Once again President Putin has seized the strategic high ground and initiative in Syria.
He has declared that he has broad agreement for humanitarian safe zones across Syria after discussions with the USA, Turkey and Iran. He claims he can enable the (failed) ceasefire brokered in Astana some weeks ago, by creating No Fly Zones and with Russian, Turkish, Iranian and US military protecting safe zones on the ground. He also, thankfully acknowledges that UN troops might be required.
However unpalatable it is to agree with Putin, after 6 years of civil war, over 500,000 deaths, and numerous chemical weapon attacks if he, and President Trump can find a peace, to enable the Geneva Process to produce a democratic solution, I for one, am prepared to give it a chance and lend my support and effort. I urge our Prime Minister to play a leading role and allow the UK to poke its ‘proverbial’ head above the mire of BREXIT and the election, and flex our not inconsiderable diplomatic and military skills in order to help this devastated country on our eastern flank.
The Safe Zone concept recognises that the vast majority of Syrians want to remain in Syria or return to Syria if it is free of tyranny and terror. Russia, appears chastened after the US air strikes which I firmly support; but Putin is no fool and is, no doubt, requesting the lifting sanctions which are crippling the Russian economy as a ‘quid pro quo’ for delivering peace.
Putin is suggesting 4 safe zones initially – Idlib Province, Homs Northern Suburbs, East Ghouta and South Syria. These places have all been devastated by Syrian regime barrel bombs, Russian air strikes, chemical weapons, attacks on hospitals and ethnic cleansing; any type of peace will be welcomed here.
The area I am most familiar with is Idlib Province, in NW Syria, which is still reeling from the deadly chemical attack on 4 April at Kan Sheikun. There are about 500,000 refugees in camps here living in abject disappear and poverty. Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many NGOs situated just over the border in Turkey and the refugee camps expanded. UK charity Syria Relief, run some of the very few functioning schools, but still a generation of children are completely missing their education. International medical charity UOSSM, run a number of very effective hospitals and clinics in the area, and are preparing to up this effort if the Safe Zone materialises. Aid and Infrastructure must be allowed to flow into the areas as quickly as possible. Many NGOs have stockpiled equipment on the Turkish side of the border in anticipation. Accommodation, ideally prefabricated, needs to be provided to allow expansion of refugee camps, build homes, schools, roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure et al.
Safety is the critical requirement for Safe Zones. The Syrian Airforce must be grounded, which must be in Putin’s gift. I doubt also, that it adds much to the fight with ISIL, which US and Russia airpower cannot backfill. Security of the Safe Zone in this area could be supported by naval ships in the Eastern Mediterranean with radar and missiles. I expect we are going to have to accept Russian and Iranian troops on the ground to provide security.
However, to ensure governance, this must be under a UN banner with UN rules of engagement and modus operandi. It will need a sensitive and flexible touch and should be led by those most experienced in this type of operation. Boris Johnson has already suggested that British troops could be available in this role, and I would favour a majority western force, ideally based around the likes of the UK, Australia and Canada for instance, with Russian, US, Turkish and Iranian troops included to satisfy their requirement to have a role on the ground. This force would enable aid delivery and reconstruction across the areas which should create positive conditions in which the Geneva Process can develop and give hope to millions.
Nobody is under any illusion of the challenge ahead. It will require complete Turkish, Russian, Iranian, US, UK, UN support and agreement, and over a protracted period. Significant resources are required for success, but less than required to house 5-12 million Syrians elsewhere and allowing the terminal decline of this shattered nation. There are several ‘dogs’ in this fight but the US is the biggest and I hope it barks the loudest.
However distasteful I find it to support Putin’s initiative, more especially after his forces have repeated bombed our (UOSSM) hospitals and killed our staff; I have shouted for safe zones since my first trip to Syria in 2013, and I will continue to do so for the good of Syria. I will also, with many others, continue to collect evidence, so those who are guilt of the many atrocities perpetuated in Syria, will one day face justice at the International Criminal Court.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, Director Doctors Under Fire, & advisor to UOSSM