained in further detail here.

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Opinion: Netanyahu’s rejection of peace must mean British recognition of Palestine

On ‘Call Clegg’ this week Nick robustly declared that “if Benjamin Netanyahu now unilaterally has decided to rule out the prospect of a Palestinian state then I think it is inevitable that British parliament, as it voted a few months ago, should rule a Palestinian state in.” The contrast with Cameron’s (is it unthinking or calculated?) support for Netanyahu’s hope-destroying election victory is both massive, and very welcome. It is great to see the Liberal Democrats standing up for the peace process rather than for an obstructionist right-wing government.

It has become a cliché to say that ‘paradoxically Netanyahu’s election victory is a good thing’: that with the emperor’s new clothes exposed for what they are, there can be no more pretending that there is an Israeli partner for peace.

I’m not so sure. There is no evidence that a prime minister who openly exploits prejudice against Israel’s Arab citizens will suddenly show any serious commitment to a negotiated solution to the conflict. And just as those of us who support an end to the illegal and divisive policies of the occupation want a just peace for the Palestinians, we also recognise that such an outcome will be to Israel’s benefit too. We want a safe, decent and prosperous Israel as a genuine partner for Palestine: an Israel which is becoming ever more unequal, racist, militarised and beholden to its extremists cannot be a partner for peace, let alone a decent place for Israelis to live. This election result is a tragedy for both sides.

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Race, Extremism, Recruitment & Inspiration: the EMLD Presidential Hustings

EMLD Hustings - LD RadioThis week the Ethnic Minority Lib Dems became the first and only party AO/SAO to host a presidential hustings, with Issan Ghazni very ably chairing what for me was the most interesting of the handful of debates I’ve seen so far. He introduced the evening by noting that the UK is becoming ever more diverse and that our party’s lack of ethnic minority representation is an existential issue. The candidates then faced a range of excellent questions covering not just diversity in the party and the failures of the government to advance race equality but other issues such as countering radicalisation, social cohesion and the rise of the far right.

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Opinion: Beware conflating offence with racism – Don’t demand David Ward’s expulsion

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recently saw for the first time the new monument commemorating the sacrifices paid by the men of RAF Bomber Command during World War II. It was a moving memorial, as well as an interesting one. We don’t celebrate the deliberate firebombing of German cities these days: we are thankfully queasy about the thought of the mass targeting of civilians. But the erection of this monument shows that although we – uncomfortably perhaps – understand that those fighting that awful war were compromised morally by their actions, we nevertheless sympathise with those who believed that the missions they flew had some military and economic justification.

I ask people to bear this in mind when considering whether or not David Ward should have the whip withdrawn for his tweets expressing sympathy with Gazans (some of whom are) firing rockets at Israeli cities. Some – many – will find the implications of what he says offensive. But we should be careful about citing offense as justification for the sacking of our political representatives. Especially as liberals.

As others have said, we would not call for the expulsion of an MP who expressed sympathy for Israelis motivated to extend their period of military service in reaction to the rockets fired from Gaza. We do not call for the expulsion of MPs who defend sales of British arms to Israel, even though we know there is a strong likelihood of their being used against Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territories.

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Opinion: Violence And Peace In The Middle East – There Is Something We Can Do

Gaza Burns - photo by Al Jazeera EnglishThe recent murders of the Israeli and Palestinian children were in themselves terrible crimes but they also served to ignite the latest round of brutal violence in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Some media commentators are tempted to suggest that this is inevitable and un-resolvable but I don’t believe that to be the case.

I was surprised recently to discover – and then to find that I greatly admired – the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine’s 9 point plan for peace and the three principles that inform …

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Launching the new ‘Lib Dem New European Network’

lib dem new european networkThe purpose of this network is to put Lib Dems of Central and Eastern European origin, as well as those with an interest in the region and the issues effecting our new European friends, neighbours and citizens, in touch with each other.   It should promote more effective campaigning, the sharing of advice on how to better represent residents of such a background, and spread awareness of the specific issues that affect these communities.

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Opinion… Syria: what do we do now? And, as importantly, why? (Part 3)

The experience of the war in Iraq rightly made us all more sceptical about involvement in the Middle East. But the underlying principle of ‘responsibility to protect’, that as human beings we have a duty to one another, remains as true as it has ever been. It is too late for there to be a good outcome in Syria, but there are ‘less bad’ alternatives we should aim for.

No one is considering sending in the army. There’s no support for it, scant evidence we could do it legally and little reason to think it would make things better rather than …

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Opinion… Syria: what do we do now? And as importantly, why? (Part 2)

In part 1, I looked at where the Syrian uprising came from and argued that we should not be afraid to ‘pick a side’. This time I want to review the failures of the UK’s current policy (or lack of one).

It’s probably uncontroversial to say that most of us would have wished for the Assad regime to hold elections, release its grip on power and transition peacefully to democracy. And that as a fallback option, many of us would have been happy with a negotiated pact between the regime and the opposition, along the lines of what was more …

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Opinion… Syria: what do we do now? And as importantly, why? (Part 1)

There are no good options open to us. Our choices as a country are to jump from the top floor of the burning building where we currently stand or to turn and face the flames we’ve been fanning. I want us to take that leap – to make the effort to understand what outcome might be desirable and possible, and to work towards achieving it. While we’ve dithered, others have been working towards goals that should concern us: we have a stake in the outcome of this war.

This is the first of three articles, inspired not just by the chemical weapon …

Posted in Europe / International and Op-eds | Tagged | 12 Comments

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