30 Aug 2013

Syrian refugees admiring and baffled after UK’s ‘no war’ vote

It’s not often that people in the Middle East are riveted by a debate in the British Houses of Parliament. But Thursday’s motion on Syria was different.

A Syrian refugee I met today, who fled six months ago after his life was threatened because of his opposition to Bashar al-Assad, said: “I really admire your democracy and the way you debated the war.

“It’s good that it’s not one man who makes the decision to go to war and then the whole country has to agree.”

But the refugees I met were also baffled at how the MPs had come to their decision to vote no.

At a small refugee camp of about 25 tents pitched on hot, stony ground, I chatted to a group of refugees from the Damascus suburbs, many from the areas which were hit by chemical weapons.

One said to me: “Have the MPs not seen the television? Are they deaf and blind? Is it not on their conscience?”

None of them wanted to give their names because they still have family members back in Damascus. “The British MPs will one day have to face the next generation of British children and explain why they voted no,” said another man.

These people’s lives have been ruined by the war. Many said that the Americans and British should have intervened long ago and they had given up hoping for help from the international community.

They had plenty of questions for me as they tried to understand what had happened in parliament yesterday. One man, who called himself Abu Mohammed, was curious as to why not every MP had turned up for the debate or voted.

Read more: Syria vote: has the UK’s global role been ‘diminished’?

I thought it would be hard to explain the argument about whether the division bell had sounded or not. They asked if some of some of them were still on holiday instead of coming to parliament.

Suddenly they all started laughing. One man said they were remembering the parliament under Bashar al-Assad’s father, Fahez.

“They would always get there two days before the session,” he said, “so they could get a good place to cheer and clap the president.”

The idea that somebody from the governing party might vote a different way from the prime minister was extraordinary to them.

I tried to explain that Britain is still haunted by the spectre of Iraq. They looked baffled. “Syria is different from Iraq,” they said. They were dismissive of the idea that if Bashar al-Assad fell, al-Qaeda would take over.

For them, the central thing is to get rid of the regime and go home – at this point, they don’t really care how that happens.

Read more: David Cameron loses Syria vote, no UK military intervention

But not everybody I’ve met today was in favour of bombing. At a centre in Beirut where refugees register with the UN High Commission for Refugees, one man said to me: “Every time a bomb lands in my homeland, it is like a knife through my heart. We are all Syrians.”

Most of the refugees had hoped that Britain and America would come to their rescue long ago. For them, the issue of chemical weapons is just more proof of the venality of the regime.

When I said that some MPs felt they didn’t have enough proof that it was Bashar al-Assad’s forces that had launched the weapons, one woman looked at me as if I was crazy. “I am 100 per cent sure it was Bashar,” she said, “and we need Britain to help us bring down the regime.”

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