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The PM Needs to Explain Her Wider Syrian Strategy

Tomorrow the Prime Minister is expected to report to the House of Commons on the Government’s decision to join the USA and France in air strikes against Syrian military targets.

Unfortunately, Members of Parliament have yet to receive any formal correspondence from the Government about the operation that took place, so I - like you - have to rely on the Prime Minister’s public statement and reports in the media to form a view. I think this is wholly unacceptable.

What we do know is that on the morning of 14 April, British, American and French forces conducted strikes on Syrian installations believed to be involved in the Assad regime’s illegal use of chemical weapons against its own people. The strike was launched as a response to the Syrian regime’s latest chemical weapons attack on 7 April in Douma, which killed up to 75 people, including young children. The World Health Organisation has confirmed that it has treated more than 500 patients in Douma with nerve agent poisoning symptoms.

There should be a UN investigation taking place, but this is currently impossible because Russia continues to veto any such attempt at the Security Council. The evidence already placed in the public domain suggests the use of banned chlorine by the Syrian Government and Assad has a long track record of using chemical weapons on his own people throughout this conflict. The 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention ban the use of chemical weapons - Assad has used them on at least nine occasions against the Syrian people.

The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime is an intolerable violation of international norms and cannot go unanswered. The United Nations Security Council has a responsibility to uphold human rights but, once again, the Russian Federation has paralysed the Security Council by using its veto to prevent any agreement on appropriate investigations and sanctions against the Syrian Government.

In this context, I understand why other members of the Security Council chose to act, with support from international allies. The Prime Minister will need to explain why she chose to act without consulting Parliament, as has been the expectation for the past 15 years. Whether or not these air strikes will deter the future use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government remains to be seen, but the Prime Minister also needs to explain her wider strategy to address the humanitarian crisis facing the Syrian people.

The Syrian civil war has already led to the slaughter and displacement of millions of Syrian people. The vast majority of those killed have died as a result of conventional weaponry. Yet the international community has failed to mobilise the scale of humanitarian response needed to safeguard civilians and support those countries on the Syrian border who have faced the brunt of the refugee crisis.

When Parliament returns tomorrow, I want to know what the Prime Minister plans to do, in concert with our allies, to provide the scale of support needed to save the lives of Syrian refugees - whether in Syria, in neighbouring states or those seeking refuge in our own country. The UK has taken only a fraction of the refugees promised. Just 11,000 refugees have arrived in Britain - compared with more than 3.5 million in Turkey, more than one million in Lebanon, over 650,000 in Jordan, 530,000 in Germany and 248,000 in Iraq.

Given we know that the conflict in Syria can not be resolved militarily, of course we need a diplomatic effort to restart the Geneva talks. But the reality is that such a process can only succeed with the engagement and support of Russia. The Russian Federation has a responsibility, as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, to help bring about a diplomatic solution to end the civil war. Until that happens, the war will continue to rage and innocent people will pay the price. If any anti-war demonstrations are taking place, they should be outside the Russian Embassy.

In the meantime, it is now past time for our Government, our Parliament and our international allies to focus on developing a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians. The Government responded with a sense of urgency to the use of chemical weapons, but that same urgency has been sorely lacking when it comes to providing the leadership we need to keep Syrian civilians safe. My friend and colleague Alison McGovern MP, who chairs the Friends of Syria Parliamentary Group, has written an excellent piece which you can read here.

On a more general point, and as someone who campaigned against the Iraq War (and for a time left the Labour Party over it), I really do understand public anxiety over military intervention abroad. As your MP, I take a cautious and sceptical approach to military intervention. I also recognise that, just as interventions like Iraq and Libya are a reminder of the disastrous consequences that can follow such action, there are consequences of inaction, too. Genocides and atrocities in Darfur, Rwanda, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are just a few examples of the consequences of inaction. In time, I fear history will judge the international community harshly for our collective failure to act sooner to prevent Syria from descending into this bloody quagmire.

It is time for all members of the UN Security Council to fulfil their obligation and develop a diplomatic and humanitarian strategy to protect civilians and bring this civil war to an end. There can be no doubt that further inaction will see further loss of life.

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