Dr David Nott writes: In 2014, as in 2013, I worked in Aleppo in two hospitals in an opposition neighbourhood. Many of the medics had fled to Turkey and many hospitals had been bombed. The use of barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime on civilian areas meant the largest proportion of patients admitted to the hospital were women and children. The nature of their injuries was such that often all we could do was try to make their final moments less painful. As a surgeon, I felt close to despair.
I came back to the UK and once again spoke about what was happening in Syria. I called it for what it was – a genocide perpetrated by Assad – but still was met with government apathy. There were efforts made by the US and UK to train some rebel groups and provide assistance to refugees; there was talk of humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones – but ultimately, without a protective military presence, such initiatives would never succeed.
It was vacillation on the part of the US and UK that emboldened not only the Assad regime but Putin too. The first Russian air strikes, against targets in the West of Syria, were an audacious attempt to shore up Assad’s Alawite heartland. They struck far from the Isil zones of control.
That Assad is an effective ally in the battle against Isil is a fiction repeated by many commentators. When the revolution commenced in 2011, Assad emptied Syria’s jails of radical Salafists, who went on to become Isil’s leaders and commanders. It suits Assad to have a villain against which he can defend his regime, and in Isil he has one that he has fed and watered to great effect.
The only way to win this war is to put boots on the ground, and that should have been done two years ago when there was an opportunity to help the Free Syrian Army and actively remove Assad from power and stem the rise of Islamic extremism. Instead there was a lack of insight and leadership from the West.
An oft-repeated line was that all the anti-government protagonists are equally extreme, equally impossible Western allies. I can say that from my experience that they are not. Towards the end of my time there in 2014, I went to visit a Catholic Church in Aleppo. There, having tea with the priest, were a group of Free Syrian Army fighters, their rifles slung across their chests as they chatted amicably. The Church had been protected by the Free Syrian fighters and the priest respected for the kindness he showed to many sick and dying people. In March this year, I was shocked to hear that this kindly priest had been killed. Not by supposed Islamist rebels intent on destroying all those of other religions; but by a barrel bomb dropped by one of Assad’s helicopters.
The West has so far abrogated its moral responsibility to the Syrian people and has paid a price not only in the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees flocking to Europe’s shores but also in Putin’s audacious power play, so that we find ourselves in a situation where Russia, Iran and Hizbollah are leading this brutal dance. [Continue reading…]