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.

In May 2011 the civil uprising was invigorated by the desperately sad revelation that 13 year old Hamza al-Khateeb had died in prison. When his body was returned to his family, “the boy’s head was swollen, purple and disfigured. His body was a mess of welts, cigarette burns and wounds from bullets fired to injure, not kill. His kneecaps had been smashed, his neck broken, his jaw shattered and his penis cut off.” Even Syrians, after decades of oppression, were shocked that the regime would stoop so low.

As this post explains: “By June 2011, Islamist radicals, many of whom had been released in presidential amnesties, began to organize into small militias conducting hit-and-run attacks on the army. Now thoroughly disabused of the notion that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government could be swayed by peaceful protest, many former demonstrators and military defectors also took up arms.”

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, the international community has completely failed Syria. We have stood by or allowed fuel to be poured on the fire of one of the worst humanitarian crises since WWII.

As someone who lived in Syria for several years, and who remains in contact with Syrians there, and in the refugee communities, it is clear that my sympathies lie with the Syrian people, divided though they may be. Last week’s conference debate on the emergency motion ‘Towards a Stable and Peaceful Syria’ was, despite the perhaps unrealistic optimism of the title, nevertheless a step forward. As a party we have debated air strikes and united around Tim Farron’s call that we should do much, much more for refugees (not all of whom are Syrian, it should be noted). What we have not been good at doing, as a party, a government, a country or even as a continent, is to really listen to Syrian voices and create space for them to lead and inform our debates.

If the controversy around air strikes has achieved one thing, it has been that this has begun, ever so slightly, to change. On Saturday 9th January many of us attended the very informative “Syria Vote and Beyond – Radical Ideas for Difficult Problems” conference, and heard from two Syrian speakers. We were privileged that one of them, Yasmine Nahlawi of the Manchester Syrian Community’s Rethink Rebuild Society, came to speak at the ‘Safe at Last? Syrian Refugees in the UK’ Fringe in York last weekend.

I have founded, and aim shortly to officially launch the Liberal Democrats for Syrian Freedom, Peace and Reconstruction. The primary purpose of the group is to help connect Lib Dems with Syrians and to enable us to hear directly from them. It exists to be a conduit for Syrians to connect with us. I hope that we will be able to develop links with, and learn from, organisations such as the Rethink Rebuild Society, the Syrian British Medical Association, Badael and many others. With the recent partial ‘cessation of hostilities’, Syrians have taken to the streets in great numbers once again, protesting against the horrific regime and the extremists who have attempted to co-opt the revolution. We should be with them in spirit and in solidarity.

I will write more soon, but if anyone would like to register their interest or get involved, please contact me via the Facebook page linked to above and/or email me on [email protected].

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

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  • I know that it appears to be unfeeling, but what the West should have been doing before the Syrian uprising was engaging with Russia and China and encouraging them to put pressure on Assad to liberalise his government. He might have listened, or been forced to listen to them and made concessions to the opposition. Nothing that we did or didn’t do after the Syrian people took up arms against Assad would have made much difference to the tragedy.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Mar '16 - 6:04pm

    @tonyhill – I completely agree that we should have been dealing engaging with Russia and China prior to the conflict, although I don’t know that either of them had a huge amount of influence.

    There has been a great tendancy to downplay the agency and interests of Syrians in this whole, sorry affair. The regime would have looked after itself no matter what Russia or China asked of it – and clearly neither were particularly interested in promoting democracy around the world.

    However, I don’t agree that there’s nothing we could have done since the start of the uprising. It would have been wrong to have tried to take control of it or lead it, but we should have been prepared to back Syrians leading it. There’s a perfectly legitimate debate about what the nature of this backing could have taken. There’s a powerful argument for saying that we should have intervened militarily in 2013 in response to massed chemical weapon attacks on civilians in Damascus, but there is much more we could have done to support the unarmed opposition too. Not least by refusing to get taken for a ride in the previous rounds of ‘peace talks’ that have been used simply as diplomatic cover for the regime to consolidate territorial gains and step up arrests of civilian demonstrators.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '16 - 6:36pm

    I want to debate this topic without people jumping in with anger if people politely challenge their view on the topic. I know it is life and death, so that is hard sometimes, but bear with me.

    Basically I think Obama has been right not to jump into a war with Russia and Iran, but he should have introduced sanctions on them for propping up Assad. The sanctions on Iran have been lifted recently because of the nuclear deal and the sanctions on Russia are only related to Ukraine.

    Yes, Syria is a mess, but this is partly because of sectarian conflict engulfing the Middle East and people like Saudi Arabia and Iran fuelling it. It’s hard for “the west” to jump in and impose peace, but maybe we could also do with sanctions on Saudi Arabia.

    The torture of the boy is evil, but we need to know more about whether this was personally sanctioned by Assad. Targeting kids full stop is evil, or civilians, but as Obama said in his recent interview with the Atlantic about the chemical weapons attack on kids and other civilians: the intelligence was not a “slam dunk”, which is what they said Iraq 2 would be.

    I could write more about the conflict but I want to keep my writing short. I’m willing to be convinced on the need for military action against Assad, which I called for in the immediate aftermath of the vote to strike ISIS in Syria, but there’s a difference with a few strikes and regime change in the face of strong opposition from Iran and Russia.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Mar '16 - 7:02pm

    @Eddie Sammon – I am convinced we ought to have intervened in 2013 and that we could have saved a huge number of lives by doing so. And it wouldn’t have required directly confronting Russia or Iran then.

    I’m honestly not sure what the solution is now. I don’t think our very limited bombing will achieve anything significant in the absence of a political strategy. But the lack of willingness to act; to enforce UN security council resolutions calling for the end to barrel bombing and so on, makes the chances of the current peace talks very slim indeed.

    There is no denying the sectarianism in the Syrian civil war, but I think you’re making a mistake by focussing on that to the exclusion of the more fundamental issue. This is about people resisting oppression. That is what people rose up against. There was always a danger of sectarianism creeping in, but its flames have been fanned by the regime well before regional powers intervened doing the same.

    I don’t think we need to know whether Assad personally specified the kinds of torture he wanted carried out in his name: he is well aware of how the security aparatus works, and well aware of what is being done. There can be no question that he bears ultimate responsibility for the crimes against humanity being carried out by his government.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Mar '16 - 7:25pm

    Hi Jonathan, good point on the importance of not getting distracted by the wider sectarian elements.

    I think where I disagree with some is the idea that Russia only strongly backed Assad military recently. Before the 2013 parliament vote to attack Assad Russia sent their warships into the region as Britain, France and America was sending ours. There was a real risk of a direct war with Russia without support from the public and we need to consider the costs of action and inaction, as you know.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Mar '16 - 8:32pm

    There are costs of inaction as well as action, I agree. I think this article puts it very well however, in recognising that the costs of inaction have been huge.

    It’s not that I seek confrontation with Russia, Iran or anyone else. But the failure to take measured action, to follow up promises, to meet commitments and to uphold laws created a situation in which a whole range of regional and international actors felt empowered to do their worst and/or threatened to the point that they were willing to take huge risks and sought to undermine their opponents for fear of yet worse to come.

  • I was supportive of a military intervention of some kind in 2013 – the only reason it failed in Parliament was due to political games played by Ed Milliband, who successfully derailed Western policy with a single parliamentary gesture. An intervention would have changed the course of the war, and almost certainly forced a lull in the bloodshed and destruction before now. Quite how it would have been different, we won’t know, but I doubt I’ll ever forgive the Labour Party.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Mar '16 - 11:23pm

    Thanks John. I feel very similar. The whole thing was a total disaster. I think the government completely failed to make the case for intervention, and Labour completely failed to make the case for non-intervention and the result wasn’t even that we chose an active policy of non-intervention. It was that we had no strategy or approach at all.

    Things are much worse, and more complicated now. I think the priorities have to be on the protection of Syrian civilians:
    – enforcing an end to the aerial bombing
    – the release of political prisoners
    – lifting of the starvation seiges

    Without these it’s hard to see how the current lull in fighting can last. And if it doesn’t, it’s hard to see how to avoid things getting even worse.

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