Last week, The Sunday Times Middle East Correspondent Louise Callaghan was reporting from a refugee camp in northern Syria. She describes talking to a woman with chemical burns on her arms, whose 7-year-old twin daughters were pale, listless and coughing a lot. Their clothes reeked of chlorine. Like the other Syrians from the area of Douma who Callaghan talked to that day, they gave individual, corroborating testimonies about a chemical attack on 7th April, most probably carried out by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad on his own population.
If life in the camp was bad, says Callaghan, grimmer was the life that the people of Douma had left behind: “They have been under siege for four and a half years and their homes have been relentlessly pummelled by bombing and chemical warfare,” she explains to Refinery29 over the phone. “This time dozens of people died because they didn’t realise that gas was coming.”
Since the attack on 7th April, Syria has been in the news more than usual. Many claimed the chlorine attack was “fake news”, designed to legitimise Western intervention in Syria. UK Prime Minister Theresa May decided to join France and the US in launching a response attack on Syrian chemical weapons bases, without consulting parliament. Donald Trump sent a series of typically wild tweets in the lead-up to the response strike, stating that the US’ relationship with Russia, Syria’s political ally, has never been worse. And this Wednesday, after access had been blocked for almost two weeks, inspectors were finally allowed into Douma to evaluate whether a chemical attack had taken place, only to be shot at and evacuated.
Caroline Lucas, the leader of the UK Green Party, has maintained before and after the Western strikes on Syria last Saturday that they were a mistake. She warns: “With the [UK] government refusing to rule out further strikes, there's still a real risk that our actions in Syria could spark further violence and civilian casualties.” The British government claims the strikes were “successful” but Lucas believes that, “as yet, there's no evidence that the strikes achieved anything significant in military terms, despite giving the Syrian and Russian governments a big propaganda opportunity.”
Seemingly backing up Lucas’ point is the fact that, last April, the US struck an alleged Syrian chemical base. “These recent strikes were bigger than last year’s, hitting three targets instead of one,” Callaghan explains, “but as with last year’s strikes, I don’t think this is going to permanently stop the regime from launching gas attacks on its own citizens. The regime has a long record of acting with impunity.” She points to a video posted on the Syrian presidency’s Twitter account the morning after the strikes, of Assad walking into work holding a briefcase: “It was to show that things are, quite literally, business as usual.”
Rana Khalaf is a PhD researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, with a focus on Syrian civil society. “When it came to the strike I think the reaction of local Syrians was not huge. It looked like a power message sent from the US to Russia, but nothing about Syrians,” she says. “A few weeks before that strike a much higher number of people were dying and there was no response. So the two key messages Syrians got is that the regime is staying, because obviously the strike didn’t aim to remove the regime itself. And the second message is that Syrians can be killed, just not by chemical weapons.”
Since the strike from the West, Trump has said that he is “locked and loaded” for more attacks. Meanwhile, in the UK, MPs have been very publicly arguing over what a resolution to the Syrian conflict might look like. Jeremy Corbyn has said that the decision over military action lies with the United Nations. Caroline Lucas has been adamant that tough action shouldn’t mean bombs and bullets.
“For a start, that must mean cracking down on Russia, Syria’s bloody-handed ally,” Lucas tells Refinery29. She suggests hitting Putin where it hurts: the Russian economy, with both unilateral sanctions (imposed by one country on another), like a crackdown on Russian money and property in London, and multilateral (international) sanctions, targeting the wider economy. “US sanctions against Russia are finally beginning to have an effect,” she says. “New US sanctions on seven oligarchs, 17 top officials and 12 companies led to tens of billions of dollars in losses on Russian markets on Monday, and the rouble recently suffered its biggest daily fall in over three years.” Although it’s worth noting that sanctions risk mass job losses, Lucas says "we need to double down on these actions".
As for peace brokering conversations in the UN, there is currently a deadlock. On Wednesday, Russia refused a draft resolution on Syria. “Clearly the UN isn't able to act in a unified way on this issue – in part because both Russia and the US are unwilling to compromise,” adds Lucas. “I'd actually like to see the UN security council reformed so it better reflects world opinion, and isn't just a talking shop for nuclear-armed states. In the meantime, the UN should be trying to get all relevant parties around the table for discussions on how to broker peace between the region’s key players: Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kurdish leaders and Israel.” To be a diplomatic leader, and set an example for the world, she adds, Britain must “immediately end the hypocrisy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia, and be clear about our opposition to Israel’s recent violence against the Palestinians”.
When asked about the idea of UN reform, Khalaf says: “I don’t know what ‘UN reform’ means because the very premise the UN is based on is problematic to start with; it’s based on working with states and institutions, not with people.” She points to the system of vetos, which allows Russia and China to block action on Syria. Sometimes vetos are ignored – but apparently not in the case of an intervention that could prevent humanitarian abuses in Syria. She adds that, on the ground in the country, the UN is somewhat limited to working in regime-controlled areas and will not work with highly politicised civil society groups.
As for what would happen, hypothetically, were Assad deposed, Callaghan says there is the question of who or what would replace him. “Iran and Russia want the survival of the regime because they court their interests – most simply put, Iran’s political reach across the Middle East, and Russia’s strategic military base in the Syrian town of Tartus – so they don’t want Assad replaced with someone pro-Western,” she explains. And as for the West? “Conflicts spring up in Syria all the time, but if Assad was deposed tomorrow it could become more unstable, giving rise to groups like ISIS. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be a good thing if he were deposed, just that these are some of the arguments against regime change.”
Khalaf says it is thought by many Syrians that countries in the UN talks have, for now, agreed that Assad is there to stay. But while there is no clear diplomatic solution in sight, Caroline offers a reminder: “All too often the plight of Syrians themselves is forgotten in discussions on the conflict. If Britain wants to help people in that country directly, we can do so. That's why I’m calling on the government to take more refugees directly from Syria – to give them a chance to start a new life here.”
Khalaf agrees that Syrians themselves are often those who are left out of the conversation. The way security is perceived on the ground in Syria is different from how international actors see it, and depends largely on each community's situation and which part of Syria you are in. “Although humanitarians talk about securing locals’ livelihood, we keep seeing double standards in the sense of what matters most, and usually it’s foreign interests,” she says.