Those of us deeply involved in Syrian humanitarian support are swimming against a tide of indifference even as the most horrendous atrocities are happening in plain sight in Idlib.
After 8 years of war, the height of international intervention seems to be platitudes at the UN of the ‘mans’ in humanity to ‘man’ type. With the echoes of the Holocaust’s survivors at the 75th Anniversary, ‘Never Again’, still audible, it is clear that at the moment, we will warm, feed and protect the wretched in Idlib only with our words rather than our deeds. No President, Prime Minister, Chairman or Dictator can say they did not see it.
By shooting down 2 regime helicopters last week the Turkish military have at least stopped the barrel bombs in Idlib for now. I along with others have been calling for this since 201. These illegal indiscriminate munitions have killed the largest larger percentage of the 500,000 civilians who have died in this conflict. How easy would it have been for the might of NATO to achieve this? Senior voices in some Western militaries claimed the S400 anti-aircraft system the Russian’s gave to Assad, over matched Western jet fighters, however, the Israelis seem to have conducted hundreds of air strikes over Syria with impunity.
Reliable sources last week stated that over 100,000 barrel bombs, some with chemicals in, have been dropped on civilians during the last 8 years of conflict in Syria. I have seen the devastation myself of these weapons, when a barrel bomb fell on a play ground in Aleppo in October 2014. 27 children arrived at the hospital I was working in; they were in a shocking state and the injuries were too horrific to describe here. 26 of the children died.
The school attack in Aleppo was not unique, and there are many examples where barrel bombs have been dropped on marketplaces and hospitals. They are cheap and easy to use, though illegal under the Geneva Conventions. President Assad is happy to use his favoured killing method. They are horrifically effective and terrify people in Idlib as much as chemical weapons do. At this moment 700,000 people are on the move in Idlib, heading towards the closed Turkish border just ahead of the carpet bombing, sleeping in the open in sub-zero temperatures, scratching around for food, with little hope of salvation.
Morally, surely, we ought to strain every sinew to find a solution? Any plan must defeat the jihadists of Al Qaeda and ISIS in Idlib, but without innocent civilians becoming the collateral damage of this action. The jihadist will be not be defeated by a scorched earth policy, but by precision strikes from the air and action on the ground as demonstrated by the US Coalition defeating ISIS last year.
The barrel bomb method sees hundreds of civilians perish for every one terrorist killed! How can this be acceptable? On this devastating metric, 10,000’s of civilians will die in Idlib in the next few months before this is over. And most likely drive those who survive, into the hands of ISIS, who are still a significant threat to the streets of London, Paris and New York.
Western nations, including the UK have been unwilling to intervene to save civilian lives in Syria, but we have pumped £2.7bn into aid which we have been happy for others to deliver by proxy. The vast majority of the 3 million trapped in Idlib are starving and of the few hospitals remaining, most have been destroyed by Russian and Syria air strikes and are virtually out of the most basic medicines. As the world is prepared to move ‘heaven and earth’ to contain the Corona virus, which may kill less than traditional winter flu virus, it shows no appetite to save potentially tens of thousands of civilians in Syria as President Assad completes his ‘final solution’.
Our role, according to Russian Foreign Secretary at the Munich Security Conference is to pick up the pieces and rebuild Syria with our money once Assad is back in complete control – is this what we are to be reduced to – following the orders of dictators?
The UK’s does not appear to have a comprehensive, or any type of strategy for Syria? Now is the time for a root and branch review of how the FCO, DFID and MOD should operate in future to ensure the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and our ‘no show’ in Syria, are inculcated into a comprehensive Humanitarian Strategy for the future, or redirect these £Billions elsewhere?
I hope that a confident new ‘Global Britain’, with our apparently decisive new leader and his team, will give a damn about the children of Syria, and if necessary use the finest military to deliver humanitarian aid amongst the Armageddon of Idlib before these children disappear for good in the Passchendaele like horrors they are facing.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE
Director Doctors Under Fire & advisor to medical NGOs in Idlib