Before her tragic death Jo Cox had used her short time as a member of UK parliament to do more than any other MP to call for protection of civilians in Syria.
Here’s why she will never be forgotten by Syrians:
Jo met Syrian doctors, humanitarians and activists always listening to what they wanted: a stop to the aerial attacks that are the biggest killer of civilians. These attacks come most notoriously in the form of ‘barrel bombs’, the improvised explosives packed with scrap metal and high explosive and rolled out of helicopters. Jo reached across the political divide and led repeated calls with politicians from other parties to protect Syrian civilians from these attacks. This is a position that too few have been brave enough to call for.
As a former aid worker, she knew that words were not enough and it would take a ‘no-bombing zone’ – a form of a no-fly zone – to make it harder for Assad to bomb civilian neighbourhoods with impunity:
“Some may think that a military component has no place in an ethical response to Syria. We completely disagree. It is not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs from the Syrian government when you have the capacity to stop them. The deaths and fear generated by these indiscriminate air attacks are the main drivers of the refugee crisis in Europe.”
Many Western politicians and observers have not bothered to listen to Syrians. They see the country solely through the prism of the illegal invasion of Iraq and the disaster that unfolded there. Whilst a passionate opponent of the 2003 Iraq war, Jo listened to Syrians and knew that Syria was a completely different situation.
“I opposed the war in Iraq because I believed the risk to civilian lives was too high and their protection was never the central objective, or even a high priority. I knew, as we all knew, that President Bush wasn’t motivated by protecting civilians but by weapons of mass destruction and a misguided neo-con view of the US strategic interest.
But we must remember that Syria is not Iraq.
We have to learn the lessons of Iraq, without being paralysed by it. We have to learn the lessons of Iraq without forgetting the lessons of Bosnia or Rwanda.”
While many politicians were only too happy to follow the media’s obsession with Isis or ignore Syria as ‘too complicated’, Jo’s Syria politics were firmly rooted in a deep understanding of the facts of the conflict and where the primary threat to civilians was coming from.
“I have long argued that Isis and Assad are not separate problems to be chosen between, but are action and reaction, cause and symptom, chicken and egg, impossible to untangle no matter how much we might like to. The brutality of Assad (who has killed seven times the number of civilians as Isis) has helped nurture Isis and been its main recruiting sergeant. As such they can only be addressed together, as part of a coherent strategy.”
The Assad regime’s use of large scale starvation sieges were a largely hidden part of the conflict. Jo used her influence to repeatedly raise the issue in the UK Parliament:
“In order to break the siege, you need to first break the silence surrounding it.”
Those words were spoken by an individual in Yarmouk—a camp in Syria’s capital, Damascus—which was besieged for two years by the Syrian Government, causing a reported 200 people to die of hunger. It should not have taken an international outcry on this scale to agree what is a nominal agreement on access to just one small community of 40,000 people out of up to a potential 1 million currently living under siege in Syria.
As we know all too well, it is the Assad regime that is primarily responsible for the policy of sustained, systematic starvation of the population of Syria. Of the areas under siege, 52 are under Assad control, two under rebel control and one under ISIS, so let us be clear: he is responsible for 99% of those areas under siege.
She knew – like so many Syrians – that UN aid agencies could be doing more to get aid to the most vulnerable:
“ will the Secretary of State demand answers from the UN on why it is still waiting for permission from Assad when resolution after resolution states that that is not necessary? It has the authority and the mandate to go in right now. “
She repeatedly appealed for the UK to lead international efforts to airdrop aid to these besieged civilians, speaking in Parliament, writing opinion pieces in the media and leading Europe-wide efforts from a coalition of parliamentarians.
“The means are there, the legal case is clear, the humanitarian need is overwhelming and so is the public support – all that is lacking is the political will.
If we could do it for the starving in besieged Srebrenica and again for the besieged Yassidis in northern Iraq, there should be no reason it cannot be done for those suffering and dying, in besieged Madaya. There is no time to waste.”
In a debate too often dominated by party politics and tabloid headlines, Jo brought a rare humanity to the issue. She spoke repeatedly about the importance of compassion when welcoming those fleeing war and how we should always protect the most vulnerable:
“Who can blame desperate parents for wanting to escape the horror that their families are experiencing? Children are being killed on their way to school, children as young as seven are being forcefully recruited to the frontline and one in three children have grown up knowing nothing but fear and war. Those children have been exposed to things no child should ever witness, and I know I would risk life and limb to get my two precious babies out of that hellhole.”
“I recognise that this is not easy, but tonight we are being asked to make a decision that transcends party politics. Any Member who has seen the desperation and fear on the faces of children trapped in inhospitable camps across Europe must surely feel compelled to act.”
She co-chaired the All Party Parliamentary Group Friends of Syria with Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell to promote UK policies aimed at protecting civilians in Syria.
“As two people who have both worked for many years at different ends of the humanitarian aid spectrum—as an aid worker and as secretary of state for international development—we agree that the conflict in Syria is our generation’s test, our responsibility. This is a conflict so horrific that over 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, more than half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, and credible sources estimate the death toll at over 330,000. Therefore, in our view, it is time to get Syria off the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile and to get back to basics, to see the crisis in Syria as primarily about Syria and Syrians.”
Like with all her politics, Jo’s positions on Syria were rooted in her compassion for humanity and her fellow human beings.
When Jo Cox was killed on the 16th of June the Syrian people – inside and outside the country – lost their most vocal and passionate defender on the international stage.
It is now down to others to continue her legacy and strive for the protection of civilians everywhere – in Syria and beyond.