As a former British military officer and current advisor to two of the largest medical charities in Syria, it is clear to me, the UK and the International Coalition can be doing more to protect civilians in Syria.
The manifest dreadfulness of the refugee crisis requires the international community to look at options to re-invest in Syria which do not lead to the drain of its brightest and best to advanced countries around the world. This would condemn Syria to terminal and irreversible decline.
It is the indiscriminate bombing, especially by banned barrel bombs, including chemical weapons, which is the main driver forcing people out of Syria. Resettling over four million registered Syrian refugees is not an option for policymakers and if nothing is done to slow down the exodus of civilians leaving Syria, this figure could more than double as there are seven million more currently displaced inside the country. The demands by many groups, including a coalition of Bishops, that the UK take in a few thousand more refugees are laudable but they don’t even scrape the surface of the challenge.
Radical and determined action is required to keep Syrians safe in their homeland. The challenges of getting International Community and UNSC agreement to co-ordinate action are legion, but prevarication over these difficult options are exacerbating the situation. Soon there will be no Syria left to save, as most of the healthy, educated and professionals will have left for Europe.
Axiomatically, the dreadful news that a Russian airliner exploded, with the loss of over 220 lives possibly by ISIL action over the Sinai last week, and the deployment of US Special Forces to N Syria might have created the conditions to allow the International Community to develop Safe Havens in Syria starting with N Syria.
The murder of 220 plus Russian citizens should turn Putin’s focus to the defeat of ISIL and not the targeting of moderate Syrians. I expect Russian action in Syria has now put it at the head of the ISIL target list especially from the ‘ultra-extreme’ and most violent Chechen Jihadists in ISIL. The deployment of US Special Forces to N Syria to train the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will have two impacts:
I don’t believe Assad or Putin will dare risk bombing in N Syria in case they kill US servicemen which I expect would bring the wroth of Obama onto Assad. Secondly, advice on the ground to the FSA, which I have constantly called for after I have visited them, will make them a much more effective fighting force.
A ‘no-bombing zone’ (NBZ) to deter these indiscriminate aerial attacks, and to create Safe Havens, is the only option at the moment with a realistic chance of success; it is militarily feasible, does not confront Russia and can be implemented in days. It maybe that Russia will veto this action in the UNSC, however, as with Kosovo, over a decade ago, I hope the International Community, in this case, will see fit to act now, and reconcile the UN later.
Unlike a ‘no-fly zone’ (NFZ) of the kind in Libya or Iraq, a NBZ will not require overflights by Coalition planes or pre-emptive strikes on the Syrian regime’s anti-aircraft defences. The airspace can be monitored by air borne radar (AWACS) already present in the region and enforced by missiles delivered from a Type 45 Destroyer off the coast of Turkey. President Obama has just announced that US Special Forces http://aje.io/uyft will be deployed to this area to support the Free Syrian Army, which will enhance their [FSA] ability to protect civilians on the ground, and an indication that the President is looking to investigate the Safe Haven option further, hence potentially removing a key difficulty, Coalition ‘troops-on-the-ground’, out of the equation.
Assad aircraft can be warned off if they approach the NBZ. If they breach it then limited and prudent action can be taken against regime targets, such as aircraft, radar and runways. By only targeting regime sites, there is not the risk of escalation between the US and Russia that many fear with a traditional NFZ.
By establishing a cost for any incursion into the NBZ we make it clear than any continued attacks on civilians will only result in a weakening of the regime. Crucially, Assad’s key ally Russia will not want to see the regime diminished in this way so will be incentivised to dissuade aerial attacks on civilians and accelerate the process for a political transition agreed by all parties in the Geneva II talks.
A NBZ is the first step to creating safe havens in Syria that could help get humanitarian aid to millions more who desperately need it. A NBZ could be implemented almost immediately with or without Russian agreement and address the reported hundreds of deaths a week caused by barrel bombs.
A NBZ would not empower ISIL – quite the opposite. The communities currently targeted by both the Syrian Regime, and increasingly Russia, are those that have traditionally been fighting ISIL themselves, driving them from dozens of towns and villages.
Political momentum for a NBZ and Safe Havens is growing in the UK. MPs Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox have already expressed support to such a notion. And further cross-bench support from Hilary Benn to protect civilians, even in the face of a Russian UN veto, is showing, perhaps, the gathering of a proactive bow wave in the UK to protect civilians in Syria. There is also much support in the US with General Petraeus and Senator McCain calling for Safe Havens.
According to one of the groups I work with – the International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisation –three quarters of children between the ages of 9 and 13 suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. To continue to do nothing is no longer an option if we want to prevent millions more Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe over the winter and stop the expansion of ISIL.
Action is now required, not prevarication and more dialogue. Cameron, Obama, Putin, be bold lead, the way together for a decent Syrian future.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE Advisor to medical charities UOSSM & Syria Relief