Even after six years of the most brutal conflict imaginable, the pictures of children struggling to breathe after the chemical attack in Idlib still have the power to shock. Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that a country which long ago became a hell for civilians can sink further still.
There is no peace on the horizon, we can see only more violence, fresh horrors, crimes upon crimes. A world that had apparently said “never again” to chemical weapons, to sexual violence in war, to genocide, has seen its illusions shattered again and again in Syria. Conflict itself is like a chemical agent, disintegrating the fabric of society, its brutalizing effects stripping away our humanity, poisoning the minds of all those it touches.
We see more wretched symbolism in the timing of the attack on Idlib. Today, world leaders meet in Brussels for a conference entitled Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. Yet another meeting of the apparently powerful in distant, gilded meeting rooms, more unfulfilled commitments, more unheeded recommendations, more unread communiques.
It seems extraordinary to plan for a future for Syria when as we speak war crimes are committed with impunity. If so much energy can be expended on talking about the conflict with nothing to show for it, then what hope is there for the region? If we can secure so little for Syria, then you can be sure that we will have even less for the people of South Sudan, of Yemen, of Somalia.
There is no peace on the horizon, we can see only more violence, fresh horrors, crimes upon crimes.
The world it seems has limited attention to pay to conflicts in the Arab region and Africa, and the intensity of the war in Syria means that it takes most of the available headlines. The signs across the region are sadly no less ominous than they are in Syria. Whether it is escalation in conflict or ever more militarization, we cannot afford to ignore what is going on.
Weeks after the U.S. raid in Yemen that killed 30 civilians - including nine children under the age of 13 - the Trump administration shredded combat rules designed to protect civilians in Somalia. For years resentment, anger and extremism in the region have been fueled by drone strikes that have killed thousands. Instead of stepping back from this lethal policy, the new administration has chosen to go even further.
Solutions to ending violent extremism in the Arab region and Africa will only be found in the communities, not by drone operators in aircraft hangers thousands of miles away, who either don’t know or don’t care about the difference between an extremist cell and a wedding party.
Even in Somaliland - the autonomous state on the Horn of Africa’s northern coast that has experienced far greater stability and peace than Somalia as a whole - we can see the warning signs of militarization. Earlier this year, Somaliland’s parliament gave permission to the United Arab Emirates to build a military base in the port city of Berbera. The UAE has been an active member of the coalition accused of targeting civilians just across the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The decision proved so controversial that a small group of MPs vocally opposed to the base were marched out of the chamber by soldiers.
The region already has some of the most militarized societies in the world. Military spending by governments in the Arab region is 65% higher than the global average. For every dollar Sudan’s government spends on healthcare, it spends $70 on its military.
Solutions to ending violent extremism in the Arab region and Africa will only be found in the communities, not by drone operators...
Smaller levels of resource and effort have been put into development, trying to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and now the Sustainable Development Goals. The focus on making development progress sustainable is crucial, but to bring it about we must recognize that peace and security are absolutely fundamental.
Attempting to achieve important but narrow goals - like trying to end child marriage in Yemen - while conflict rages is a fruitless task. Like taking an aspirin to deal with a tumor, the treatment fails to deal with the core of the issue, and any results will be short-lived.
Security has become the watchword for governments across the region, the excuse for more military spending. But we are not more secure, it is not peace that we see breaking out. If spending in any other area - in health, education, in the private sector - failed so spectacularly to achieve its aim, you would expect to see screeching u-turns in policy.
Perhaps if the resources and political effort currently being thrown into escalating conflict and militarizing our region had been put into building peace, we might not be where we are today. Any meeting being held in the West on peace in the region needs to start with Western policy and Western responsibility on this issue in particular.
When arms made in Europe and bought by the U.S. meant for “friendly” forces end up in the hands of violent extremists, the West needs to drastically rethink its security policy. At the same time as leaders meet in Brussels to talk peace in the Arab region, the prime minister of the world’s fifth largest arms exporter is in Saudi Arabia to talk business with a regime being investigated for war crimes.
This contradiction of only talking peace while actually selling war has played a huge role in bringing us to where we are. It is time we recognized that peace is central to our goals of achieving security and development progress, and based our policies on that.