The US air strikes to neutralize Assad’s chemical ability to conduct chemical attacks like the one we saw in Idlib this week, Aleppo before Christmas and East Ghouta on Aug 13, are most welcome but will be entirely counterproductive if they are not rapidly followed by concerted UN action. To do nothing to follow up this action with humanitarian, diplomatic and political activity will be to repeat the mistakes of the 2003 Iraq invasion. The ceasefire brokered in Astana a few weeks ago, though not perfect, offers hope for millions of civilians suffering in Syria. Secretary of State Tillerson, after the US air strikes, is now suggesting Safe Zones.
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 is chastened after the US strikes but Putin is no fool and wants peace in Syria as much as anyone and will have to speak to a ‘belligerent’ Trump to support this and no doubt discuss sanctions which are crippling the Russian economy. A ‘Pilot’ scheme in NW Syria is achievable, in my opinion, and the best way to get this process underway as soon as possible. If successful, the concept can be replicated in the south on the Jordanian border and beyond. At the same time, the global fight against ISIL can begin in earnest with US, UK, Turkey, Russia and all allies working together.
There are about 500,000 refugees in camps in NW Syria 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. A 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.
Safety and security is the underlying and critical requirement for the Safe Zone. I gauge the Regime will now stop dropping barrel bombs and chemical weapons indiscriminately on civilians. Security of the Safe Zone in this area could be supported 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. Security on the ground must be policed by UN monitors and troops, who proved effective in Aleppo after the evacuation. Boris Johnson has already suggested that British troops could lead this role.
Aid and Infrastructure must be allowed to flow into the area as quickly as possible. Many NGOs have stockpiled equipment on the Turkish side of the border. Accommodation, ideally prefabricated, needs to be provided to allow expansion of refugee camps, build homes, schools, roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure et al. Axiomatically, the mobile phone network has proved remarkably resilient, and is of course the reason we have been able to morbidly and helplessly follow the atrocities as they unfold in real time.
The air strikes give some hope to most Syrians, but to not repeat the mistakes of Iraq 2003, the UNSC must now enable safe zones, enforce the ceasefire and put all diplomatic effort into the Geneva Process in order to get an acceptable political solution for all Syrians in the next 18 months.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, Director Doctors Under Fire, advisor to UOSSM