In October 2014, I was at the UOSSM Bab Al Hawa hospital in north-west Syria. A barrel bomb had just landed in a children’s school nearby and five ambulances bought in 27 badly injured children, most of whom died that day. I experienced mortar fire from Isis in Iraq in April and August this year, but this is nothing to the unrelenting, indiscriminate bombing, every hour of every day in Aleppo. Now, with the extensive use of bunker busting bombs, there is no refuge underground.
The head psychologist at UOSSM told me recently, that 75 per cent of children in Aleppo have post-traumatic stress disorder and 50 per cent of those between the ages of 9-13 years old are incontinent as a result.
We are where we are in Syria, but it is not a good place. More than 400,000 are dead, mostly from Bashar al-Assad’s illegal barrel bombs, chemical weapon usage, red lines crossed, Russian jets bombing “Geneva Convention”-protected hospitals, and a combined scorched earth policy by Vladimir Putin and the regime in Aleppo. There are still 600,000 civilians besieged in East Aleppo. A genocide is happening in front of our eyes.
And meanwhile, on a geopolitical level, Putin is giving Western leaders a master class in strategic brinksmanship.
When Assad used the deadly nerve agent Sarin on 21 Aug 2013 to kill 1,500 civilians, mainly women and children, he crossed the US President Barack Obama’s “red line”. But he did not receive the punishment he deserved. Misfortune, and the worst type of political voyeurism led to the British parliament to vote against intervention. Such an act, in no small way, led President Obama and the US government to follow suit. The West’s misconception that to intervene in Syria would be to repeat the mistakes of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 created an opportunity for Putin to flex his very considerable military muscles.
But I was in Iraq in 2003, and Syria in 2013, and I can personally vouch there were few similarities. Instead, while the world hesitated, Isis saw the potential of chemical weapons. It is now using them on a daily basis to defend the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Do we expect the West to dance to Putin’s tune for the foreseeable future? Are we willing to let genocide unfold in front of our eyes, are we have for Halabja, Srebrenica, and Rwanda? If not, we need to be bold.
Possibly Obama will feel more able to act as his term comes to an end. The two Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have suggested they would be more assertive. But I calculate that it is here, in the UK, that we have a window to make a difference. The new Prime Miniser, Theresa May, has a steely determination reminiscent of Sir John Major, who saved the Iraqi Kurds with his no-fly zone in 1991.
The UK has the military assets in the region today which could make the difference. An aircraft tracking system which “named and shamed” Russian and Syrian aircraft bombing hospitals might encourage Putin to stop this slaughter where sanctions do not. UK AWACS aircraft and Type 45 Destroyers, already based just off the coast of Syria, could monitor and police such a system. Syrian helicopters drop illegal barrel bombs full of napalm, chemical weapons and high exploisves. A no-fly zone for such helicopters could reduce civilian deaths by roughly 90 per cent. Finally, the UK could air drop food to the million starving people in besieged areas. Putin is already doing this every day to those he protects.
Too many “good men and women” have sat on their hands and allowed this evil to develop. It is time for the West and the international coalition to stand up and show that Putin’s desire to turn Aleppo into a modern day Stalingrad will be tolerated no further. Putin should be reminded too, of how that besieged city haunted the Soviet Union.
If the UN and others continue however to be stuck in this moral paralysis, it is up to the UK. We may be diminished militarily, but by acting to save Aleppo and Syria, we could on the world stage still achieve a decisive victory for humanity.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is one of the world’s leading experts on preventing chemical weapons attacks, and has 23 years’ service in the British Army. He advises Syrian civilians on chemical weapons matters.