At 5pm on Monday evening, when Brits were collecting the kids from after school care, or stopping off for a pint in the sun, silence crept over Syria. A ceasefire, brokered by the US and Russia, had begun. Should the truce hold for seven consecutive days, the two powers will begin co-operating militarily.
So far, it seems to be holding. But what happens in the next seven days will have huge implications for the embattled Syrian population, and the world. The conflict has killed up to half a million people, levelled more than half of cities to the ground and turned a quarter of the country into refugees. Children in besieged areas have died from starvation, or from napalm bombs dropped from the sky.
“It is almost indescribable,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon told the MPs and Lords of the Friends of Syria all-party parliamentary group. The military veteran is a chemical weapons expert, and has witnessed the effects of such brutal bombs in Syria first hand.
For many in the Westminster bubble and beyond, this is where the conversation ends. But de Bretton-Gordon believes the UK Government can be more proactive.
1. Humanitarian air drops
Firstly, it can deliver aid. He told the group: “With the ceasefire, I hope there are millions of tonnes of aid sitting at border towns, waiting to be flown into Syria.” The UK, which has a military base in Cyprus just 20 minutes away, could provide airdrops.
Failing to do this, he warned, will have repercussions for Britain: “Unless you get the humanitarian piece right, these people who are so hoping the international community might do something tangible, rather than just talking about it, they are going to either turn left, and become refugees in Europe, or turn right and become foot soldiers of Daesh.”
2. A no-bombing zone
Secondly, the UK can intervene to prevent barrel-bombing and other parts of the chemical blitzkrieg unleashed on Syrian civilians. “If we start shooting down Russian aircraft, we are in big, big trouble,” de Bretton-Gordon said. “But if we track them with British assets, it is very straightforward to go to the United Nations and Vladimir Putin and say: “Your jet dropped a bomb on this hospital at 10 o’clock.”
He also advocates enforcing a no-fly zone specifically for helicopters: “It is Syrian helicopters dropping chlorine gas and napalm, which is killing 90 per cent of the population.”
3. Support for talks
If the ceasefire can be preserved, there is a third role the UK can play, in diplomacy. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat Lord credited with rebuilding Bosnia in the post-war period, believes the third round of Geneva Talks, which began in February 2016, are “getting there” at creating “an overarching structure” for peace. “The best chance we have now is Geneva,” he declared.
4. Identifying war crimes
Like de Bretton-Gordon, he argued the UK can use its expertise to collect evidence of war crimes. The belligerent Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, he recalled, was far more nervous about the International Criminal Court than being bombed by NATO: “It can restrain the actions of people before they happen.”
5. Influencing the United Nations
Anas Abdah, the President of the Syrian National Coalition, said: “We all know a military solution isn’t possible at this moment.” Instead, he said, the opposition would be open to the idea of a transition government. But he added: “That is down to the political will of the international community, and specifically the Permanent Five [on the UN Security Council]. The UK, US and France can play an important role in this.”
In the end, though, Britain can only influence diplomatic negotiations if the ceasefire is respected. According to Abdah, Russia is using Syria to demonstrate its military clout on the international stage, but its bigger goal is military co-operation with the US.
Since Russia saved the Assad regime from collapse, he said, it can direct what happens next: “If we have seven consecutive days, that means Russia might be thinking seriously about controlling the regime.”
And if not, Syria’s population will descend once more into a living hell.