Editor’s Note: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army officer, is director of Doctors Under Fire, a campaign against attacks on hospitals in war zones. He is also the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear adviser to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
After six years of war, over 500,000 people killed, millions more displaced and chemical weapons now the norm, the world’s two most powerful leaders – US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – agreed to a ceasefire in Southern Syria two weeks ago.
After years of disappointment, this could be the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. While one can hope it is the former, that ultimately depends on the next steps taken by the US and Russia.
The only way to ensure any longevity in this ceasefire is to ensure the UN has a central role.
This will only happen if the five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – come together to give the UN the authority to monitor the ceasefire and deliver both aid and reconstruction.
To not grasp this moment – hopefully culminating in the defeat of ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa – will be to repeat the mistakes of Iraq in 2003, where the battle was won but the war raged on for another 14 years.
Trump showed his positive intent in Syria when he destroyed the Syrian jets that were suspected of dropping the deadly nerve agent Sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in April this year – an attack that Assad still denies being behind.
It also seems clear that Putin is now tiring of the Syrian war and has achieved his strategic objectives of an air and naval base in the Mediterranean. Now would be a good time for him to reduce his military presence in Syria and improve relations with the US.
France’s energetic President Emmanuel Macron has indicated he is keen to support peace with his Mediterranean counterpart and will even acquiesce to a Syria run by Assad, if that means peace.
The UK is mired by Brexit, but at least Boris Johnson the Foreign Secretary has talked about UK troops being on offer for a UN force to monitor the peace and deliver aid in Syria. And the UK is well overdue in flexing its not inconsiderable diplomatic muscles in the Middle East.
China is not much touched by Syria and ISIS, but would benefit from P5 support to deal with North Korea and secure a better commercial relationship with the US.
Other key players in this are Turkey, Iran and Israel.
Turkey would like to secure its southern border and is vexed by the Syrian Kurds, who are supported by the US and their military arm – the YPG – doing most of the heavy lifting against ISIS in Raqqa.
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu initially supported the ceasefire but then retracted, as it was suggested that Iranian forces would police the ceasefire in southern Syria – right up to the border with Israel. Israel and Iran are – unsurprisingly – at loggerheads, and must be separated in both time and space to prevent them coming blows and further destabilizing the region.
Syria itself is devastated and starving. The fresh hopes of the Arab spring of six years ago have long since washed away. The evil of ISIS made sure of that as it spread through the country and settled in Raqqa.
Without effective governance in Syria, for every ISIS soldier killed another will emerge from this chastened population. As ISIS faces defeat in Iraq and Syria – and if the desperation of Syria is allowed to perpetuate – new ISIS killers will impact us even more around the globe. If we don’t physically and ideologically defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq it will ultimately be harder to defeat them in on the streets of London, Paris, New York, Moscow and Beijing.
Therefore, if a ceasefire is to hold in Syria, then it must be absent of the challenges and interwoven allegiances and enemies. The only realistic way to police and deliver this is with UN monitors and troops on the ground in Syria.
Furthermore, Syria needs aid – and lots of it. Those involved in Iraq over the years know what it looks like when this bit goes wrong. Full tummies with jobs and schooling are less likely to seek solace with terrorists.
The only way to effectively get aid around Syria is by UN troops protecting convoys. Too often, unprotected UN convoys have been attacked.
And the country must be rebuilt. Northwest Syria, the area I know well, is razed to the ground and basic infrastructure is in tatters. This must be reconstructed as an immediate priority. There is no shortage of aid in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but it can’t get to where it is needed.
I also expect sufficient funds are available from big hitters like the UK to get construction going again, putting the remaining able bodied in Syria back to work – and put money in their pockets.
At the medical charity the Union of Medical Care and Relief Ogranizations we pay and feed doctors and medics to stay at their posts under the most demanding conditions. In the main, they do. The UN would do well to replicate the UOSSM model.
Time is running out for Syria and there is a danger that a much more dangerous version of ISIS will develop globally if, once destroyed in Syria and Iraq, we don’t tackle the core of ISIS’ development in the first place.
The planets may finally be aligning to make the improbability of peace and prosperity in Syria a reality. But if we are to realize this option, the UN must be front and center to the solution.
It must be given muscle by political, diplomatic and financial support from the P5 and other wealthy countries.
Israel and Iran must be kept apart. Due deference must be given to the Turkish and Kurdish issue. And full support must be given to the Geneva Peace Process in finding a diplomatic solution.
I gauge from my many discussions with people inside and outside Syria that if the UN leads, the Syrian people – war weary and starving – are ready for peace. They are prepared to negotiate some of the really tricky issues that have hitherto been intractable.
It is time for the P5 to show their mettle and lead the world, as is their responsibility, before the scourge of ISIS infects us all.