During my two years as the British Special Representative for Syria, I found myself dispelling three great myths about Syria, myths shared by British and Middle Eastern friends alike: the first is that the Syrian crisis is over; the second is that Assad has “triumphed”; And the third is that Syria is no longer really of interest to the UK. It’s all wrong. They are simply falsehoods.
It goes without saying that the crisis is not over yet. And that Assad did not win, neither in war nor in peace (since most Syrians live outside the scope of 65% of the Syrian lands under Assad’s control; how many Syrians living even in the areas under his control consider him a legitimate president or delegated by the people?). On top of all this, Syria remains hugely important to the UK, both now and in the future. Here are ten reasons why it matters:
1. Assad’s crimes cannot be ignored. Assad’s brutality has claimed nearly half a million lives. The families and loved ones of at least 120,000 missing persons continue to suffer the loss of loved ones whose fate is yet to be known – and Assad has added thousands to this number in 2022. With Russia’s support, Assad has used chemical weapons dozens of times against his own people. The tyrants of tomorrow around the world are waiting to see if Assad will get away with it. We cannot allow that to happen. However long the evidence-gathering processes that we help brave Syrians and international mechanisms take to gather now, it remains important and must be preserved, coordinated and used. And the world will witness justice for the Syrians, no matter how long it takes and wherever that happens.
2. The devastation in Syria shows Russia and Iran’s disdain for international norms and human dignity. Syria has become a horrific “rehearsal” for Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine. Where Putin used the suffering Syrians as pawns in his games to achieve his goals at the United Nations, tested his weapons and trained his army, and controlled the Syrian security structures as a tool of pressure on the Syrian neighborhood. As for Iran, it has bought spaces to expand its malign influence in Lebanon, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Accordingly, those who want Syria and the Middle East to enjoy peace and stability should continue to press for the intervention of international diplomacy to support the Syrian political process, thus enabling the future Syria to become a safe and constructive neighbor and a member of the international community.
3. Friends of the United Kingdom need the peace and prosperity of their neighbor Syria. Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq have seen their GDP growth drop by 11.3% since 2010. As for Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometer border with Syria, it needs security around its borders, peace with its neighbor, and Syria to be safe for the Syrians. Likewise, Syria’s largest exports are no longer foodstuffs and wonderful spices as we used to know them before, as they have been replaced by crime, drugs and terrorism. It is Assad’s violence and extortion, not Western sanctions that included humanitarian exceptions, that have resulted in the destruction of the Syrian economy and the starvation of Syrians. Meanwhile, Assad and his partners in crime survive from a huge industry producing Captagon tablets and other drugs, which contributes to fueling the activity of crime networks in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. Thus, where trade was once flourishing with Syria, we now see that corruption and extortion have taken its place for those willing to trade with it. The region as a whole, and the Syrians themselves, need Syria to have a stable and open economy, and to have peaceful and rule-of-law policies.
4. There are 12 million displaced Syrians who need homes in Syria. The generosity shown by Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in hosting 6 million refugees puts great pressure on those countries, in addition to creating usually terrible conditions and insecurity for the refugees themselves. There are also 6.7 million displaced people inside Syria, many of whom have faced many shocks and upheavals in their lives and are still living in a state of fear due to the continuation of military operations. As for humanitarian support, it cannot be predicted given the control of Russia and the regime’s interference in humanitarian arrangements. The UK will continue to support countries hosting Syrian refugees so long as the harsh conditions in Syria mean they cannot return in safety, with dignity and of their own free will.
5. More than 15 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, a staggering increase of nearly two million men, women and children in need since 2021. The crisis has caused immense suffering to the population, including gross and systematic violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Rapid economic decline and the effects of climate change are also driving needs and exacerbating the need for assistance. The British response to the Syrian crisis remains our largest ever anywhere. Despite the difficult global situation, we will not shirk our responsibility to save lives, protect people from harm, and build Syrians’ potential, resilience, and self-reliance over the longer term.--
6. Syria is still a breeding ground for terrorists. The international coalition, thanks to its local partners, has made great strides in depriving ISIS of territory it had already seized in both Syria and Iraq. But ISIS has been responsible for more than 500 attacks on Iraqi and Syrian soil over the past year, with increasingly sophisticated methods. The threat posed by ISIS is increasing, in every sense of the word, and will remain so until a solution is found for the thirty thousand ISIS members detained in Syria and Iraq, in addition to the 60 thousand in al-Hol camp and other camps, most of whom are women and children who lived through the brutality and influence of ISIS. The presence of the coalition will remain as long as it is needed, while we will work harder than ever to find humanitarian solutions and lasting justice to defuse this time bomb inside Syria.-
7. Afghanistan is the only place more dangerous for women than Syria, according to the Global Women, Peace and Security Index – Syria (georgetown.edu). Violence against women has witnessed an alarming increase in the last two years, deepening factors that deprive girls of education and undermine economic opportunities. and politics for women. We were proud to welcome a wonderful delegation of Syrians to the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict conference in London last year. Supporting women and girls is at the heart of UK policy and programmes, and it is time to increase our work with women’s rights activists, women-led organisations, as well as with women involved in politics.
8. We all aspire for all Syrian children to become a peaceful and prosperous generation. The Syrian education system, of which it was once proud, is in acute crisis, with nearly 7 million children, adolescents and education personnel in need of urgent educational assistance. And one in five children does not have access to any form of education. Syrians know they will have a lost generation traumatized by the conflict. They know that this generation needs a quality education for future economic development, to maximize opportunity and dignity for girls and boys in Syria, and to stave off attraction factors for criminal groups. The UK, working closely with partners such as Qatar, has invested £76m in education since 2015. But now we need Syrians and international supporters to unite around a new education campaign to change the trajectory of Syrian children, give them hope and open up prospects for a future. Brighter.
9. The Syrian-British friendship deserves to grow and flourish. Around 48,000 Syrians now live in the UK, and they contribute daily to our educational, business, cultural and third sector lives. We are proud of the more than 700 Syrians who have studied at UK universities for Masters programs funded through the Chevening International Scholarship Scheme. We want to build friendships for the future, and share the rich and diverse cultures of both Britain and Syria.
10. Syria defies international rules and institutions. British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently reminded the world of the “wise and compassionate leaders who enacted the laws and institutions that prevented a global relapse into the old order, where the strong preyed on the weak.” And Assad, like Putin, was ready to destroy the laws that protect every country, and therefore every person, all over the world. As Cleverly said, “The international system has enabled more of our fellow human beings to live in peace and prosperity than ever before.” This is “the single most important reason why British foreign policy strives to renew the principles and institutions upon which this international order was built”. This is also why sticking to these things in Syria is important for the entire world, both now and in the future.
Today I will meet with UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen and the leaders of the Syrian Negotiation Committee. The UK will recommit our support to the agreed UN-facilitated path towards a peaceful political solution in Syria. Attempts to deal with Assad off this path would not only be futile, but threaten to do permanent damage to the principles that have improved the lives of millions and protected people in all countries from the dictum of “might over right.” Nor will such attempts protect Syria’s neighbors or the broader international community from the damage that Syria is exporting today. What happens to the Syrians is very important to them and to us as well. This is why the UK will remain determined to help find a peaceful solution, however difficult it may be, and will continue to invest in Syrian women, men and children, and in the dignified and secure future they deserve.
All published articles represent the opinion of its authors only.