With huge relief, but some trepidation, those of us who having been lobbying for air drops to feed the starving in Syria are delighted that the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) have agreed to air drops by the World Food Programme from tomorrow – June 1st. We now wait to see if and when they will happen.
As we understand it this deal was brokered by the UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. Air drops on their own offer only part of any enduring solution, but is a good start. On behalf of medical charity UOSSM we wrote to the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and received his response saying ‘The UK stands ready to support should a requirement emerge for an expanded airdrop operation to besieged areas’. I can’t believe anybody doesn’t see the requirement now.
A No Bomb Zone & Air Drop (NBZAD) plan recognises that rehoming over 5 million refugees is not a long term option. If nothing is done to reverse the outflow from Syria, this could grow by another 7 million, who are currently displaced inside the country. It is generally accepted that over 1 million people are starving in 17 besieged cities.
A ‘pilot scheme’ NBZAD to prove the concept could be viable in NW Syria, for instance, bounded by a line from Kilis in the north to Aleppo, south to Idlib and around to Ryhanli. This is an opportunity to re-invest in Syria in order to feed the starving, protect hospitals and begin the reverse of the exodus of Syrians, especially the intelligentsia and young. It would also create the conditions in Syria to enable refugees to return and begin the prospect of some sort of civilised future for Syria. NBZAD could initially focus on hospitals and refugee camps in this area.
This pilot scheme should be seen as a bridgehead for Syrians to re-occupy their country as the viable alternative to the perceived life of peace and prosperity in Europe. If successful, the concept can be replicated in the south on the Jordanian border and to the 17 besieged cities.
This area, NW Syria is currently free of ISIL and Regime troops and some way from Russian key locations in Syria, Latakia and Tartus and is an area of about 1500 sq Kms. It is predominantly controlled by Free Syrian Army and moderate groups. There are about 500,000 refugees in
camps on the Syrian side of the border. A camp near Idlib city was bombed 2 weeks ago. There is little food, water or electricity and few functioning schools and a generation of children are completely missing an education. 75% of children between the ages of 9-13 suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (UOSSM figures).
The NBZ is required to stop hospitals and refugee camps from being directly or mistakenly targeted by Regime and Russian or other forces. The Coalition and Putin need to agree electronically designated NBZ circles around these facilities, this is technically straightforward. Any aircraft or forces which transgress must expect punitive action. NBZ in this area could be policed by naval ships in the Eastern Mediterranean with radar and missiles. This would negate the need for Coalition aircraft to fly in ‘Syrian & Russian’ air space which is guarded by effective anti-aircraft assets, though the Russians are signatories to the ISSG air drop plan.
Air drops are now possible after the ISSG decision, which is ratified and agreed by Russia who will ensure, one expects that Syria complies. High altitude precision air drops into hospitals and refugee camps operating above ground based air defence assets are possible but easier lower level drops should be possible with Regime compliance, as they surround most of the besieged towns. The UK led in this area by getting the ISSG to agree to air drops, and could also physically lead with aircraft operating out of the British military airfield in Cyprus. Aid can be distributed by local councils on the ground to those neediest, and they are ready and waiting.
The ruling by the ISSG on air drops is an opportunity to make a real difference in Syria and creates the possibility of a comprehensive humanitarian plan for this desperate and devastated country. Thus far the international community hasn’t done much for those starving and dying in Syria, beyond rhetoric, but here is a chink of an opening, one the British Government has enabled and could now push forward.
Hamish De Bretton-Gordon is a leading expert in Chemical and Biological Counter Terrorism and warfare.