The gods of war have created the most complex and seemingly intractable situation in Idlib province, one of the last areas of Syria not under President Bashar Assad’s control. After eight years of conflict the remaining al-Qaeda fighters have been squeezed into an area about the size of Greater London. There are also three million civilians in refugee camps across the area with very little food or medicine.
On two sides of this triangle there is a hard impregnable border with Turkey, while on the other, Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces push north-west. Assad appears to want to clear a corridor from Aleppo in the north all the way south to Damascus but he has also vowed to retake Idlib and kill all the “terrorists” there — a definition which appears to include the civilians.
The usual Syrian regime tactics are in place. First, 23 hospitals have been destroyed in the past 21 days, as reported by Karen Pierce, the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations. This is a crime against humanity but there has been barely a whimper of protest from the UN and Western governments. Second, as a consequence of indiscriminate attacks, 300,000 people are now homeless and on the move in Idlib, living in the open and off scraps.
Only last week we heard reports of a chemical weapons attack on rebel fighters in south-west Idlib by regime forces. Chemical weapons were effective in destroying resistance in Aleppo in 2016, Ghouta in 2017 and Douma in 2018. Although Assad knows his forces will suffer a couple of US and UK air strikes for his troubles, it is probably a price he is happy to pay to subjugate Idlib and Syria once and for all.
The Syrian conflict has normalised chemical weapon use, as Western governments did not act to defend their so-called red line, which aimed to prevent these abhorrent armaments being used. We are likely to regret this weakness in the years to come.
The West has invested much military effort in defeating Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in the past three years, but its acquiescence in Idlib is creating the perfect conditions for the regrowth of an organisation that will threaten Western capitals for many years. The terrorists must be defeated in Idlib but current Syrian and Russian plans could result in millions of casualties — this is an area where the West must consider using its overwhelming military might, perhaps supporting the Turks, however much we oppose military intervention.
Non-intervention in Syria is having terrible consequences and the West and UN must reset their collective moral compass, and at the very least stamp on the tactic of attacking hospitals and using chemical weapons.
These crimes against humanity have been normalised with our inactivity in Syria and could have far-reaching consequences for us all.
By Richard Benyon (MP for Newbury) and Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (an expert on chemical weapons).