Friday, 23 December 2016

Understanding the restrictions on the west intervening in Aleppo - an update on the UN and British efforts

As this tragedy has unfolded, the Government has sought to reduce the suffering with every diplomatic and humanitarian lever at our command.
Indeed, the Foreign Secretary made very clear at the emergency debate that was held on 13 December on Syria that the UK’s first priority must be the protection of civilians and ensuring access for humanitarian aid. The Foreign Secretary also made it patently clear that there can be no military solution in Syria; I agree with him. Britain must keep pushing for a return to a political process with the credibility necessary for all parties to commit to an end to all the fighting. Despite serious obstacles, there have, nonetheless, been several successful evacuations of civilians over recent days. I hope that this continues, and that the UN is able to oversee more evacuations in the near future to ensure the welfare of civilians. Yet, it is essential that the Assad regime and its supporters provide the United Nations with access for humanitarian aid with immediate effect. Whilst the deterioration of the situation in Aleppo is a setback for the Syrian opposition, it will not change the fundamentals of the conflict, nor the requirement for a political as opposed to a military solution. I hope to explain why this is the case, drawing on what the Foreign Secretary explained in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago.
Firstly, the UK has utilised every avenue for action at the UN. You will recall that, back in December 2015, Russia voted in favour of UN resolution 2254, which urged all parties to “allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria”. Russia has now chosen to flaunt the very resolution that it supported. On 8 October this year, we tried to secure a new UN resolution that would have urged a ceasefire. It demanded that “all parties immediately end all aerial bombardments of Aleppo” – a resolution that was vetoed by the Russians. On 5 December, we tried again, throwing our weight behind a draft resolution that urged a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo to allow the evacuation of casualties and the delivery of aid. Once again, Russia vetoed the resolution, as did China. Russia and China would not even allow the people of Aleppo a mere seven-day respite. Moreover, the Russians have been blocking the evacuation of the injured and of medical staff from the very zones they are attacking. We are gathering all the information that we think will be necessary for the prosecution of those guilty of war crimes but, as the Foreign Secretary said, “the diplomatic pressure must continue”. The UK stood up at the last meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council and argued for tightening sanctions against Russia in respect of Syria, and the Foreign Secretary stated his wish that the rest of the EU follow suit. In addition, the Foreign Secretary recently met with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, in Paris to discuss this matter. They demanded, jointly, that the “regime and its backers” allow the UN to deliver aid “with immediate effect.” On this, the Foreign Secretary reported back to the House of Commons that “Assad has doggedly refused to allow the UN to deliver supplies to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are now starving. He is content for his own people to be reduced to starvation, even though there are UN warehouses full of food within easy reach.”Let it not be forgotten that, in spite of all the constraints that we are facing, the British Government continues to be at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The UK is the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid, having already pledged £2.3 billion. Some £105 million of this funding will help Syrians who are still in Syria. However, after being studied with great care, it has become clear that there are some harsh realities that must be accepted. For air drops to be accurate, they must be conducted at low level and low speed. Russia has deployed its most advanced jet fighters and surface-to-air missiles in Syria, which makes it impossible for us to carry out air drops without Russian permission. Even if Russia were to give its consent, our aircraft would still have to fly over areas of Syria that are hotly contested by a multitude of armed groups, including Assad, Daesh and al-Qaeda. They would make every effort to shoot down a British plane, and a lumbering, low-flying transport aircraft would be a sitting duck. Reluctantly, the conclusion was reached that air drops over Syria, under those conditions, would pose too great a risk. As things stand, we would be risking the lives of our air crew if we tried to drop supplies into eastern Aleppo. Primarily, it is up to the Russians and the Assad regime to institute an immediate ceasefire.
When it comes to drones and other devices, we still face the problem that the Syrians and the Russians control the airspace. Of course it is possible that circumstances might change, so the Foreign Secretary did not explicitly rule out any option for delivering aid at some point in the future.
However, there is another inescapable reality that must be accepted. On 29 August 2013, the House of Commons voted by 285 to 272 votes not to use force against Assad, even after he had poisoned hundreds of his people with sarin nerve gas. We, as a country, thereby vacated the space into which Russia stepped, beginning its own bombing campaign on behalf of Assad in 2015. Ever since that vote, our ability to influence events in Syria, to protect civilians or to compel the delivery of aid has been severely limited. We will continue to do what we can but this is a conflict in a country over which we have minimal control so long as these opposing forces exist and the UN is powerless .