The US airstrikes to neutralise President Assad’s ability to conduct chemical attacks – like those we saw in Idlib this week, Aleppo before Christmas and East Ghouta last August – are most welcome. But they will be entirely counterproductive, if they are not rapidly followed by concerted UN action.
To do nothing to follow up with humanitarian, diplomatic and political activity would be to repeat the mistakes of the 2003 Iraq invasion. The ceasefire brokered in Astana a few weeks ago, though not perfect, offers hope for millions of civilians suffering in Syria, and secretary of state Rex Tillerson is now suggesting safe zones.
Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many NGOs situated just over the border in Turkey
The concept of safe zones recognises that the vast majority of Syrians want to remain in Syria or return to Syria if it is free of tyranny and terror. Russia feels chastened after the US strikes, but Vladimir Putin is no fool and wants peace in Syria as much as anyone. He will have to speak to a “belligerent” Donald Trump to support this, and to no doubt discuss sanctions which are crippling the Russian economy. A pilot scheme in northwest Syria is achievable, and the best way to get this process underway as soon as possible. If successful, a safe zone can be replicated in the south on the Jordanian border and beyond. At the same time, the global fight against Islamic State can begin in earnest, with the US, UK, Turkey, Russia and all allies working together.
There are about 500,000 refugees in camps in northwest Syria living in despair and abject poverty. Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many NGOs situated just over the border in Turkey. UK charity Syria Relief runs some of the very few functioning schools, but still, a generation of children is missing its education. The international charity Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations runs a number of very effective hospitals and clinics in the area, and is preparing to up this effort if the safe zone materialises.
Safety and security is the underlying and critical requirement for the safe zone. I gauge that the regime will now stop dropping barrel bombs and chemical weapons indiscriminately on civilians. Security of the safe zone in this area could be supported by ships in the eastern Mediterranean with radar and missiles. This would negate the need for coalition aircraft to fly in “Syrian and Russian” airspace, which is guarded by anti-aircraft assets. Security on the ground must be policed by UN monitors and troops, who proved effective in Aleppo after the evacuation. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has already suggested that British troops could lead this role.
Aid and infrastructure must be allowed to flow into the area as quickly as possible. Many NGOs have stockpiled equipment on the Turkish side of the border. Accommodation, ideally prefabricated, needs to be provided to allow expansion of refugee camps, build homes, schools, roads, bridges, electricity infrastructure et al. The mobile phone network has proved remarkably resilient, and is of course the reason we have been able to morbidly and helplessly follow the atrocities as they unfold.
The airstrikes give some hope to most Syrians, but to not repeat the mistakes of Iraq 2003, the UN security council must now enable safe zones, enforce the ceasefire, and put all diplomatic effort into the Geneva process in order to get an acceptable political solution for all in the next 18 months.