Children pay for our failure over Syria

For too long we have sent mixed messages to the dictator in Damascus

Share

It is a grim milestone: two days ago, the UN announced that the number of Syrian children forced to flee their homeland has reached one million. They make up just over half of the two million people driven from the country, while another 4.25 million are displaced inside its borders. This means that the dictator Bashar al-Assad has forced more than a quarter of the population into internal exile or foreign camps, creating the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Whatever the outcome of the civil war, the repercussions will be felt for decades.

Also on Friday, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said he believed that last week's chemical attack on a suburb of Damascus was the work of Assad's forces. It is not the first time the regime has been accused of war crimes, and it is clear that the Assad family will stop at nothing to stay in power. They have ruled Syria with the utmost ruthlessness for 43 years, ever since Bashar's father Hafez staged a coup, and the response of the international community has been culpably weak and inconsistent.

When I first went to Damascus in 1994, Bashar had just been recalled from London after the death of his elder brother Bassel in a car crash. Bashar was an ophthalmologist but he soon began his training in the family business of torture and murder. Twelve years earlier, Hafez had committed a massacre in the north-western city of Hama after an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Estimates of the number of casualties vary (20,000 is the commonly-used figure), but it bought the Assad family decades of "peace". Dissent was crushed by filling every corner of the country with government spies, and bundling the dynasty's most determined opponents into vile political prisons. A friend of mine spent 14 years in Assad's jails, where he saw many people die from the effects of torture.

All of this was documented by international human rights organisations. But Tony Blair welcomed Bashar Assad to London in December 2002 and even staged a joint press conference with him. I was so cross when I saw this weak-chinned killer being feted in Downing Street that I complained to a Labour minister, who told me the British government believed Bashar was an improvement on his father.

The chances of that seemed remote, and I'm also aware that cruel regimes tend to end bloodily. I hoped Western intelligence services were quietly making contact with the democratic opposition in Syria, but even that doesn't seem to have happened. A journalist who was seriously wounded in the current conflict told me he received phone calls from both William Hague and the Prime Minister, David Cameron, asking him who the opposition actually were.

What we're seeing now is the dire result of sending mixed messages to dictators. For decades, leaders of democratic countries overlooked massacres and held their noses as the Syrian regime tortured opponents and stockpiled chemical weapons. It was a huge failure of principle and intelligence – and now the price is being paid by one million homeless children.

politicalblonde.co.uk; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick