Once again it appears Vladimir Putin has seized the strategic high ground and initiative in Syria, as he declared yesterday that he has broad agreement for humanitarian safe zones across Syria after discussions with Donald Trump, Turkey and Iran.
He claims he can enable the ceasefire brokered in Astana some weeks ago, which currently is an abject failure, by creating no-fly zones with the Russian, Turkish, Iranian and US militaries protecting safe zones on the ground. He also, thankfully, acknowledges that UN troops might be required.
However unpalatable it is to agree with Putin, after six years of civil war, more than 500,000 deaths, numerous chemical weapon attacks and the country virtually razed to the ground, if he and President Trump can enable the Geneva process to produce a democratic solution, I for one am prepared to give it a chance and lend my support and effort. I urge our prime minister to play a leading role and allow the UK to poke its head out of the mire of Brexit and the election, and flex our not inconsiderable diplomatic and military skills in order to help this devastated country.
The safe zone concept 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 appears chastened after the US airstrikes, which I firmly supported; but Putin is no fool and should want peace in Syria as much as anyone. As such, he appears to be courting Trump to support this; no doubt requesting the lifting of sanctions that are crippling the Russian economy as a quid pro quo for delivering this essential peace plan.
Putin is suggesting four safe zones initially, in Idlib Province, Homs Northern Suburbs, East Ghouta and South Syria. These places have all been devastated by Syrian regime barrel bombs, Russia airstrikes, chemical weapons, attacks on hospitals: any type of peace will be welcomed there.
The area I am most familiar with is Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, which is still reeling from the deadly chemical attack on 4 April at Khan Sheikun. There are about 500,000 refugees in camps there, living in abject despair and poverty. Food, water and electricity could flow in from the many NGOs situated just over the border in Turkey and the refugee camps expanded.
Safety is the critical requirement for the zones. The Syrian air force should be grounded, which must be in Putin’s gift
Safety and security are the underlying and critical requirements for safe zones. The Syrian air force should be grounded, which must be in Putin’s gift. The security of the safe zone in this area could be supported by naval ships in the eastern Mediterranean with radar and missiles.
I expect we are going to have to accept Russian and Iranian troops on the ground to provide security; and as they are already in place, they could hasten the peace. However, to ensure control and governance, this must be under a UN banner, with UN rules of engagement and modus operandi. It will need a sensitive and flexible touch and should be led by those most experienced in this type of operation. Boris Johnson has already suggested that British troops could be available in this role, and I would favour a majority western force. This force would enable aid delivery and reconstruction, which should create the positive conditions in which the Geneva process can unfold.
Nobody is under any illusions about the challenges ahead. They will require complete Turkish, Russian, Iranian, US, UK, UN support and agreement, and over a protracted period. There are several “dogs” in this fight, but the US is the biggest, and I hope it barks the loudest. Significant resources are required for success, but less than involved in housing 5-12 million Syrians elsewhere and allowing the terminal decline of this shattered nation.
However distasteful I find it to support Putin’s initiative, more especially after his forces have repeated bombed our UOSSM hospitals and killed our staff, I have shouted for safe zones since my first trip to Syria in 2013, and I will continue to do so for the good of Syria. I will also, with many others, continue to collect evidence, so those who are guilty of the many atrocities perpetrated in the country will one day face justice at the International Criminal Court.