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What Britain can do to help Syrians

By Paul Goodman
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Supporters and opponents of military intervention in Syria should be able to agree on a twin point.  First, that what is happening to Syrians themselves is a humanitarian disaster and, second, that the calamity which they are undergoing threatens to undermine Syria's neighbours - and Britain's interests.  The scale of suffering challenges description, so I take refuge in numbers.  According to DFID, there are almost seven million people in need of assistance in Syria, out of a total population of some 23 million.  Over four million have been displaced from their homes; almost two million have fled to other countries.  Half of all refugees are children.

Were Britain Syria, that's the equivalent of over 20 million people in need of food, water, medical care, shelter - or simply fled abroad: more than three times the population of London.  Were six million Britons to flee mostly to, say, France, Spain and Ireland, the consequences for those countries, especially the last, would be severe. So are the effects of the flight from Syria on Turkey; on Iraq, itself unstable; on Lebanon - which is even more so - and on Jordan, one of our main allies in the region (whose population has been driven up by some eight per cent - see the video report above).

In short, Syria's civil war threatens its neighbours: the launch of a rocket by Israel today was a sign of this. This site is opposed to British military intervention in Syria, and I have consistently made the case against it.  However, even the most convinced isolationist should concede that Britain has interests in the region, on which we are partly reliant for our energy needs.  And even the most fervent opponent of aid - unless he is against taxpayer-financed emergency relief too - will believe that government has a role in helping Syria's refugees.  Britain is the second largest supplier of aid to them, committing a package of assistance worth almost £350 million.

ConservativeHome is debating the merits of aid this week.  There is no better example of the kind of assistance that has the demonstable support of this site's readers than that commitment.  Save the Children, which contributed to our series on Monday, is delivering over £1 million worth of government-funded help in Lebanon and Iraq.  David Cameron was right to say earlier today that Britain "will make further efforts at the G20 to make sure that vital aid gets through".  William Hague said that Britain "will do more", and much of that doing will be undertaken by Justine Greening's department, DFID.

There are three specific ways in which Britain can help further.  We will not be taking part in missile strikes, and any attempt to revisit the Commons's vote last week must be resisted.  But in terms of aid to Syria, we are a world leader.  This is why, first, the Prime Minister may be in a bad position to urge other countries to undertake military action, but by the same logic is in an excellent one to persuade them to increase their giving.  Second, there is more that can be done to assist the charities who are delivering cross-border aid into Syria itself: they need more food, clothes, medical equipment and material for shelter, and Britain is in a position to help.

Finally, it is imperative to support Syria's neighbours - Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and, in particular, Jordan.  David Miliband yesterday drew a parallel between Syria and Afghanistan.  The comparison is suggestive: just as Britain has been drawn into the latter, to no good end, so it risks being sucked into the former.  But, as Miliband implied, the parallel doesn't end there.  Afghanistan's 30 Years War, and the tidal wave of refugees it has unleashed, has further destabilised Pakistan (which was not a secure democracy to start with).  It would bode ill both for Britain's interests and its own people were Jordan to follow in Pakistan's footsteps.

We should strive to ensure that the fires now consuming Syria do not engulf its neighbours.  This view is controversial neither between political parties nor within them.  Ed Miliband will cause Cameron no difficulties over aid for Syrians.  The majority of Liberal Democrat MPs who failed to support Nick Clegg last week will back him on it.  Conservative interventionists such as Andrew Mitchell, who is eloquent for Syria's casualties of war, and non-interventionists such as David Davis, who argues that its neighbours need support, are agreed.  For once, as far as the Commons is concerned, Cameron is pushing at an open door.


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