“The horrific consequences of Syria’s civil war were dramatised last week in the harrowing picture of a little boy lying lifeless on a Turkish shore. The horror of that image has done more than move public sentiment. It has shamed policymakers into considering the humanitarian catastrophe that is the predictable outcome of inaction.”
That was the opening paragraph in the Times’s leading article today (Monday), referring to the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, echoed views expressed in the Sunday national press.
The result of the shaming was heralded in the vow by chancellor George Osborne to use £1bn from overseas aid budget to fund housing and living costs of extra refugees.
And its practical expression will be clearer still when prime minister David Cameron later announces how many Syrian refugees will be given sanctuary in Britain.
The refugee crisis, and the government’s response to it, opened up several separate debates explored in Monday’s national newspapers.
Is it appropriate to use the foreign aid budget? What does the crisis say about Britain’s relationship with the European Union? Should Britain launch military strikes in Syria?
The Daily Mail, saying it had “long been critical of the decision to spend an arbitrary 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid”, greeted Osborne’s decision to spend some of the money “at home” by “providing support to the ‘thousands’ of Syrian asylum seekers the UK has pledged to take direct from refugee camps bordering Syria.”
The Daily Telegraph’s leading article, “Challenges for MPs in Europe and Syria”, viewed the coming referendum on EU membership, “the unfolding migration crisis” in Europe, the government’s asylum policy and the conflict in the Middle East as “interlinked” issues. It said:
“The prime minister is right to resist pressure to take a share of the non-EU refugees now in Germany and other member states. If he were forced to relinquish Britain’s opt-out from Europe’s asylum relocation policy how could he secure any changes to the free movement of people within the EU itself?”
The Telegraph argued that the UK was pursuing an “incoherent policy towards Syria” by “bombing the jihadists in Iraq but not in Syria” but believed “British attacks on Isil in Syria will arguably make little difference.” It continued:
“The air forces from half a dozen countries are already in action over Syria to little avail. Despite the hopes of Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, that British raids in Syria would ‘help destroy Isil’, doing so will take a far greater effort than we have seen so far.
Meanwhile, Russia is establishing a base inside Syria from which to attack the jihadist movement and yet is being criticised for making matters worse. This is because Moscow sees a future role for Syria’s President Assad while the West doesn’t.
Barack Obama appears to have given up trying to resolve this impasse; but until it is resolved, there is no prospect of the civil war ending, or of Isil being defeated, or of the refugee crisis abating.”
Other newspapers rattled sabres. None more so than the Sun, which ran a spread headlined “Blitz ‘em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria.”
The Sun’s article rested on a statement by the British Army’s former chief of staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, about there being a lack of logic in taking action against Isis in Iraq and not in Syria. It began:
“The Sun today lays out the military options open to David Cameron for air strikes on Syria to ease the migrant crisis… Our Boys and Girls could strike a death blow to the heart of IS and relieve pressure on innocent civilians, if given the go-ahead by MPs.”
The paper went so far as to explain its favoured military tactics:
“If the order was given, Astute class attack submarines using Tomahawk missiles could wipe out IS HQs in the city of Raqqah.
This could be followed by precision bombing strikes involving RAF Tornado jets. The RAF’s fleet of fearsome Reaper drones could also have their mission extended into Syria.
Armed with Hellfire missiles they can destroy armoured vehicles and teams of IS fighters from a height of thousands of feet. The US is already bombing IS targets in Syria but more firepower from Britain could tip the balance.”
The Daily Express, in a leader headlined “The UK must intervene to stop slaughter in Syria”, agreed.
“As… the migration crisis in Europe grows ever more acute it is plain that the west is going to have to act.
That benighted country [Syria] has turned into a hell on earth and if we are really going to live up to humanitarian ideals then the only way we will have any success at all in relieving this tidal wave of human suffering is to take part in air strikes on IS.
It is the only option. There is no point at all in trying to negotiate with these people: they are deranged fanatics intent only on spreading terror and bloodshed across the land.
And the sooner we strike the better… If we got rid of IS and helped return some stability to Syria then that would be a start to tackling the migrant crisis.”
The Times, in contending that the nightmarish scenes of refugees in flight from Syria originate in the assault by Bashar al-Assad’s “criminal regime on a captive population”, did not specifically call for strikes. But it did condemn the previous failure to act. It said:
“Two years ago the house of commons voted against considering military strikes on Assad’s forces. It was, at very best, a myopic refusal to recognise a constant of military conflict.
A decision for non-intervention does not mean that nothing happens: it means that something else happens, in this case the depredations committed by Syrian forces and Islamist extremists, with a desperate people caught between.
A rogue state under Assad has become a failed state, whose map is changing almost daily and whose neighbours are attempting to exert their own spheres of influence. No ultimate solution to this disaster can be reached while Assad holds on and believes he can triumph through bloodshed.
The ideal course will be to create conditions in which Syrians can return to their homes. Yet in the meantime, a moral duty of care is owed to suffering humanity.”
But the Daily Mirror was unequivocally against military action. “Don’t lead us into war”, it said, claiming that it was Downing Street “banging the drums of war.”
It pointed to the “magnificent public response” by Britons who support the people fleeing persecution, seeing it as “a stinging rebuke to the shouty racists and xenophobes who callously turn their backs on the suffering of the less fortunate.”
But it believed Cameron would be “mistaken” to confuse this support for refugees with “permission to launch military action in Syria.” It concluded:
“It still rankles with the PM that he was prevented from attacking President Assad, Islamic State’s enemy, two years ago. Today he’s straining to attack Islamic State, President Assad’s enemy…
There is, sadly, no simple answer to the conflict in Syria. Cameron should reflect on that before blundering into another war.”
The Sun’s editorial took aim at the Labour leadership candidates for opposing air strikes (in Jeremy Corbyn’s case), for being “so spineless” as to sit on the fence (Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall), or for staying silent (Andy Burnham).
It called the quartet “cowards” and “political pygmies” while calling on “decent, mainstream Labour MPs” to “vote with their consciences and back David Cameron.”
The Guardian’s leading article came at the issue from a very different angle by contending that Europe should take a stand against Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who “has set himself up as a bulwark against a generous-spirited, pan-European approach.”
It pointed to the “dismal scenes” in Budapest as an indictment of the Orbán government’s callousness in contrast to Hungarian volunteers who have distributed aid to refugees in their capital.
Orbán “has trampled on democratic principles… been consistently provocative towards EU institutions, and made shows of solidarity with Vladimir Putin that have undermined EU efforts to make a strong stand on the war in Ukraine.”
The Guardian said: “Now, with the refugee crisis, the ‘Orbán problem’ is clear for all to see.” But the paper recognised that Orbán’s extreme anti-migrant policies “enjoy support among other central European governments” such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It continued:
“The ‘Orbán factor’ thus plays an important role in the east-west split that could define upcoming EU summits. The xenophobic narrative coming out of Hungary needs to be tackled head-on, before it encourages more chauvinism elsewhere in Europe…
EU institutions have failed in the past to hold him accountable for trampling on Europe’s values – now is the time to do so.”
In the Independent, Robert Fisk reminded readers that 71 years ago Hungarian police, now preventing Muslim refugees from boarding trains to Germany, were forcing tens of thousands of Jews on to trains out of Budapest, desperate to get them to Auschwitz.