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10 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:19pm

The Assad regime is quietly bombing hospitals while the world looks away

After a US strike put paid to Assad's chemical weapons attacks, he went back to attacking medics. 

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

For Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, the horrors of the Las Vegas shooting, the North Korean nuclear situation and Brexit are the perfect cover to try to exterminate the opposition in Syria. In the last 10 days, five hospitals run by the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) have been all but destroyed by Russian and Syrian airstrikes. These hospitals are located in supposedly safe zones in Idlib, a province in the north of Syria, which is policed by the Russian military. 

Over this summer and autumn, the carnage of Las Vegas has been played out one hundred fold every day, in all opposition areas of Syria. The plan appears to be either physically kill all the opposition, or force them out of Syria, creating yet more refugees. 

The world was outraged last Christmas, when thousands were slaughtered in Aleppo by air strikes. Most hospitals were destroyed and many doctors were killed. It was this more than anything which broke the will of the people. Eventually UOSSM and Doctors Under Fire managed to help get the few thousand left to the then-relative safety of Idlib province. Meanwhile, to Assad and Putin, the effectiveness of raising the medical fraternity to the ground was clear. 

Instead of attacking hospitals, the regime looked to its other favourite method of terror – chemical weapons. It conducted two major sarin attacks on 30 March and 4 April 2017, killing and injuring many and terrifying thousands. Donald Trump’s strike on 6 April 2017 put an end to this particular bout of chemical terror, but then the regime and its Russian allies went back to attacking hospitals. They have done so completely unchallenged for the last six months. 

The only apparent hope left is the UN Geneva Process, which is tasked with finding a diplomatic and political solution in the next 18 months. Hitherto, this has had no hope of success. Western governments have directed that Assad must go before negotiations can begin, and it is clear with Putin propping up Assad that this is not going to happen. However, it is also clear that Putin has achieved his strategic objects in Syria, and for a whole host of reasons would like to get out soon.

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Trump and France’s president Emmanuel Macron have stated that Assad can be part of the transition process, which is the pragmatic approach. If the Syrian people do get free and fair elections, as the UN hopes, they should for the first time have the opportunity to vote for who they want to lead them. It is clear that the British government thinks the same way. Many of the Syrian diaspora, which we support and lobby on behalf of, are also now of this opinion. At last we have some realistic hope that peace is achievable.

Let’s be clear, this is not appeasement of Assad – he should face his many victims and accusers in the International Criminal Court in due course, but is the only way to break the political stalemate and the relentless cycle of killing.

We seem to have been in the end game for Syria for years now. However, over the last six months this forgotten war has reached a final tipping point, and our collective political inaction is nothing short of an international disgrace. We allow a permanent member of the UN security council, Russia, to be complicit in war crimes. Russia has destroyed hospitals and killed civilians, breaking every rule of law and decency. The men and women of our military have helped to destroy Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but our political and diplomatic ineptitude is allowing it to regrow in Idlib, Ghouta and the refugee camps of Europe. 

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The other members of the UN security council appear completely focused on North Korea, Brexit and their own domestic politics. They appear to be missing the fact that neglecting the cause of peace in Syria is the best recruiting sergeant Islamic State could hire.

If Britain and Europe put half as much effort into Syrian peace as they do into Brexit, if Trump holds Putin to account, and if Assad stays during the transition process, there is just a chance that the UN Geneva Process will provide a decent solution for millions of civilians who have been gassed, bombarded and starved for the last five years.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE is a veteran of two Gulf wars and a chemical weapons expert. He advises the Peshmerga. Dr David Nott OBE is a surgeon who has volunteered in numerous disaster zones. They are both directors of Doctors Under Fire.