In my two years as UK Special Representative for Syria I have found myself dispelling three Big Myths about Syria, all too often shared by British and Middle Eastern friends alike: first, that the Syria Crisis is over; second, that Bashar al-Assad has ‘won’; and third, that Syria no longer really matters to the UK. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
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Self-evidently the crisis is not over. And al-Assad has won neither the war nor the peace (most Syrians live outside the 65 percent of Syria he controls; and how many of those in the areas he does control regard him as a legitimate or popularly mandated leader?). Moreover, Syria continues to matter greatly to the UK, both now and for the future. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. Assad’s crimes
Assad’s crimes cannot be ignored. al-Assad ’s brutality has led to almost half a million deaths. The families and loved ones of at least 120,000 missing people continue to suffer their unresolved loss – and al-Assad added thousands to that number in 2022. With Russia’s support al-Assad has used chemical weapons dozens of times on his own people. Would-be tyrants across the world are watching to see if he gets away with it. We cannot let that happen. However long it takes, the evidence we are helping courageous Syrians and international mechanisms to gather now must be preserved, curated, and deployed. Whenever and wherever it happens, the world will see Syrians get justice.
2. Syria’s devastation
Syria’s devastation shows Russia’s and Iran’s disregard for global norms and human dignity. Syria has been a ghastly dress rehearsal for Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine. Putin has used suffering Syrians as pawns in his power games at the UN, tested his weapons and trained his military, and dominated Syria’s security structures as a lever against Syria’s neighbourhood. Iran has bought space for extending its malign influence in Lebanon, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Those who want a peaceful, stable Syria and Middle East must continue to push for international diplomacy in support of a Syrian political process, enabling a future Syria to be a safe and constructive neighbour and member of the world community.
3. Syria's neighbors need peace and prosperity
The UK’s friends need peace and prosperity in their neighbor Syria. Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have seen their GDP growth reduce by 11.3 percent since 2010. Turkey, sharing 900 km of border with Syria, needs security around its border, peace with its neighbor, and for Syria to be safe for Syrians. Syria’s greatest exports are no longer their wonderful foods and spices, instead they are crime, drugs and terrorism. It is al-Assad’s violence and extortion, not Western sanctions with humanitarian exemptions, that have left Syria’s economy wrecked and its citizens starving. Meanwhile al-Assad and his partners in crime prop themselves up with a massive industry producing captagon and other narcotics, fuelling crime networks in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and across the region. Where once there was thriving trade with Syria, now corruption and extortion greet those ready to do business. The region, as well as Syrians themselves, need Syria to have a stable, open economy, with peaceful politics and the rule of law.
4. 12 million displaced people need homes in Syria
The generosity shown by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in hosting 6 million refugees puts a huge strain on those countries, as well as creating often appalling conditions and insecurity for the refugees themselves. Many of the 6.7 million displaced people within Syria have faced multiple upheavals to their lives and remain in fear of ongoing military activity. Humanitarian support is unpredictable, thanks to Russia and the regime’s meddling with humanitarian norms. The UK will continue to support countries hosting refugees for as long as the brutality of conditions in Syria means they cannot return safely, voluntarily and in dignity.
5. Over 15 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance
Over 15 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, a shocking increase of almost two million men, women and children from 2021. The crisis has inflicted immense suffering on the population, including massive and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Rapid economic deterioration and impacts of climate change are exacerbating needs and vulnerability still further. The UK’s response to the Syria crisis remains our biggest ever anywhere. Despite a challenging global situation, we won’t abandon our responsibility to saving lives, protecting people from harm, and building up the ability of Syrians to sustain their longer-term resilience and self-reliance.
6. Syria remains fertile ground for terrorists
Thanks to its local partners the Global Coalition has achieved great things in depriving Daesh of physical territory in Syria and Iraq. But Daesh was responsible for more than 500 attacks on Iraqi and Syrian soil last year, with methods that are getting increasingly sophisticated. And the threat of Daesh is literally growing and will do until a solution is found for the 30,000 Daesh detained in Syria and Iraq and the 60,000 people in Al Hol and other camps, mainly women and children exposed to Daesh brutality and influence. The Coalition presence will stay as long as it needs to, while we work harder than ever to find durable humanitarian and justice solutions to defuse this time bomb ticking within Syria.
7. A dangerous place to be a woman
Only Afghanistan is a more dangerous place to be a woman than Syria, according to the Global Women Peace and Security Index Syria - GIWPS (georgetown.edu). Gender-based violence has seen a worrying increase over the last two years, deepening factors that deny girls an education and erode women’s economic and political opportunities. We were proud to welcome a fantastic delegation of Syrians to last year’s Conference on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict in London. Support to women and girls is at the heart of the UK’s policy and programmes in Syria, and it is time to step up further our engagement with women’s rights activists, women-led organisations and women involved in the political process.
8. Syrian children can become a prosperous generation
We all need Syria’s children to become a peaceful and prosperous generation. Syria’s once proud education system is in severe crisis, with nearly 7 million children, adolescents, and education personnel in need of urgent education assistance. 1 in 5 children have no access to any form of learning. Syrians know they face a Lost Generation traumatised by conflict. They know they need quality education for future economic development, to maximise opportunity and dignity for Syria’s girls and boys, and to ward off the attractions of criminal groups. The UK, working closely with partners such as Qatar, has invested £76 million ($92 million) in education since 2015. But now we need Syrians and international supporters to unite around a new campaign on education to change the trajectory for Syrian children, providing hope and the prospect of a brighter future.
9. Syrian-British friendship deserves to thrive and grow
About 48,000 Syrians now live in the UK, contributing every day to our educational, business, cultural and Third Sector life. We are proud of the more than 700 Syrians who have completed Masters programmes at UK Universities funded through our global Chevening Scholarship programme. We want to build friendships for the future, sharing the rich and diverse cultures of the UK and Syria.
10. Syria challenges international rules and institutions
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly reminded the world recently of the “wise and compassionate leaders who created the laws and institutions that prevented a universal relapse into the old order, where the strong prey upon the weak”. Like Putin, al-Assad has been prepared to destroy the laws that protect every nation and, by extension, every person across the globe. As Cleverley said, “The international order has allowed more of our fellow human beings to live in peace and prosperity than ever before”. And that “is the single most important reason why British foreign policy strives to renew its founding principles and its institutions”. And why how these are upheld in Syria matters for the whole world, now and in the future.
This week I met with UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen and the leaders of the Syrian Negotiating Committee. The UK committed once again to support the agreed UN-facilitated route to a peaceful political solution in Syria. Attempts to deal with Assad outside this route won’t just be fruitless, they risk causing lasting damage to the principles which have improved the lives of millions and protected people of all nations from the maxim that ‘might is right’. They won’t protect Syria’s neighbours or the wider international community from the harms which today’s Syria exports. What happens to Syrians matters deeply both to them and to all the rest of us. And that is why the UK will stay determined to help find a peaceful solution, however hard that is, and will keep investing in Syrian women, men and children and the dignified and secure future they deserve.
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