Parliament begins debate on military action against group, amid divisions both within government and opposition.
London, UK – The mood among London’s Syrian community is one of frustration today as Britain’s politicians gather in parliament to decide whether to join in coalition air strikes, purportedly against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Syria.
“We are not accepting any air strikes on Syria,” says Homs-born Bassam emphatically, as he repairs a coffee machine in one of the two Syrian cafes on Edgware Road – a popular street with an abundance of Middle Eastern restaurants and shisha lounges.
“We should be sitting around a table talking about this. People are being killed without any excuse. There has been no good result so far – only refugees coming to Europe from all over the world,” he continues, adding: “Syria will soon be empty.”
He thinks air strikes against ISIL will be futile. “I am against ISIL,” he says, “but this group is getting power from someone, something. If one person is giving them something and someone else is bombing them then nothing will work”.
Bassam has lived in the UK for 15 years and has British citizenship. But his family are still in Syria. He says he rarely speaks to them because there’s nothing to say.
“I can’t ask them, ‘How are you?” he explains. “I know how they are because I watch the news. I can’t help them, I can’t do anything.”
He loves the UK and says that it is “full of freedom and democracy” but believes it should be supporting Syrians by offering them safety.
As for the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, Bassam says: “Assad belongs to the Syrian people. They have to decide about him themselves, not us.”
‘It is us who are dying’
Damascus-born Ahmad emerges from the kitchen of the café to say that Britain and the world must leave Syria alone. “It is 70 percent European countries’ fault for what is happening in Syria,” he adds.
“All the governments are fighting about Syria but it is us who are dying.”
Ahmad has lived in Britain for 12 years, but, like Bassam, his family are still in Syria. He misses the country, he says.
“Syria is a nice country, it is better than England. Here there is no life; we work as donkeys. There things are hard and we cry because we don’t have food for the table, but we have the life.”
Since the start of the war in Syria, around 12 million people – half of Syria’s prewar population – have fled the country. Most of the refugees have taken sanctuary in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Only a few hundred Syrians have so far been resettled in Britain.
Raghad is an artist from Damascus. She moved to Lebanon in 2012 but relocated to London with her family in the summer. She supports Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his opposition to air strikes.
“I seek safety in Britain because my country doesn’t offer me or my kids this simple right, but they [the UK government] should look back only two years to the time before ISIL was created,” she says, asking: “Why did the Syrian conflict take so long to capture the attention of the world?”
Raghad thinks that only ground forces could combat groups like ISIL.
“The Kurds were able to kick them out in Kobane [in Iraq] with street fighting,” she says. “And there is the issue of where all the weapons are coming from that are financing ISIL. Where is the oil being sold?”
‘Why are coalition forces bombing Aleppo?’
Since the attacks in Paris and the subsequent calls by France and the UK to step up the campaign against ISIL, civilians and activists in Raqqa have begun, finally, to receive some recognition. But the voices of Syrians most affected by ISIL still aren’t being properly listened to, says Abdulaziz Almashi, from Manbij city in Syria.
Almashi arrived in Britain in happier times, to study for a PhD in Computer Science in 2009. He co-founded the UK-based Syria Solidarity Movement in 2014 with a friend.
“I am worried for my family who still live in Manbij, a city under the control of ISIL,” says Almashi. “I don’t know what more air strikes will do to them.”
“My brother is a doctor in Aleppo and recently treated people injured by coalition air strikes. But there are only opposition fighters in Aleppo, ISIL is not there. Why were coalition forces there?”
“The UK should not bomb Syria, there are enough countries doing that,” adds the activist who believes that the international community should be supporting the Syrian resistance instead.
“The coalition has not made any plans to attack Assad, despite the fact that the regime has killed hundreds of thousands of people,” says Almashi, who is baffled as to why the British government would join a bombing campaign in the beleaguered country.
“It is only Syrians that can defeat ISIL, who can defeat evil.”
“Any action in Syria should be done with the aim of protecting Syrians,” he stresses.
MPs are in the middle of a nine-hour debate, which is due to culminate at 10pm GMT, when a vote will be held based on the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s 12-point plan outlining the action that he believes the UK should take against ISIL.
The loudest voice against proposed air strikes in the UK is the Stop the War Coalition. Organisers recently faced criticism for organising a panel debate about Syria without inviting any Syrians to speak. Many members of the coalition back the Labour’s Corbyn, a former back-bencher who is staunchly anti-war.
The Stop the War Coalition has held nationwide protests over the last few days and a five-day MP lobbying campaign. Over 50,000 people are reported to have written to their politician asking them to oppose Cameron’s plans, but to little avail, as the result seems likely to go in his favour.
“The default kneejerk response seems always to be to bomb,” says 32-year-old Martha Jackson who lives in Birmingham. “I don’t think violence is the right response to hatred. I’m afraid that bombing Syria risks feeding extremist propaganda and the radicalisation of ordinary people.
“We need new, creative solutions for peace and justice,” she adds.
‘They are playing football – and Syrians are the ball’
Back in the Syrian cafe, the discussion is heating up as Lebanese and Algerian co-workers share their views. All are of the opinion that Britain should not get participate in air strikes against ISIL or Assad.
But away from the café, opinions are divided about whether Assad should be the target of coalition air strikes, or if the UK should be supporting other elements of the Syrian resistance instead.
Bassam and Ahmad are resigned to which way tonight’s Commons vote is likely to go. “It is like all the countries are having a football game and Syrians are the football,” says Ahmad with a wry grin.
“The only thing we can do is scream,” sighs Bassam, producing cups of steaming Arabic coffee from the machine he has just finished repairing.