By Rachel Auld
Syria is situated, as most of us know next to some very hostile countries and the crisis in the country has had a knock-on effect in Lebanon and Israel. A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Turks, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis, who make up most of the population. The demographic situation, combined with extremely tense sectarianism has worsened the conflict and is representative of the Lebanese civil war.
Political power, long held by a small mainly Alawite elite, is currently being fought for in the longest running episode of the Arab Spring. Today they represent 12% of the Syrian population and for the past 50 years the political system has been dominated by an elite led by the Alawite Assad family. Assad’s regime is notorious for its ruthlessness, unilateralism, total disregard for human rights and it places the protection of partisan interests above all else. The government has become very isolated by Western leaning states due to its alignment with Iran and rogue-state nature.
As the dissent began, inspired by events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, people thought that things might end very quickly with success. The only thing that happened was that the government staged an all-out offensive against the people using largely Russian and Iranian aid. Despite large defections from the government elite, The conflict obviously shows no signs of ending and the humanitarian situation is dire. There is simply no-one willing to step into such a volatile place in order to help others.
That isolation showed brief signs of easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold in 2008, but Syria’s violation of a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia led to the extension of US sanctions in May 2010. Further international sanctions were imposed amid the bloody repression of protests in the descent into civil war. By December 2012 the US, Turkey, The Gulf states, France and Britain had recognised the main opposition National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people”, signalling their belief that the Assad government is beyond redemption. Whilst Assad has lost all credibility and rightly so, no government has translated this into “the responsibility to protect” where the fact that the government cannot claim legitimacy, means the problem of sovereignty is not a constraint for intervention, itself a tricky scenario – each side is becoming as bad as the other.
EU foreign ministers are struggling to reach agreements over the UK and the French call to ease the sanctions so Syria rebels can be supplied with arms. France and the UK argue that the move would push Damascus towards a political solution, but some EU states oppose it. Sources say talks are continuing to find some form of compromise but Austria, which opposes the move, accused the UK of intransigence. France said there was growing evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria. Once weapons of mass destruction are clearly in use it is almost impossible to avoid intervention; it is considered to be the last straw and leave foreign states with no choice.
Britain was one of the first to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, providing vital food, medical care, shelter and other essential support to over a hundred thousand people affected by the fighting in the country and to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
- Ban on export/import of arms and equipment for internal repression since May 2011
- Non-lethal military equipment and technical assistance allowed under certain conditions since Feb 2013
- All Syrian cargo planes banned from EU airports
- EU states obliged to inspect Syria-bound ships or planes suspected of carrying arms
- Assets freeze on 54 groups and 179 people responsible for or involved in repression
- Export ban on technical monitoring equipment
In Syria, UK aid has already delivered:
- over 600,000 food packages, which have fed over 120,000 people per month
- more than 147,000 medical consultations
- 20,000 relief packages, including items such as blankets and warm clothing
In neighbouring countries, British support is providing:
- clean drinking water for more than 45,000 refugees, and food for more than 21,000 per month
- education for around 1,000 children
- clinical care and counselling for nearly 13,000 refugees, including those who have experienced trauma or sexual assault
The UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to support an effective response, led by the United Nations. Whilst military intervention is very hard to achieve given the complex nature of the conflict, and the difficulty in picking a side, it seems logical for other states to follow the UK example and put in resources to humanitarian aid.