It’s the news story we’ve momentarily brushed aside for the latest of 2016’s unprecedented events. It could also be about to get a whole lot worse. Yes, I’m talking about Syria. With the US and Russia masquerading as comrades under the recent appointment of Donald Trump, it doesn’t take a Cold War historian to recognise the underlying tensions that still exist between the two opposing superpowers. Over the past 2 years, Putin has shown that he is not scared to test the limits of the global chessboard, with the annexation of Crimea, fighter jets flying through the English Channel and Russian warships requesting fuel stops along the Spanish coast. All of these are seen as antagonistic attempts by Putin to stir discomfort in the West.
On the other side of the pond, critics of the Obama administration have felt that the outgoing president’s response to Russian provocation has been too soft. Many opponents of Obama’s foreign policy have criticised the lack of American interventionism throughout the conflict in Syria. This is in stark contrast to the Russian forces, which have maintained a physical military presence in support of president Bashar al-Assad.
Closer to home, our very own Boris Johnson called for protests outside the Russian embassy in the UK, as a response to reports that Russian airstrikes had been knowingly targeting civilian areas. The Foreign Secretary faced a backlash from MPs who felt his appointment as the face of British foreign negotiations was a diplomatic nightmare. I have to say, I can’t imagine the first move I’d make as Foreign Secretary would be to encourage a protest at Mr. Putin’s front door. Unfortunately for Boris, a group of Peace Activists did exactly that. On 21st November, they congregated outside the Russian embassy to protest the ‘annihilation’ of Aleppo – in response to Russia’s then forthcoming major offensive which saw increased devastation in the Eastern half of the Syrian capital. The Russian embassy described Boris’ call to arms as ‘shameful’, with the Russian Defence Secretary going so far as to say that ‘the frenzy that has gripped… Boris Johnson, who accuses Russia of committing every deadly sin, is a storm in a teacup full of muddy London water’ (BBC). Well, at least Igor Konashenkov has poetry to fall back on if all goes awry.
As much as I’d love to say that the UK hold the moral high ground and suggest that Boris was right to condemn the action of the Russians, the truth is that the sheer hypocrisy of the statement could not be more desperately naive. It may have been exciting to Boris to play James Bond and villainise the Russians above all others, but the western coalition has been guilty of killing approximately 500-700 civilians in Syria as a result of Coalition-led airstrikes (as of April 2016). This is the reality.
My only hope is that our political representatives put an end to the political posing and the blame games and start to think about the human beings whose lives are not just being thrown into total disarray but are also being lost. The thousands that have risked everything to leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere and the thousands that remain in the decimated streets of a Aleppo. My own MP voted to continue the bombing in Syria, she voted against the UK permitting access to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees. One thought came to my mind as these votes took place and it is one that I don’t imagine any of us will ever come close to understanding: the idea of existing in a situation where either knowingly or not, another nation was voting on whether it would continue to drop bombs on your own home. In this country, we are a world away from that and I hope that will always be the case, but for me it is symbolic of the situation for many innocent Syrians who have no part in the ideological warfare that brings the physical one to their streets.
From a purely pragmatic perspective, the conflict in Syria is upheld in part by Assad’s apparent lack of obligation to regard the safety of his citizens and with the backing of Putin and seemingly the incoming Donald Trump, it’s unlikely that this is something that will end soon. On 28th October, the Russians even lost their bid to join the UN Human Rights Council, with a number NGOs citing the continued bombardment of Aleppo as a reason for the objection. In a year defined by ‘post-truth’, this doesn’t appear to deter the exchange of accusations between both Russia and the West, who would have us believe that one has a lighter conscience than the other:
To look past all this is to remember that at the heart of all the conflict are everyday people who are paying the price. People who I doubt very much think it’s about who has killed more than who.