Jo Cox on Syria, refugees and the EU referendum

A previously unpublished interview with the slain MP
By Adam Barnett

Jo Cox MP, who was murdered on 16 June in her constituency in Yorkshire, was the British parliament’s strongest advocate for the human rights of Syrians, not just as refugees, but inside Syria. Since becoming an MP in May 2015, she championed the plight of civilians caught in that country’s civil war, and launched the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) Friends of Syria with Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell, as a forum to let MPs hear from Syrians directly.

Adam Barnett met Jo for an interview on 23 February at Portcullis House, Westminster, for an article on Syria for Little Atoms. The following is an edited transcript of that interview, in which Jo displayed the passion and insight for which she has been justly celebrated since her passing.

The interview has been rearranged slightly for a more logical structure. Changes or gaps are marked with a […]. Jo began discussing the UK’s role in resolving the Syrian crisis.

“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. I think it will be the biggest humanitarian disaster we face this parliament. I’ve worked on conflict and humanitarian disasters for many years, and this is not an isolated crisis that doesn’t affect us.

“There’s always a moral rationale for UK engagement when there’s a disaster or a war. I think we have a responsibility either to protect civilians or respond to a humanitarian disaster. I believe that we’ve done some great work over the years to do that person-to-person, government-to-government response.

This is a serious crisis that’s threatening the very future of Europe


“And those arguments apply to Syria, but the other big arguments that also apply are: this is a national security threat and this is a serious refugee crisis that’s threatening the very future of Europe.

“So there’s a big case to say this is your big challenge.

“My line has always been, right from coming to this place [parliament], that this has been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy. We should have intervened early, as an international community, to protect civilians and stop the escalation of the conflict. We should had much more foresight in preventing this before it escalated and before we had vast ungoverned bits of Syria which led to the rise of Daesh and the refugee crisis. […]

“My overarching instinct, right from being an MP, was the debate on Syria had been completely skewed for two years, since the last failed vote that the prime minister brought [in 2013]. We’d taken Syria off the table – the government had taken Syria off the table in terms of having a comprehensive strategy – and the real conflict dynamic, which real Syrians were talking about, wasn’t reflected at all in policy conversations here.

“It was all heavily skewed towards the refugee crisis and ISIS, rather than the civil war happening inside Syria and the actions of the Assad government. That wasn’t part of the narrative, other than a sort of general, ‘We’re not in favour of Assad’. But there was no ‘So, what are we going to do about the fact that civilians are being slaughtered or starved or isolated as an act of war?’"

What should our government be doing to support civil society groups in Syria?

“There’s a thriving civil society, against the odds. I mean, it’s amazing that there is still a civil society inside Syria.

“The first thing that Syrian civil society wants is all of the confidence-building measures that the Syrian opposition are arguing for: the end to besiegement, the cessation of hostilities, the ceasefire, the stop to aerial bombardment, the end to the barrel bombs, a no-fly zone, a no-bombing zone – that’s what they seem to be wholly united in arguing for.

Syria has been a masterclass in how not to do foreign policy

“They [the UK government] should be listening much more to that argument, that unless you have those confidence-building measures you’re never going to get a peace talk that sticks, and you’re never going to be able to move into reconstruction, and a political transition.

“Second thing: many organisations, whether it’s the White Helmets or others, have got really creative ideas about how to operate under the siege and civil war conditions. They’ve got really interesting ideas about channelling money, getting aid in, thinking creatively about how they operate, which DfID [Department for International Development] should be listening to.

“And then the third thing is about giving airtime to civil society groups, making sure that they get more time on panels– and making sure this is representative of the diversity of civil society views as well, whether that’s women’s groups, or the White Helmets, or NGOs, or just doctors or people who are literally trying to get on with making society function in response to the humanitarian crisis.”

Do you think there is the will in the British government to actually do this?

“No, I don’t actually, if I’m honest. I don’t think they’re wilfully not in favour of trying to help resolve the Syrian conflict, but it’s not at the top of their list of priorities, and hasn’t been since [the parliamentary vote on airstrikes in]December.

To talk about the refugee crisis, and even the European Union referendum, without looking at the root causes feels very short-sighted

“And I can’t help but feel a little bit like, the government feels December was Syria ‘done’. And I would have wanted much more diplomatic time from the PM and the foreign secretary devoted to this, because this is at the root of so many other things.

“To talk about the refugee crisis, and even the European Union referendum, without looking at the root causes feels very short-sighted.

“And the same thing applies to terrorism and the security threat. Without really addressing some of the root causes of the Syrian conflict, I don’t think you’re ever going to deal with Daesh properly, and you’re not going to deal with the fact that so many people from this country, a minority, but still considerable numbers, feel moved to raise money for Daesh and go to Syria. We need to stop this at its root, and I don’t feel there’s been commensurate effort across government given to that since December. Well, actually, since 2013.”

What did you think of the 2013 vote [on intervention in Syria]?

“I thought it was incredibly badly handled by the prime minister, in terms of a lack of a parliamentary strategy, and an explanation of what was going on, and I felt that the Labour Party put politics above content, and the whole thing felt to me badly managed, and led to the worst possible result, which was essentially taking any action off the table forever.

“Now at the time I wasn’t wholly convinced that airstrikes at that stage and military intervention was the right thing, but I think to have put down a marker and said, “If you use chemical weapons against your own civilians we will respond as an international community”, and then not respond, I just think sent exactly the wrong message.

“All moderate Syrians watched that and felt betrayed. The US watched it and took its action off the table, and what I feel happened then is the government turned away for two years while Syria went up in flames.

“These things are complicated, but I felt there was a clear argument in 2013. Assad had crossed a red line and used chemical weapons against civilians. If that does happen then there’s a responsibility to protect civilians. And I believe if we’d acted then, we wouldn’t have seen the escalation year on year on year that we’ve subsequently seen.

“And if you look at what happened, the mere threat of intervention in 2013 eventually did get the Russian government to force Assad to come to the negotiating table and get rid of some of his chemical weapons. So the threat of force actually de-escalated things.

“But subsequently we’ve never been willing to threaten intervention in that way, and therefore nobody’s felt threatened, and everybody’s felt they can just do what they like. In that void, Russia stepped in, and we all know what then happened, and they now hold all the cards.

So you’re not one of those who thinks if Britain does anything at all, it will make things worse?

“No, not at all. I’m pro-humanitarian intervention. I think it’s got a proven track record of saving civilian lives, as something that I think should always be at the end of the range of available options in any response. But I spent nearly a decade advocating for the responsibility to protect civilians at the UN: if a state is unwilling to protect its civilians then the international community has got a responsibility to intervene. I’m a passionate believer in that.

“That doesn’t mean I think military intervention to change a regime or impose your values is the right course. That’s never justified. But intervention on humanitarian grounds? Yeah. For me, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, are examples where intervention from the UK or an international coalition can save lives, and help create space for local actors to then find a political solution and move on. […]

“One of my political heroes was Robin Cook, who laid out some really clear principles on humanitarian intervention in 1995/96, and they still hold true for me. They’re a thing the Labour Party should be very proud of, and we should be prepared as a country to stand tall and proud and say, look, if we think we can save civilian lives, with UN backing usually, not always, and in the context of an international coalition, we should do it.

“So I’m definitely going to be championing that long and hard from the opposition benches and with my own party. […]

“I still think it’s about re-framing this conversation around two things: around the real conflict dynamic inside Syria, which is what Assad and the Russian government have been doing to the civilian population, and the Syrian moderate opposition – and they do exist. They’re getting denuded day by day, week by week, but they do exist. And unless you create some space and some time for them, they won’t exist. They tell me they won’t stop fighting, but there is a gradual horrific attrition happening, and unless they are given some airtime and space and sanctuary, then there won’t be a moderate opposition.

The Obama regime has been appalling on Syria

“And secondly, unless you deal with that civilian protection, then Daesh are going to have many many more moderate Sunni Syrians who think, ‘It’s a salary, I don’t ideologically agree with them, but it’s a salary, it’s safety, it’s a way of living for my family.’

“And you can understand, even though there’s no ideological draw to extremism or to the ISIS worldview, if you’re faced with death, starvation and bombardment… it’s a bloody horrific choice.”

Do you think anything can change unless there’s a different approach in Washington?

“The Obama administration has actually been appalling on this. They’ve blocked action, and they’ve completely focussed on first the Iranian nuclear deal, to the detriment of Syria, and now not focussed enough on Syria, as in for Syria’s sake, rather than their strategic relationships with Russia and Iran, and that’s been a problem.

“So Syria’s been an orphan in geo-political strategy, and that’s had massive consequences. I think [US Secretary of State John] Kerry’s heart’s in the right place, I think Hillary Clinton’s been saying a lot of very interesting brave things. But nothing is going to happen until the election, and that’s a huge problem.

“Now, actually, having seen other foreign policy crises where the UK working with the French have bumped America into a more aggressive position, I don’t think it’s impossible that we could have done that up till now, or could still do that.

“So I don’t give up hope, but it’s a tough one.

“This whole crisis for me is a classic example of why early intervention is a really sensible thing. Because it saves lives, it saves money – I think the Syrian conflict wouldn’t have escalated to this level had the world got itself together and intervened far earlier on the right basis with a long-term strategy.

“And I do think the Syrian activists who have been so vocal and strategic in the UK, and so sustained in terms of getting their message across about civilian protection, no-bomb zones, the harsh reality of what Assad’s been doing - have really helped. Some people have listened to it, and they just need to keep going. One day, people will start listening.”