The final battle for Idlib, one of the last pockets of Syria still holding out against President Bashar Al Assad, seems to have begun. With the Syrian regime viewing civilians still living in the area as terrorists, three million people face either being killed or forced to flee as refugees. And the methods being used to crush the resistance are grimly familiar. In the last 10 days, 12 hospitals have been destroyed in attacks, unconscionable crimes that have proved a useful tactic for the regime but which have gone largely unchallenged by the international community.
While the United Kingdom and other members of the United States-led coalition have devoted much military courage and materiel over the last three years to wiping out Daesh in Iraq and Syria, they have shown far less willingness to get involved in operations against the Syrian regime. By leaving Russian President Vladimir Putin and Al Assad to do what they want in Idlib, however, this narrow approach is indirectly creating the perfect conditions for terrorists to reform, regroup and regrow. It is also creating a terrible precedent. Attacks on hospitals and the use of chemical weapons — morbidly effective tactics — have become normalised in Syria.
The United Nations and western governments seem to think that nothing can be done, except to let Al Assad have his victory and then pick up the pieces afterwards. This is crass and illogical. In addition to the thousands of innocent children and civilians who will die before the dreadful conflict in Syria is done, we are, in effect, giving licence to every other despot and terrorist to copy Al Assad’s crimes against humanity in order to achieve their evil ends.
There is, in fact, much that can be done. The international response must start with the UK, US and France reaffirming their joint commitment to strike key Syrian regime assets if chemical weapons are used. We were pleased to see British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt doing just this earlier this week. Ensuring that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is able to operate in Syria and remove the remains of Al Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile also needs to be made a priority.
But these are just the start of the options that the UK, even on its own, must consider, if we are to regain our moral compass and send a message to those who want to terrorise and create evil. We can, for example, track aircraft attacking hospitals. When the doctors operating in these hospitals in Idlib are taking great risks to collect evidence on chemical attacks to be passed on to the OPCW, surely tracking the planes that are trying to kill them is the very least we can do.
We should also do more, including the implementation of further economic sanctions, to ensure that the Geneva Convention is being upheld. To ensure that Al Assad complies, the UK can threaten to remove the £1 billion (Dh4.88 billion) already pledged for reconstruction in Syria. The West has the financial resources to rebuild Syria and the offer of assistance should be made on the condition that the rules of war and the Geneva Convention are adhered to.
Our recent meetings with ministers in the UK Foreign Office suggest that they are at least now prepared to look (at increasing pressure on the Syrian regime). The appointment of Rory Stewart, a well-travelled former administrator in Iraq, to run the Department for International Development holds further promise that platitudes will be replaced with effective action.
Ultimately, and most urgently, we need peace in Syria, and that means a wholehearted commitment to multilateral peace talks whatever the political, diplomatic and financial cost. In the meantime, we must not ignore our humanitarian responsibilities in Syria, not least because continuing to do nothing in Idlib is helping to create the perfect conditions for Daesh to recruit new bombers who will directly threaten London, Paris and New York.
It is an old saying that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing. It is about time our leaders took notice.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2019
Professor David Nott and Hamish de Bretton-Gordon are directors of Doctors Under Fire.