General elections are intriguing times in British politics. Parties make headlines with spending commitments, their leaders are constantly on the airwaves hammering home their message and the public are treated to a never ending array of sound bites about various policies. “Get Brexit done” and “For the many not the few” are amongst the most well-known. That being said however, foreign policy has played a remarkably low key role within the context of the general election. And whilst some may claim that this is a “Brexit election”, Brexit is arguably even more a domestic issue than a foreign policy one.
There has been very little focus on international hotspots and troubled regions around the world and what the UK government – as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – would do about these troubled regions. The specter of the Iraq War in 2003 haunts British foreign policy and the controversy it stirred and its subsequent legacy mean that our engagements and relationships beyond the island are critical. There are moral reasons to think about such hot spots as well as historical ones.
Foreign policy cannot be fully extricated from domestic policy. What has happened within the Syrian conflict is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The conflict in Syria arose in 2011 as an extension of the Arab Spring where peaceful protesters were demanding rights and an end to corruption and tyranny. A brutal reaction by the Syrian regime subsequently led to a regional conflict engulfing international powers and forcing millions to flee. The ensuing chaos helped lead to the rise of the far right in Europe and the myths that Syrian refugees from Turkey would one day take the jobs of Brits as a result of the resettlement scheme was a factor in the vote to leave the European Union in 2016. The UK has been too busy firefighting and shamefully limiting the entry of refugees as opposed to dealing with the root problem of the Syrian conflict; the Assad regime.
Closer to Syria, the governments of Iraq and Lebanon have experienced severe instability in recent weeks and as states that border the conflict-ridden country, this is of little surprise. There is so much focus on limiting the entry of refugees as opposed to tickling the reason that they were made refugees in the first place. There needs to be a genuine effort to seek a political solution that excludes Assad from the future of Syria and focuses on reconstruction of the state.
Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron remarked back in 2013 that Syria has the markings of a “holocaust”. Ethically and morally, it is reprehensible to keep turning a blind eye to the crimes that have been committed by the Assad regime. As the Syrian conflict continues to unfold in real time in the social media age, it is shocking to comprehend that as of now, so little has been done. Whilst the geopolitical complexities mean that Syria has Russia and Iran fighting its corner, action does not necessarily imply intervention. There have been steps taken more recently in the realm of legal accountability to bring perpetrators to justice. A submission has been made by Syrian refugees in Jordan to the International Criminal Court to bring charges of crimes against humanity against the Assad regime. This, whilst difficult, has potential to result in far reaching consequences though there is a long, long way to go. Charges for crimes against humanity against regime officials have been brought in Germany, Sweden and Austria under the concept of universal jurisdiction. These prosecutions are in the main for lower ranking officers but emphasises the fact that no person is above the law.
Legal accountability, whilst welcome, is simply not enough and cases can take years to reach a satisfactory conclusion. There needs to be a shift in UK political discourse on the merits of an ethical foreign policy and standing up for human rights. Remembering the Syrian conflict during the general election campaign would be a good start for the new government to fulfil its promises to the Syrian people by supporting them to make sure there will be no place for Al-Assad in the future of Syria.