28 November 2016
Syria’s agony – and why we now urgently need to revive the responsibility to protect

Last week, the final functioning hospital in East Aleppo was destroyed. There are now no surgical theatres left in a city at the heart of the bloody civil war in Syria. This is a city where the number of dead already weighs heavily on the conscience of the world, and is now a city where they are much less able to save the wounded.

Deaths will continue to mount, and they will continue to be mourned, but they will also continue to be met with inaction. The whole of the West has looked at Syria with horror for five years, but little has been done, and it appears that little will continue to be done.

In Britain, certainly, we have donated generously. Our Government has done the second-most in the world to provide aid to those affected by the conflict. But this will neither solve the causes of displacement, nor remove the terrors that families are fleeing from. Ultimately, we in Britain and the whole of the West have not taken concrete steps to try and bring this conflict to a swifter end. We have rightly taken on ISIS and committed to wiping that evil organisation out, wherever it is found. But most Syrians are terrorised by Assad, not ISIS. We have little to offer them except aid, if they can escape to a camp.

We have played a role in the talks to bring about ceasefires and discuss political solutions. But little has been achieved. Russia appears to be determined to maintain Assad in power for as long as he wishes, despite being believed to be responsible for up to 95 per cent of casualties in the conflict. Now may well not be the time for regime change, and there could be a role for senior figures from the Assad administration required for a transitional Government. But in the long term you will never be able to maintain Assad in power in a Sunni-dominated country after he has murdered so many of their brothers and sisters, parents and children. Leaving Assad in position leaves few other outcomes of this war than the complete subjugation of one side or the other.

We have learnt a lesson from Iraq, but it has been the wrong lesson. The lesson should have been one of caution rather than inaction. It was one of planning for what should be done in the aftermath, one of listening to local knowledge and one of humility in understanding that you cannot just tear apart every organ of a state, from the army to the civil service, and expect to be able to rebuild another in your own image.

But Syria is different. When we considered military intervention in 2013 this was a country already at war; a country where the people were protesting for an end to autocratic rule had been met with brutal repression. But above all it was a country whose leader had just used chemical weapons on his own people.

We have to have certain rules to maintain international order, and there must be consequences for breaking them. Allowing Assad to get away with those acts, just as Saddam was able to against the Kurds, was unacceptable. It signalled our willingness to watch him slaughter his people, a willingness that has left us where we are today.

And I write this now, because it seems clear that there will be no swift end to this conflict. Russia has strengthened Assad too much, and he has embittered too much of his population against him, while ISIS too lurks in the wings. The situation is markedly worse as we end 2016 compared to 2013, when we stepped back for fear of making the situation worse, and in doing so made it so much worse. We could have curtailed the power of Assad to kill his people without retribution. We did not need to overthrow him, but show that there were absolute limits to what is acceptable in a modern world. But we did not.

The best we can do from this conflict is learn a lesson, as lessons were learned from Iraq. Yes, we should not intervene in a country without a plan. Yes, we should not ignore history and local politics. And yes, we should not recklessly try and tear down a state and start again. But we must also say that we will limit the powers and abilities of those who do unspeakable evil. We will respond strongly to those who wilfully, recklessly and wantonly murder those who they should govern for and protect. And we will act swiftly, without hesitation.

We live in nothing close to a perfect world, and there will always be ugly and brutal war. We cannot enforce our vision of a perfect world through liberal interventionism, but what has happened in Syria cannot be allowed to happen again. We need a real discussion about how best to ensure this. After the terrors of the 1990s the international community talked at length about a ‘Responsibility to Protect’, with the UN committing to it in 2005. But we have allowed this standard to slip and for countries such as Russia and China to frustrate it; our commitment to ensuring a stable international system must be renewed.

The NATO countries should therefore take the lead and guarantee immediate but proportionate responses to such violations of international norms. They should introduce a new article of the treaty that specifically mandates member states to strike military facilities, away from civilian populations, in any country in the world that uses chemical or biological weapons, in any scenario.

This commitment should be as strong and clear as the guarantee that an attack on one member is treated as an attack on all. There should also be provisions to ensure NATO personnel are not put in danger, through the use of drones or cruise missiles. However, it would be absolutely clear, no Government in the world could use such weapons again without knowing we would act.

We know that getting involved is difficult, but we also know targeted and well planned intervention can work. Just look at the successful no fly zones in Iraq, implemented by President Bush and John Major in 1992, which protected Kurds in the north of the country and Shias in the south. And we also now know that while stepping back is easy, it has destroyed Syria. We shouldn’t let that happen again.

| First published in ConservativeHome