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Is UK foreign policy helping to fuel the conflict in Syria?

Oxfam's Andy Baker talks to Ian Sinclair about the UK's humanitarian and military interventions in Syria.

Ian Sinclair
19 August 2016
Footage of a Syrian airstrike. Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images

Footage of an airstrike on Aleppo is screened at the Russian Defence Ministry. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. With the Syrian war escalating, I interviewed Andy Baker, the Regional Program Manager for Oxfam's Syria crisis response. I asked about the humanitarian situation, the UK’s role in the conflict and what policy Oxfam believes the UK should be following in Syria.

Ian Sinclair: According to news reports, the fighting in Syria, especially in and around the city of Aleppo, has escalated in recent weeks. Can you summarise the scale and breadth of the humanitarian crisis in Syria today? 

Andy Baker: The crisis in Syria is well into the sixth year now. Civilians are increasingly the victim of bombings, attacks, and displacement by all warring parties which are primarily and directly responsible for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country. Powerful countries such as Russia, the US, France and the UK are also fuelling the conflict to varying degrees whether through inadequate diplomatic pressure, political and military support to their allies, or direct military action. The recent fighting around Aleppo is the latest example of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children caught in the cross-fire, threatened by death from land and air, and facing severe shortages in food and medicine that could lead to even more deaths. Overall in Syria, humanitarian needs are increasing every day. All the while, access to civilians, especially in besieged areas, has not improved beyond one-off deliveries here and there, tied to ongoing political negotiations.
 
IS: Speaking to Sky News in March 2016 about the Syrian war, you said “we can’t only lay the blame at the feet of the Russians”, noting that Britain – and other nations – have also “fuelled the fire” of the conflict. Can you explain how Britain has done this?

AB: To start, it must be noted that the parties to the conflict – the government of Syria, armed opposition groups and UN designated terrorist organisations - bear the primary responsibility for the suffering in Syria. Powerful countries such as Russia and the US are also fuelling the conflict, including via direct military action.  To a lesser degree, the UK and France are also fuelling the conflict whether through inadequate diplomatic pressure or their more limited military actions.  

Some governments, including permanent members of the UN Security Council, have become belligerents in the civil war. For example, while Russia’s role in talks on Syria is key and it must play an important role in the resolution of the crisis, the reality on the ground is that the increased Russian military involvement and intervention since September 2015 marks a clear escalation of conflict, with devastating results for civilians. Russia and the US, countries with power and the main instigators of the recent provisional ceasefire, spend a combined $8 billion dollars on the war within Syria in 2015. This dwarfs the $1.5 billion the US contributes in aid, with Russia contributing just $9 million towards humanitarian assistance.

Some countries like the UK have been top donors to aid efforts that are reaching Syrian refugees, and when possible, civilians still inside Syria. Their support to vulnerable populations that rely on humanitarian aid outstrips most other countries, and they have played a significant role in mobilising more money from other nations. But they also need to deploy more efforts towards an end to the conflict which is leading to more vulnerability and needs every day.

The UK and other members of the UN Security Council have a responsibility to ensure civilians are protected and peace and security maintained. Resolutions of the Security Council have been consistently flouted and ignored by their allies on the ground. Britain is also part of the US led coalition against ISIS that has ongoing military operations in Syria. This has done little, if anything, to deal with either civilian suffering or the root causes of the conflict.
 
IS: Britain’s partial responsibility for the ongoing conflict in Syria will be news to most people. From your vantage point as the head of Oxfam’s Syria response team, why do you think there is such a large disconnect between Britain’s Syrian policy and the public’s understanding of it?

AB: There’s been a lot of focus in the UK on the issue of refugees, especially those who have taken the risky journey across the Mediterranean to reach Europe. But this issue is only the result of a bloody conflict that has driven nearly a quarter of the Syrian population out of their country. As long as powerful countries including the UK do not address both the protection of civilians and the root causes of the conflict, and put an end to the bloodshed by pushing for a political solution and stopping any active role in the conflict, Syrians will keep on trying to reach safety.
 
IS: What changes to Britain's policy on Syria would Oxfam like to see?

AB: The UK government should use its power on the UNSC and other diplomatic routes to influence parties on ground both to seek a peace process, and to respect human rights and humanitarian law in the conduct of hostilities. The UK government must ensure UK arms and ammunition aren't transferred to the warring parties. It’s deeply disappointing that the UK government is not on track to meet even its modest commitment to resettle 20,000 Syrians by 2020. The government must not only deliver on its existing commitments to resettle the most vulnerable Syrian refugees but also welcome to the UK more people fleeing conflict, including making it easier for families, split apart by violence, to reunite

IS: If individual citizens are concerned about the Syrian war and want to act in some way to help, what do you propose they do?

AB: They need to write to their elected representatives and push them to lobby the government for real political pressure on the Syria: on resettlement of refugees, the aid response, for protection of civilians and a more proactive diplomatic role on the resolution of the crisis. People can also donate to Oxfam's Syria Crisis Appeal. Oxfam has reached over 1.5 million people in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as communities inside Syria with desperately needed food, water and shelter.

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