Lord Ashdown: We must not turn our backs on the million people in Aleppo
Former European Special Representative in Bosnia & Herzegovina Lord Ashdown writes that a three hour ceasefire in Aleppo is not sufficient humanitarian access and calls on the RAF to consider airdrops to besieged areas 'if adequate humanitarian corridors are not established'.
As I write, Russian forces claim to have initiated a three-hour ceasefire in Aleppo to allow the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid. This will be welcome news to the citizens who are trapped in the violent struggle between the Russian-backed Syrian army and the coalition of rebel forces. However, as the UN has stressed, this might give civilians a pause from bombing but it is barely enough time to deliver vital relief- in particular potable water, which has become increasingly scarce.
Divided between the Syrian-government backed West and the rebel backed East, Aleppo has become a key battleground in the Syrian war. Just thirty miles from the Turkish border, it is a key city for supply lines. Over the past few months, the Government has appeared to be closing in on the rebel held parts of the city, but in the last few days the rebels have launched a successful counter-attack, which has led to sharp intensification of the fighting.
The fledging peace-process which started earlier this year is in disarray, and this revival of the seemingly beleaguered rebel forces shows that this war is far from over.
It’s now a year since Russia committed its military to fighting on behalf of Assad, and the West has allowed them to dictate the military terms of this conflict ever since. When the UK parliament backed RAF action against Daesh in December last year, the motion acknowledged that the mission against them could only be successful if the conflict in Syria as a whole was addressed, and certainly at the beginning of the year things seems to be moving in the right direction: Cameron hosted the Syria Donor Conference here in London, a tentative ceasefire began, and key actors were finally around the table in Geneva.
Since then, however, the UK’s distraction with EU referendum has given us an excuse to take our eye off the ball. Now it is time to remind both our own citizens and the rest of the world that Brexit does not mean Britain has turned its back on the world, and prove to them that Boris Johnson leading the Foreign Office does not mean that the we no longer have a role to play in serious international issues.
Humanitarian access is not a luxury, it is a right, and UK must support the UN in making sure this is established. Proper access to civilians in Aleppo is not made possible by a 3-hour ceasefire, despite Russia’s claims this morning. Humanitarian corridors must be established to allow UN relief to enter the city, which will require an agreement by all sides, including the rebels. If these corridors can be created, there may well be the chance to develop permanent safe zones or even no-fly zones. Nothing should be off the table, less we risk leaving Syria to another five years of brutal conflict.
I remember watching Sarajevo starve in 1992 because the West would not act. While we dithered a quarter of a million innocents were killed, before finally we were forced to act. Will we never learn? Must we make the same mistake again and leave perhaps two million to the mercy of those who want to make them instruments of war in a brutal conflict whose only purpose now is wholesale and indiscriminate destruction?
If the UN cannot secure safe access on the ground, we must consider flying aid into besieged areas. We cannot allow Russia be a co-conspirator with Assad in holding the lives of these desperate people as hostage any longer. The Government should immediately start the process for a UN Resolution empowering aid drops to besieged areas, if adequate humanitarian corridors are not established.
To do less would be to turn our backs on more than a million people, mostly women, children and the aged, who now live in mortal danger and look to us.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is a Liberal Democrat peer. He was the International Community High Representative & European Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 - 2006
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