32.It has become clear through our inquiry that the price of inaction in the case of Syria has been unacceptably high. Starting as a peaceful protest in March 2011 the Syrian conflict has subsequently claimed an estimated 400,000 lives, and led to eleven million people, half the Syrian population, being forced to leave their homes.71 The conflict is characterised by what our predecessor Committee report described as “extraordinary complexity” with “thousands of fighting forces in various coalitions and umbrella organisations, with unclear aspirations and shifting alliances.”72 In oral evidence we heard some of the challenges facing the Syria Civil Defence,73 or ‘White Helmets’ as they are commonly known, from Dr Farouq al Habib, a Director at the Mayday Rescue Foundation, who works closely with them:
The main challenges that the White Helmets face are related, first, to the deliberate targeting of medical teams in general, and the White Helmets in particular, through double-tap attacks, when the regime bombs the same area again and again when rescue workers arrive. There is also the disinformation campaign, led mainly by Russian propaganda, to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of the White Helmets and all civil society groups proposing a different narrative in Syria.74
33.The international response to chemical weapons but not to the massive civilian casualties caused by conventional weapons has caused confusion and concern. Referring to the red line that President Obama defined in relation to chemical weapons use in 2012, Farouq al Habib told us that to many in Syria that was understood as “a green light to the regime to use all other kinds of weapons to kill people.”75 Written evidence we received also documented an escalation by the regime of bombing civilians with explosive weapons following the 2013 chemical weapons agreement.76 Data from the NGO Action on Armed Violence records that 2017 was the worst year yet for civilian deaths from explosive weapons.77 Laila Alodaat also explained how explosive weapons have prevented women from reaching life-saving healthcare facilities.78
34.Whilst international humanitarian law prohibits indiscriminate attacks, this has been broadly interpreted by some states who choose to use explosive weapons in populated areas. The use of certain weapons, such as barrel bombs and other Improvised Explosive Device (IEDs), however, are considered by some to be so imprecise and inaccurate, particularly when used in areas with a high concentration of civilians, that there need to be stronger international standards to regulate and limit their use. A recent report by RUSI and Save the Children proposed that the Government should recognise “the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas as a key challenge in contemporary conflicts.”79
35.The airstrikes have shown, as one witness put it, that “when western Governments want to act, they can act.”80 Whilst the Committee notes the action taken by the UK Government in responding to the chemical weapons attacks in Douma, we are concerned that the Government has responded only to chemical weapons attacks rather than conventional weapons attacks and other grave breaches of international humanitarian law, which have caused many more deaths and injuries. In so doing the Government risks creating what has been described to us as a “hierarchy of atrocities”.81
36.Whilst international humanitarian law prohibits and regulates the use of weapons in conflict, the continued flouting of those laws in Syria by the regime and other actors suggests that more needs to be done to bolster and strengthen the application of those rules in order to protect civilians. The Government should update its protection of civilians in armed conflict strategy to include a focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. As part of that strategy the Government should set out the measures it is taking to reduce the impact of these weapons on civilians and on the essential services that civilians rely on, such as healthcare facilities.
37.The broader implications of the failure of the UK to intervene more robustly has had repercussions, overwhelmingly and fatally in Syria of course, but also beyond. Farouq al Habib, a Director at the Mayday Rescue Foundation, told us in evidence that “hundreds, maybe millions, of refugees would not have been displaced if something had been done in 2013.”82 He explained how extremists in Syria have co-opted the narrative of inaction to use against moderate groups.83 The international community’s reluctance to intervene at an earlier stage created an opportunity for Russia and Iran to deepen their involvement.84 The Minister of State for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, told us that “There are no vacuums in foreign policy or military action. If you are not there, somebody else is.”85
38.Haid Haid, a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, identified the failure of the international community to respond to the use of chemical weapons in 2013 as a turning point.86 Farouq al Habib went further in expressing his view that “the impact of inaction goes beyond Syria. It is not only inside Syria. It encouraged Russia to interfere in Ukraine. It will encourage all autocrats and dictators all over the world to feel impunity and that they can do whatever they want, even using chemical weapons and committing all kinds of atrocities, without any consequences.”87 The idea that states are being allowed to act with impunity was reiterated by Laila Alodaat who expressed a similar concern regarding “the fundamental undermining of international laws” and a withdrawal from accountability.88 In summarising the evidence we heard, the Chair asked the witnesses:
Q62 Chair: Would I be right in saying that the cost of doing nothing is most immediately obvious in Syria, and among the murdered in Syria, but actually it fundamentally undermines the security position of the British people and is a fundamental threat to the rules that we have relied on for 70 years to keep us safe?
Dr al Habib: Yes.
Laila Alodaat: It is fair to say that, yes.
Haid Haid: Yes.89
39.The Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary recommending that an independent inquiry should be established into the consequences of non-intervention in Syria. In his response the Foreign Secretary agreed that “decisions not to intervene militarily in conflicts can prove as significant, and worthy of discussion, as decisions to do so.”90 The Foreign Secretary also told us that the UK’s failure to act militarily in 2013 “may have emboldened the regime and encouraged other countries to enter the conflict more forcefully on the side of the Syrian regime.”91 However, the Foreign Secretary was not convinced an inquiry would be appropriate in this context. He noted that the circumstances that led to the decision in 2013 were well documented. Whilst true, the Committee is interested in understanding fully the consequences of that decision and the continued failure to act at other flash points in the conflict.
40.There has been a manifest failure to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocity crimes in Syria. This failure has gone beyond the heavy toll paid by the Syrian people to the surrounding region, and had repercussions in Europe and the UK. It is the Committee’s view that this failure derives principally not from the actions taken by the international community but inaction. Whilst we recognise the UK’s significant contribution to the humanitarian effort in Syria and its support of other mitigating measures, the failure to intervene has had severe consequences and is about political engagement and will. The international community’s inaction created an opportunity for others, particularly Russia and Iran, to intervene, changing the politics of the conflict in Syria.
41.While the cost, complexities and challenges of intervening have been well documented through previous inquiries, such as the Iraq Inquiry, the consequences of not acting are less well understood.92 We believe that the consequences of inaction can be every bit as serious as intervening. The decision not to intervene in Syria has had very real consequences for Syrians, their neighbours, the UK and our allies. We believe the Government needs to understand the role the UK’s inaction has had and learn the lessons from it for the future. Whilst the Committee agrees with the Foreign Secretary that the UK has remained engaged in Syria throughout the conflict, this engagement has focussed more on measures that respond to crises, rather than proactive measures that prevent them. It remains our view that the Government should establish an independent inquiry into the decision-making processes leading to, and the consequences of, non-intervention.
71 Human Rights Watch, Syria: Events of 2017, accessed 17 July 2018
72 Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2015–16, The extension of offensive British military operations to Syria, HC457, p3
79 RUSI and Save the Children, Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict (May 2018), p1
90 Letter from the Secretary of State to the Chair, regarding protection of civilians in Syria, dated 13 August 2018
91 Letter from the Secretary of State to the Chair, regarding protection of civilians in Syria, dated 13 August 2018
92 The National Archives, The Iraq Inquiry (6 July 2016), accessed 17 July 2018
Published: 10 September 2018