Safe havens can stop the suffering in Syria

John Major has deservedly been lauded for earmarking such a large slice of funds generated by his National Lottery initiative for Team GB’s Olympians. Given increasingly tragic events in Syria we are not, however, looking at the most relevant of the former prime minister’s achievements: his creation of safe havens for Kurds in northern Iraq and Shia Muslims in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf war.

Those havens were backed up by massive airdrops of humanitarian aid and no-fly zones enforced by the RAF and other western air forces. It is also notable that they lacked direct United Nations approval. The UN’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali even described them, subsequently, as “illegal”. Sir John’s “Operation Provide Comfort” saved countless numbers from Saddam Hussein, a dictator who regularly mass-murdered his own people. It was proof that insisting on getting the blessing of the UN — an obsession of many of today’s do-nothing politicians — can often be the least humanitarian of courses.

Iraq’s unlamented dictator pales in comparison with Syria’s President Assad. More people have died in his country’s continuing civil war than were killed in Darfur. The number of victims, which some estimates put at 470,000, is already similar to the loss of life in the Rwandan genocide of which we said “never again”.

While the West is obsessed with Islamic State, most of the killing in Syria is being done by government forces and by Assad’s blood-stained comrade-in-arms: Vladimir Putin. Although figures from any warzone are hard to verify, the Syrian Network for Human Rights records that half of the 204 massacres from the first half of this year were undertaken by Assad’s military, while Russian troops were responsible for 66 incidents. As this newspaper reported on Friday, Moscow has probably killed more Syrian civilians than Isis — even though Putin has been operating in the country for only a third of the time. This is partly because, unlike our own militaries, “collateral damage” does not worry Putin. Using bombing techniques he roadtested in the Chechen capital of Grozny at the turn of the century, he doesn’t shed tears if his munitions strike hospitals or schools.

In a recent open letter to President Obama, some of the few remaining doctors in the besieged city of Aleppo claimed that medical facilities were being attacked every 17 hours on average. Overwhelmed by the number of casualties arriving in their surgeries, they explained how they were forced to play God: unable to save every life, they were choosing which they had time or medicine to treat and which they had effectively to condemn to death. “We have,” wrote the doctors, “seen no effort on behalf of the United States to lift the siege or even use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians”. They continued: “The burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Syrian government and its Russian ally must therefore be shared by those, including the United States, who allow them to continue.”

That burden rests on Britain too and every global so-called “power” that has been so hesitant as the Syrian tragedy has worsened. The establishment of any safe havens or humanitarian relief corridors has become more hazardous with every passing month, but it is still not impossible if sufficient political will can be mustered. That’s the view of David Petraeus, the US general who designed the successful “surge” policy that in 2007 brought violence in Iraq under some sort of control.

The only chance of Putin or Assad agreeing to tolerate any kind of haven is if they feel under sufficient pressure. At the moment they look at the West and see only weakness. Putin, in particular, is enjoying a series of foreign policy successes. With Assad in his pocket, Nato’s post-coup Turkey holding out the hand of friendship towards him, Iran agreeing for Russian jets to use its airfields and US-Saudi relations at a new low because of that regime’s bloody mishandling of its intervention in Yemen, Putin is beginning to believe that the Tehran-Moscow alliance may become more important for the future direction of the Middle East than Cairo-Washington once was.

This is exactly the wrong time, therefore, for our new foreign secretary to be reportedly talking of normalising relations with Russia. If we owe anything to Omran Daqneesh, that five-year-old boy who tugged our heartstrings last week as he sat dazed in an ambulance, and his brother Ali, who died in one of Aleppo’s over-stretched hospitals on Saturday, it is to make Russia’s leaders suffer for what they have done in the Middle East, in Ukraine and will still do in other countries if given the opportunity. Britain, in particular, should be closing “Londongrad” to Putin’s cronies who come here for property, financial services, our universities and our top schools.

Britain could also welcome more refugees from the crisis. One reason I supported Brexit was that, confident that our borders were under our full control and certain that the flow of unskilled European labour would be much reduced, we just might be more open to taking people fleeing for their lives from benighted corners of the world. Theresa May does not need to be as daredevil as Angela Merkel but, as a Commons select committee has noted, we may not even be on target to deliver our miserably small promise to accept 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees or, by 2020, 20,000 from Syria overall.

As noted earlier, history might be revisiting the premiership of John Major and looking at it more kindly. History will one day re-examine today’s leaders, especially President Obama, and it will do so much less favourably. General Petraeus has talked of a “political Chernobyl” effect from Syria that will poison global politics for at least as long as the Soviet-era nuclear plant poisoned the environment.

I often think of those I met in the Zaatari refugee camp on the Jordanian-Syrian border more than three years ago. These highly educated Syrians had almost nothing but, through shared smartphones, they did have internet access. Each day they watch their country descend further towards hell and they watch us too. They watch us as Aleppo becomes a 21st-century Stalingrad. As hospitals are bombed. As napalm is used against their brothers and sisters.

We can’t be creating many friends in that region at the moment. We may be creating something much, much worse.

Tim Montgomerie is a British political activist, blogger, and columnist and former comment editor for The Times.

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