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13 December 2016

Aleppo: 6 ways Britain can help without boots on the ground

MPs held an emergency debate amid reports of massacres. 

By Julia Rampen

In an emergency debate on Tuesday, MPs from across the political divide urged the government to act in Syria and prevent the massacre unfolding in Aleppo.

“These terrified civilians in Aleppo are of course sophisticated educated people from what was once one of the great cities of the world,” noted the co-chair of the parliamentary group Friends of Syria, Tory MP Andrew Mitchell.

Now, he said, besieged civilians were writing to him asking what the UK was doing to stop the Assad regime’s state terror, and told the House of makeshift hospitals where “doctors and nurses are wearing boots because there is so much blood on the floor”. 

But Mitchell was clear he didn’t want the debate to simply be “handwringing”. Indeed, a much-needed ceasefire deal was announced soon after the debate concluded – although at time of writing it was not clear whether civilians would get any protection. So what are the options on the table? 

1. Negotiate a humanitarian corridor

Mitchell, a former International Development secretary, is urging the government to push for a humanitarian corridor that allows civilians out of besieged areas. 

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Buses driving under the UN’s “white flag” could take the wounded to hospitals and refugee facilities on the border with Turkey. 

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As Mitchell put it: “I believe if the Russians could be persuaded at this point they have nothing to lose from allowing international humanitarian actors into Aleppo, then the Syrian regime would agree. And if they will not agree, the world will ask what they have to hide.”

2. Collect evidence of war crimes

As Labour MP Mary Creagh pointed out, the most credible witnesses to atrocities are civilians, which may be why there have been reports of pro-Assad forces letting armed soldiers escape but forcing activists and citizen journalists to stay behind. 

Several other MPs advocated an effort by the British government to monitor war crimes and collect evidence, with Mitchell calling for “independent humanitarian eyes and ears on the ground”. 

3. Airdrop aid

More than 200 MPs from a number of parties have signed a demand to get aid into Syria. 

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the government had looked at ways to drop aid, but concluded aircraft would have to fly dangerously low over hostile territory. 

Shadow Foreign secretary Emily Thornberry instead floated the idea of using drones, or parachutes attached to a GPS system, to send aid. 

Another option would be to drop aid at a designated spot requested by Syrian humanitarians on the ground. 

4. Freeze Russian assets

Russia has become the dominant power in Syria, providing the most lethal weapons and vetoing attempts by the international community to intervene through the UN.

High-powered Russians are fond of spending in the UK, so a cross-party group of MPs are backing an amendment to the Criminal Finance Bill which would allow the government to freeze the assets of foreign officials and politicians involved in human rights abuses. 

5. Take any kind of action at all

Many MPs looked back to 2013, when MPs voted against intervention in Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons, but it was former Chancellor George Osborne who assessed it most damningly. 

He said: “We can’t debate issues like Syria and then think our decisions have no impact on the rest of the world.”

The subsequent chaos has taught MPs “the price of not intervening”, he added. 

The Labour MP Alison McGovern, who co-chairs the Friends of Syria group with Mitchell, noted Russia was dropping propaganda leaflets telling those in rebel-held areas that the rest of the world would not help. 

She said: “Strongly worded letters from our Prime Minister are worth nothing if we are not prepared to back them up with action.”

6. Prepare for the next Aleppo

One MP after another warned that Aleppo is unlikely to be the last city where civilians face mass murder at the hands of pro-Assad forces. As McGovern put it: “Does anybody seriously believe if we allow Assad to have his way now, he’s going to stop?”

As Thornberry pointed out, this means deciding what the UK would do if Syrian and Russian forces unleashed the same strategy on the city held by the common enemy of Isis – Raqqa.