Russia, the United States and Jordan agreed a ceasefire for southern Syria at the G20 last week. It is also likely that Israel is supportive, as this area stretches to the Golan Heights, where Israel has launched punitive air strikes on the Syrian regime for incursions.
On the face of it, this ceasefire should, in effect, turn the “symbolic but nebulous” de-escalation zone in this area into a safe zone. The major city of Daraa, which has been pounded and besieged by regime forces for many months, is the main rebel town in this area. Aid hasn’t reached Daraa for more than six months and there are horrific stories of deprivation and starvation. The city is just a few miles from Jordan’s border.
Turkey, Russia and Iran set up four de-escalation zones on 17 May in Idlib Province, Homs, Ghouta and in the south around Daraa. In reality, these appear to be “escalation” zones rather than the converse. Idlib, Ghouta and Daraa have been especially hard-hit, with chemical weapons allegedly in almost daily use in Ghouta.
The regime appeared to be trying to gain as much ground as possible before the ceasefire and the re-engagement of the UN Geneva process. This cynical move has, on many counts, paid off. Worryingly for some, many world leaders including US president Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron believe Bashar al-Assad has a role to play in the future of Syria. Quite frankly, any future for Syria is better than the present one, and if it has to include Assad, certainly for the short and medium term, then so be it.
However, for the Geneva process to be given any chance of success, there needs to be a “proper” ceasefire, and copious amounts of humanitarian aid delivered. It would appear that all those with a dog in this fight have agreed to the ceasefire – Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran – but it is just not working comprehensively. This is where the UN must come in. With these countries acting as guarantors, surely it must be possible for the permanent five members of the Security Council to agree to get UN monitors on the ground to verify the ceasefire? The UN proved it could be effective in Mosul in December 2016, when it successfully oversaw the removal of tens of thousands of refugees, mostly unhindered, out of Aleppo to rebel-held Idlib Province.
The second enabling function is to get aid to all who need it quickly, which is most required in Syria. As with Mosul in Iraq, if the vast amount of aid waiting in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan does not get to those who most need it, we will see a repeat of Iraq 2003, where the battle was won but the peace was lost by not feeding and administering the vanquished and destitute.
This would only be to the advantage of Islamic State recruiters. UN peacekeepers would be best placed to get this aid where it is needed. There are still pockets of Islamic State and al-Qaeda to be avoided. The regime attacked UN convoys in 2016, but with Russia at even closer hand, a repeat of such an attack seems unlikely.
With this all in place, the 500,000 besieged and starving can be fed, the Geneva process can move forward with some optimism, and the US and Russian coalitions, together, can defeat Islamic State in Syria as well as in Iraq. It is also an opportunity for Britain to stand up and play a key role. It is time we lifted our head out of the Brexit mire, and did what we are good at – diplomacy and “muscular” humanitarianism, ie getting aid to the most difficult places.
As a permanent member of the Security Council we can bring in the UN to monitor the ceasefire and enable this aid, and give the Geneva process the chance it needs to deliver a long-term solution to this most horrific crisis. In the very short term, with RAF transport aircraft a short flight away in Cyprus, the ceasefire now gives the opportunity to air drop thousands of tonnes of aid into Daraa and southern Syria. This could alleviate the most acute suffering, and give a chance for ground based aid to ramp up.
To prevaricate any more, at this stage, will be to replay the mistakes of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in spades. It would condemn the vast majority in Syria to terminal decline and stoke the embers of Islamic State, again, which would only prolong the shadow of terror haunting the UK and the rest of the world.