2 Years After The Ghouta Massacre – Any Progress, Any Hope?

Hamish de Bretton Gordon

Hamish de Bretton Gordon

By Hamish de Bretton Gordon: Adapted from an article at Al Jazeera.comGUESTSM2

On the August 21, 2013 the world woke up to the worst chemical attack since the Halabja massacre of March 16, 1988. Some estimates suggest that up to 1,000kg of the deadly nerve agent Sarin had been dropped on the rebel held suburbs of Ghouta, near the Damascus heartland of Assad. Upwards of 1,000 people were killed, mainly women and children.

The world was outraged, but not enough to take any military action to alleviate the suffering of millions of innocent civilians. This was worryingly similar to the global inertia after the attack at Halabja where 5,000 people were killed on the day by sarin and mustard agent, and up to 12,000 died subsequently.

After Halabja the leaders of the international community collectively ‘sat on their hands’. Two Gulf wars later, and many thousands dead, Saddam Hussein was eventually ousted in a chaotic and unplanned manner. This is also where the so called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has some of the roots of its development today.

The majority of Syrians I have met, in Syria and elsewhere, feel abandoned by the international community since the Ghouta attack, and see the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as an evil equal to ISIL, or worse in some cases. This helplessness has fuelled support for ISIL in some areas of Syria where ISIL are at least provide food and water, albeit under a brutal and inhumane regime which no God would recognise as a caring religion.

The morbidly brilliant psychological warfare being waged by ISIL against all those who oppose them has undoubtedly been shaped by the inaction to oust Assad as much as by tribal and religious reasons.

The statistics for the Syrian civil war make shocking reading for all: the conflict claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and displaced 7.5 million, with 1.5 million trying to seek solace and shelter in the UK and Europe

Ghouta

Ghouta

Those who remain in Syria have little food, electricity or water. 70% of the country is ‘razed to the ground’. The only way I can describe today’s Syria to my former military colleagues is to think of Basra in 2007-2009 or Helmand province around the same time and multiply the hopelessness and awfulness by about 10 times.

Is there any hope in this apparently insurmountable dreadfulness since Ghouta, and a way to look forward?

After the Ghouta attack, despite the international community’s reluctance to military action against the Assad regime, we have seen some positive action. The United Nations Security Council did get Assad to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Syrian leader then agreed to the removal of chemical weapons from his country by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). By the second half of 2014 this objective was largely achieved.

However, the recent suspected mustard gas attacks by ISIL in Iraq against the Kurdish Peshmerga, and reports of Assad still possessing some nerve agent VX, suggest this operation was not as thorough as once thought.

Since April 14, Assad has reportedly used the ‘original chemical weapon’ – the comparatively harmless chlorine which is a commonly available toxic industrial chemical – to terrorise the remaining civilian population. ISIL have also reportedly copied the use of this intimidating weapon against coalition forces in Iraq.

The second positive factor is the initiative by Turkey, with US support, to set up ‘safe-zones’ in northern Syria, free from Assad, ISIL and other terror groups.

This should at last stem the huge outpouring from Syria, with NGOs able to supply aid to these people. Virtually every Syrian I have spoken to who has left Syria would prefer to return, but only if there was the chance of safety and some sort of return to normality.

Initiatives such as Syria Relief and International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) are medical charities, and with 52 hospitals and clinics across Syria provide help for those who remain in the country.

Mainly run by Syrian immigrants with the support of consultants from the UK’s National Health Service, Syria Relief manage to get aid to the hospitals through Syrian networks. It is a worthy and respectable organisation run by Syrians for Syrians.

This must be a template which can be enhanced and supported by the international community if we are going to begin to alleviate the suffering of those who remain, and encourage those who have left that it is safe to go back.

I would like to see these ‘safe-zones’ extended, as the situation allows, and a blanket ‘no-fly zone’ over Syria to prevent the indiscriminate barrel bombs and chemicals that still kill hundreds of civilians a week.

The last positive move is the UNSC resolution to investigate and determine the perpetrators of the chemical attacks in Syria. This has meant that for the first time in two years the Russians have not vetoed a UNSC resolution dealing with Syria. As the closest ally of Syria, Russian undoubtedly has the key say in Assad’s future and Russia’s support for this resolution could signify the beginning of his end, and hopefully a brighter future for Syrians.

However, the UNSC members must have detailed and workable plans for post-Assad Syria to transition back to normality to avoid the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. Can the International Community rely on Russian support to stabilise and rebuild Syria, and the support or ambivalence of Iran, Israel and other regional players? Without this some sort of peace could still be a long way off.

We collectively must make a place that the 5 million Syrian refugees will return to and enough financial, physical and moral support to give a realistic chance of a viable Syrian Nation in future.

So, two years on from probably the single most horrific event, in this most horrific of conflicts, there are at least a few green shoots for a more positive future. The International Community must develop the ‘Safe and No Fly Zone’ concept, ensure that those responsible for the atrocities of the last 4 years are documented to the International Criminal Court, and put enough resource, thought and planning in place to give a realistic chance to the millions of innocent Syrians who have suffered, as no humans should have to, a chance to develop a liveable and viable Syria sometime in the not too distant future.

Hamish De Bretton-Gordon is a former Commanding Officer of the UK’s CBRN Regiment.

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2 Comments on "2 Years After The Ghouta Massacre – Any Progress, Any Hope?"

  1. Mahatmacoatmabag | 22nd August 2015 at 11:00 am | Reply

    “We collectively must make a place that the 5 million Syrian refugees will return to and enough financial, physical and moral support to give a realistic chance of a viable Syrian Nation in future.”

    Hamish this is where you & I fundamentally disagree. Syria is an illegally created artificial nation, created illegally along with Lebanon, Iraq & Trans-Jordan by the British & French in defiance of the Mandate given the UK & France under the San Remo treaty of 1920 which only authorised the creation of a Jewish state in the Levant. Since it not practical now to turn back the clock the only other option should be to dismember & divide Syria & Iraq into ethnic / religious cantons & put under UN guardianship forever. To reform & recreate Syria & Iraq as independent nations will bring about the same result again, war, massacres, famine, poverty, sectarian & religious strife. This is not understood by Western politicians, academics, the military & the media and thus the cycle of violence created by the UK, France & added to by the USA will continue since there are far too many people in the west who think that democracy can be created at the point of a bayonet when the reality is that the Arabs need to be ruled by strong men, the Mubaraks, the Saddams , the Khadaffies & the Assads and when you remove them the volcano erupts & destroys all in its path.

    Many of us here in Israel understand this & hate those fools in the West that pass for leaders & don’t understand that when you pull the pin out of a grenade it will explode. Continued western meddling in the Mid-East will only make the situation worse, so I say ironically ” Yankee go home ” and stop trying to help, bring in the UN to permanently oversee ethnic & religious cantons in Iraq & Syria and stop this nation building nonsense & get off of Israels back by trying to create yet another disaster called Palestine.

  2. nehad ismail - United Kingdom | 22nd August 2015 at 4:25 pm | Reply

    I wrote this on 27th August 2013 in the Huffington Post: My views have not changed.

    ” On Thursday 22nd August the “US State Department said that if proven, the attack would represent an “outrageous and flagrant escalation” of the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s two year civil war”.

    Meanwhile Mr Obama’s much damaged credibility is facing a hammering. He is reportedly under pressure to act against Mr Assad’s government in the wake of Wednesday’s alleged gas attacks.

    In the Middle East I know so well, President Obama’s threats and condemnations are no longer taken seriously. It is doubtful whether he will take any action now.

    On Thursday, Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, formally asked Syria to allow UN experts to “swiftly investigate the incident. The UN inspectors are already on a mission in Syria.
    Mr Ban ki-Moon was expecting a “positive response” from Mr Assad’s regime “without delay”, said a UN spokesman. The problem is Ban ki-Moon’s words will fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately Mr. Ban ki-Moon is perceived in the Middle East as a thoroughly nice man, but lacking clout and charisma. Ban ki-Moon’s assertion that “Such a crime against humanity should result in serious consequences for the perpetrator,” will not deter Assad. He has heard this many times before.

    When Ban ki-Moon speaks no one listens and when Obama speaks no one believes him. The UN has been rendered powerless by the Russian Vetoes and Obama has been rendered impotent by his own indecisiveness and lack of a coherent strategy. In blunt terms Obama’s Middle East policy has abysmally failed.
    27-8-2013

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