A few weeks ago the whole country awoke from its summer slumber to debate whether Britain should launch military strikes against Syria.
Questions about whether it is morally right to intervene, if we should have done so sooner and also whether the wisest course of action is to do nothing, permeated both Westminster’s hallways and the nation’s streets.
But as we obsess with the road going forward, and fret about the dangers of a growing isolationism, we are failing to ask a very critical question – could we have done more to prevent this crisis before fighting broke out two years ago?
Moreover, are we now making the same mistakes again by failing to deal appropriately with the burgeoning humanitarian crisis that has spilled over into neighbouring states? Should we be taking this opportunity to call for a rethink of our foreign policy objectives?
Throughout the entirety of the conflict one key cause of hostilities has been underreported– the socio-economic divisions shaking Syrian society long before the Arab Spring.
Yes, to some extent this is a religious struggle between Sunni and Shiite, or Islamists and so-called secularists, but framing the conflict in this way is allowing us to negate our wider responsibilities and pushing us to look at the conflict in military terms.
It is vital to remember that like so many other conflicts across the world, the roots of the Syria crisis lie in growing inequality of both wealth and opportunity. It is this that exasperated the other divisions and brought them to boiling point, and it is an issue we could have worked to remedy through a clear commitment to fighting global poverty and inequality – two key Labour ideals.
In the 30 years leading up to the conflict, the proportion of Syrians living under the poverty line rose from 20 to 33 percent, while 70 percent of national wealth accumulated in the hands of a third of the country’s citizens. After Bashar Assad took the reigns from his father in 2000, the trend accelerated thanks to a sweeping programme of economic liberalisation that created deeply uneven growth.
Frustrations may have exploded anyway, but two additional problems lent fuel to the fire. After the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, up to 1.5 million refugees poured into Syria, overwhelming the already fragile national education, health, water and transport systems.
This left the country ill equipped to deal with a string of droughts that rocked the countryside from 2006 to 2008. The droughts devastated farmlands, pushing 2-3 million Syrians into abject poverty and sending hundreds of thousands of economic refugees fleeing into the overcrowded cities.
Busy with Iraq and the global economic crisis, the international community failed to act decisively. Aid agency calls for assistance largely went unheeded as divisions festered on the ground.
We are now facing a similar situation as Syria’s neighbours struggle to deal with the economic and environmental impact of 2.5 million refugees. The UN’s $5bn emergency aid budget is nowhere close to being met, despite the clear ramifications for stability and global security of not providing enough food, water, shelter, medical care, education and jobs.
Instead, we have been busy exhausting our energies talking about air strikes and all the while ignoring other conflict prevention tools at our disposal.
The Labour Party’s moves to stall military strikes have bought us the space to reopen this debate and to make the case for a comprehensive, well-funded national development policy, focused on reducing world poverty, income-inequality and human rights abuses. The world is watching – it would be a dangerous shame to fail to seize this chance for change.
Simona Sikimic is a member of LCID