Tuesday, 22 March 2016
First published at Liberal Democrat Voice
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 LD4FreeSyria@gmail.com
Jonathan Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist from Chichester, an executive committee member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine and a Syrian rights campaigner. He is writing here in a personal capacity.
We would like to hear of any similar initiatives by members of other UK political parties, unions, or civil society organisations—please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org