Douglas Hansen-Luke was Parliamentary Candidate for Walsall North in 2015 and is Global Representative for Conservatives Abroad. He has lived, worked and travelled in the Middle East for over twelve years.

Britain contributes more per capita than any other large nation towards Syrian refugees.  Yet can we really say we’re improving the situation? Donald Trump’s missile attack against Bashar al-Assad’s forces has brought Syria squarely back in to the headlines and presents an opportunity for Britain to reassess and reaffirm its policy towards the country and its millions of displaced citizens.

Following the 2013 Commons defeat of the Coalition Government’s plan to attack the Syrian military, and the subsequent rise of ISIS, Britain’s official policy in Syria has been to focus on one enemy at a time. The battle against ISIS has not been won and, after our and the American’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is simply not credible to believe we can simultaneously fight two foes successfully.

Instead, Britain’s strategy has been to help those displaced by the fighting, and develop an economy in exile strategy. Support has been provided to the governments of Jordan and Lebanon, and refugees have been given humanitarian and social aid. This is the right policy but, in the response to last week’s awful chemical attack, there is a grave risk that we lose our sense of purpose. At this tense time, we should be redoubling our efforts for those who we can effectively help. Instead of being diverted by calls for regime change, let’s instead work on building a strong, self-supporting peace.

Less Regime Change and More Nation Building. British Policy to Date.

Less than eighteen months ago, David Cameron and the then government were instrumental in bringing together world leaders to raise money for those affected by the Syrian war. $6 billion was committed by Britain, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, the UN and others in 2016, and another $6.1 billion from 2017 to 2020. This money is targeted on health, literacy and employment for the 3.5 million refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan. It specifically aims to build human capital amongst the 70 per cent of refugees who are female or under 18. By rebuilding the resilience of those whose lives have been so disrupted, our hope is that refugees can be nation-builders upon their eventual return home.

At the same time as providing assistance to the majority who stay within the region, the Government also promised 20,000 places in Britain for the most vulnerable exiles currently living in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, and up to 3,000 more for unaccompanied minors already in Europe.

These are substantial commitments. To date, although Britain has done well, a large proportion of the money pledged to the crisis by international donors has not been delivered and, here in the UK, of our promise for 23,000 we’ve only received 2,800 asylum seekers. More still needs to be done, and the Government and Parliament would do well to address our deficit of achievement versus ambition instead of taking on the extra burden of un-seating Assad.

Social and financial force multipliers

So Britain’s commitment is sound, and proportionally greater than any other OECD nation. It is also directed at the right targets. The thing to do now is to maximise the ‘force multiplier’ effect of our social and financial efforts. The social value of health and education is well understood. The value of a healthy population is self-evident and improved literacy, especially amongst females, will build a stronger future for Syria and enable faster development when their country eventually rebuilds. Put simply, by educating both halves of a population, you can double its productive capacity.

Employment, too, is a clear good. The ability to be self-supporting reduces the temptation to take up arms with those who wish to fight and destroy rather than build. It gives a population a sense of ownership and a shared stake in peace. Building businesses and jobs, however, is something ill-suited to Government and it is clear that DfID and aid agencies are finding this far tougher than aid through education or health. Within this context, Priti Patel’s plans to involve and encourage private investment make huge sense and will drive good governance and value for money.

Business investors naturally police against waste, and their insatiable desire for profit means they will only support ventures likely to be sustainable over the long-term. British private-sector expertise in investment management and international trade and business should be aggressively sought out by the Government. First-loss and preferred return investment funds are now well accepted internationally, and would allow DfID’s money to pump-prime amounts three to ten times larger than the Government’s commitment. Directing DfID money to infrastructure projects around agriculture and textile manufacturing would also reap returns especially if linked to Britain’s strong logistics and retail supply chains. Practical examples of successful financial and physical projects like this have already been proved around the world and in the region. DfID should use the lessons of these case studies to significantly accelerate the deployment of its pledged funds. The sovereign funds from the Gulf would make particularly good partners in this endeavour and are likely to respond positively to the Government if asked.

Hope for the Future. Give me the wisdom …

Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer should be Britain’s guide in our dealings with Syria. We need to accept the things we cannot change, the strength to change the ones we can and the wisdom to know the difference.

Neither we nor the Americans can honestly say that we can bring about regime change and guarantee a peaceful outcome in Syria. We have little shared history, understanding or culture with this diverse and traumatised nation. To advocate regime change without a plan for the future would be criminally negligent. What we have said we will do and what we can do is to influence, support and invest in the people of Syria so that they can determine their own destiny and rebuild their lives. This may not be as dramatic as bombing airforce bases or welcoming millions of refugees but this thoughtful, quieter approach is in many ways more noble and one in which our duty and skills can most be matched.

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