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
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.