The foreign secretary Boris Johnson remarked on Thursday that the “UK would find it very difficult to refuse a US request to strike Syrian regime targets in response to another use of WMD”. Hopefully, is an indication, at last, in a change in British policy towards Syria.
After six years of fighting, over 500,000 dead, four million refugees, 11 million internally displaced people, and most of the country raised to the ground, it is clear to most that our policy of acquiescence, along with many others, is not working. Had we intervened at the beginning the crisis, the situation could not possibly have been worse.
Johnson’s comments caused controversy. But in fact, too many MPs in Westminster seem inward-looking, inexperienced and unworldly. Their fear of repeating the mistakes of Iraq has paralysed their thoughts and actions. This I find most frustrating. There are WMD in Syria and Assad is prepared to use them and against his own people. Our inactivity has in no small measure fuelled the rise of Isis, which as we now know is a direct threat to those MPs in Westminster and the country as a whole. Turn the other cheek to both Isis and Assad, and we should expect it well and truly slapped, again and again.
It is right and proper, as the closest ally of the US and a member of the UN Security Council that we take our responsibilities to protect the innocent seriously, wherever they are in the world. The UK must reinforce the red line, and taboo of using WMD to the absolute degree. Some in Westminster would have our nuclear deterrent and military confined to the barracks, and would avoid confrontation at every opportunity, in the hope that the worlds’ despots, dictators and terrorist will ignore us. This naivety could lead to the terminal decline of the UK as a global honest broker, our marginalisation on the world stage and an easy target for those who would do us harm.
But it is not direct military action by the UK against Assad that will resolve the crisis in Syria. The Geneva Process, which even the Russians are a part of, provides the framework for a political and democratic solution. However, without UN military support it has virtually no hope of success.
The first and overriding requirement in Syria is a ceasefire. There is one, in name only, agreed by all parties, including Russia, in Astana earlier this year. But it is not enforced and never will be without the UN monitoring it. Just this month alone, the regime and Russian jets have attacked and destroyed seven hospitals run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) in Idlib Province.
The UN must police this ceasefire with monitors and peacekeepers. I hope Mr Johnson, who also previously offered British troops to this task, will now, after his comments on Thursday be good to his word. The second requirement for peace is Safe Zones. Millions of civilians are without the bare essentials in life and are besieged by the warring factions. UN military personnel are required to protect these people, and to enable the millions of tonnes of aid, which sits gathering dust in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan to get to where it should be, and to support reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure.
With the bare essentials of a ceasefire and safe zones in place, monitored and protected by the UN, there is just a fighting chance that the Geneva Process can progress. It is Russian President Vladimir Putin who holds all the cards, and I cannot believe that the combined influence of the other members of the UN Security Council, or at least the US, UK and France, that together vastly outcompete his deterrent, cannot persuade him to come to the negotiating table. This could mean relaxing sanctions against Russia and allowing its forces a naval and air base in the Mediterranean. If this is viewed as “humble pie”, it might be worth eating.
So I for one welcome the foreign secretary’s comments. Israel has shown this week that it will strike targets at will in Assad’s heartland and against his Allies with impunity, to protect its people. Russia, Syria and Iran do not lift a finger or comment in the face of these attacks, knowing that Israel has no qualms at using all its military capabilities to protect itself.
Sometimes you just have to use force when all other options are exhausted. It is now time for the UN to use its collective military capability to force the peace in Syria. I hope the UK is in the vanguard of this battle.
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a chemical weapons expert who has visited Syria many times during the war. He is the director of Doctors Under Fire and an adviser to UOSSM.