The war in Syria has now claimed close to half a million lives of civilians, and the international community has manifestly failed to conduct any meaningful process that can bring peace or even a sustained end to the violence. This weekend’s strikes on Syria will not bring the country and its war weary civilians any closer to an end to this violence.
We are appalled by the continuing bloodshed and violence in Syria, by all parties to the conflict. We also recognise that the vast majority of this violence has been conducted by the Government of Syria and its allies. The use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict – most recently in Douma but used every year since 2013 - are horrifying crimes against humanity which we condemn in the strongest possible terms.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has claimed that last weekend’s intervention will save lives. She has even suggested it has a humanitarian justification – a claim that is not upheld by international law and customs. Isolated military gestures of this kind have evidently failed to stop the continued use of chemical weapons in Syria. The so-called “red line” on chemical weapons announced by the US in 2013 has never been more than a fig leaf. Even if this military strike does discourage chemical weapons in future, is that where our concern for human life stops?
US President Donald Trump has declared this operation “job done”, as if life for Syrian’s civilians can now return to a pre-conflict normal. The reality is, that their lives will instead return to the horrific new normal that Syria has become accustomed to over the last more than seven years, and not for the first time. A normal that means little or no access to school where medical facilities are targeted, and 80% of the population live below the poverty line.
Last year we saw the US respond to a reported chemical attack by firing at Syrian military targets – since then, we have witnessed hundreds die in the bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, not to mention the often forgotten hundreds of civilians who died as part of the anti-ISIS coalition bombardment of Raqaa, an operation that ignored the lessons learned in Mosul that could have ensured greater civilian protection.
Selective moral outrage at certain weapons is not enough. Up to December 2017, nearly 70,000 barrel bombs were dropped by the Syrian government, yet this did has not produced the same levels of outrage, even though amongst the thousands killed were 1,734 children. And weapons aside, the machine of this war has left millions displaced, internally and as refugees, millions in need of humanitarian aid. Millions being stripped of hope for a future for themselves or their children, millions who will have woken to this same future this weekend, with or without the strikes on chemical weapons factories.
A life is a life, whether ended by chemical weapons or by conventional weapons. Chemical weapons are not the “red line” – protecting the lives of civilians is the red line that has been crossed far too many times. If outrage about chemical weapons is real - and of course it should be - then it needs to come back to civilian protection and how this can be ensured.
For the international community, protection of civilians must be the priority. On this front, the UK, France and the US have much more to do.
Syria does not need short-lived bursts of moral outrage. It needs a plan for peace from courageous leaders in the international community, including a reinvigoration of the flagging Geneva process. Real moral outrage should be sustained, spur meaningful action for peace and should reach to include increasing the numbers under refugee resettlement programmes in the UK, USA and France – none of which can be claiming to do enough.
Christian Aid’s partner organisations in Syria are seeking to help families who find themselves in the most desperate and dangerous of circumstances, such as in Douma. Speaking to the partner prior to the attacks this weekend, they said that staff on the ground were aware of the international debate, but for them what matters is the hour-to-hour, day-to-day of existence, the hope that they will not be bombed, that they will live another day and feed themselves and their families. This screams volumes: these are the people Trump, May, Macron claim to want to protect, but they are not listening to them.
We call on the leaders of the UK, France and USA to prioritise the protection of civilians, and to step back from further military action.
We call for an immediate ceasefire from all actors to the conflict and immediate full humanitarian relief access to all areas of Syria.
We call for immediate access to be given to OPCW inspectors to Douma to investigate the 7th April attacks.
We call on the UN Secretary General to set up an investigative mechanism on the use of chemical weapons on his own authority, to sidestep the stalemate of the UN Security Council which is abjectly failing in its mandate of maintaining international peace and security.
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