Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
Syria is in a dire state. The conflict there has become a tangled mess of armed groups, state actors and contrasting goals. It is a country that has been mercilessly battered and bruised by machine gun, missile and mortar for more than five and a half years. The Syrian Observatory on Human Rights estimated that between March 2011 and September 2016, almost 430,000 had died in the country as a result of the war. Those that survive see homes destroyed, no place of safety and little hope for the future.
It is admirable that our own nation, thousands of miles away from this horror does not turn away, and asks itself not just how we can achieve a positive outcome, but also what we must do to avoid making things worse. That is why when Parliament gathered to discuss the extension of airstrikes against ISIL into Syria, those were the two questions at the forefront of everyone’s minds on that day, whatever decision they made in the voting lobby. It is what any responsible country should consider when taking part in conflict in the 21 st century; it is no longer legitimate to achieve military goals through whatever means necessary.
I am always struck by the level of professionalism and awareness of the duty to protect civilians that the men and women of our armed forces share. The commitment to follow through on degrading and destroying ISIL targets is conducted in a manner that emphasises accuracy when engaging, and restraint when there is a possibility of risk to civilians.
Last week a story was released of a British drone team attacking an ISIL truck in the desert. A missile was fired and locked on to the target, before the truck starts driving towards a village. The team notice a man, potentially but not certainly a civilian, in the corner of the screen and the mission’s ‘safety observer’ orders the sensor operator who controls the weapons to explode the missile safely in the desert.
These procedures are the only way for a responsible country to act. War will always involve taking lives, but every effort should be made to protect the innocent local population. Because of this the RAF have been unable to find, and have not yet been provided with, any evidence of a single civilian casualty.
Our efforts stand in stark contrast to the actions of Russia in this conflict since they started bombing in September 2015. Russia is apparently willing to do anything and everything to keep Assad in power. They ignore the fact that President Assad was responsible for three quarters of civilian deaths in 2015. They ignore the fact that his reckless desire to hold onto his illegitimate rule only emboldens and strengthens groups like ISIL.
They also ignore the use by Government forces of chemical weapons, for which no adjectives can adequately describe the horror of their effect or the rightful shame of their use. Yet still Russia stands loyally alongside this abhorrent regime, tearing yet more of that country apart in the name of preserving the power, status and privilege of one evil man.
There are legitimate arguments that the last thing Syria needs now is for the state to be dismantled, and for a vacuum of power to be created. Syria cannot go through the same disastrous mistakes as Iraq. However, the political solution we all wish to see in this conflict cannot come with Assad remaining as President for life. Not after the number of his citizens he has killed has reached the hundreds of thousands, not after he has besieged and starved his country’s cities, not after he has gassed his nation’s children.
Putin and Russia seem not only determined to remain blind to that fact, but also to lower themselves and fight an ugly fight in the exact same manner as Assad. Boris Johnson is right to suggest that they may have committed a war crime by bombing the aid convoy on its way to provide some small relief to the besieged people of Aleppo. But this is not the first time Russia has helped Assad maintain his disgraceful sieges, the deaths of starving civilians have long been their responsibility. Human Rights Watch believe that Russia may too have been using indiscriminate, inaccurate incendiary weapons armed with thermite or phosphorous on civilian areas of Aleppo and Idlib, weapons which cause terrible wounds to those it touches.
In last week’s Sunday Times it was revealed that diplomats are now also ‘reasonably confident’ that the Russians have been using a TOS-1A launcher in the city – a weapon that fires rockets tipped with thermobaric warheads. When they explode it sucks in all the oxygen from the surrounding area, suffocating some while burning anyone within a 650 ft radius alive. The article quotes a former US Army artillery officer as saying its use could constitute a war crime, and that it ‘has no place being used in an urban area, never mind against civilians’. A former British Army explosives expert described it as ‘a poor man’s nuclear weapon’.
The Syrian war is always going to be hard to solve, but Russia is making it so much harder. Russia is a country that likes to complain that it is unfairly treated by the rest of the world, while using its propaganda channels such as Russia Today to present an unfailingly positive view of the country, and a consistently negative view of the West. They like to propagate a fantasy that the West only wants to create a new Cold War and bully the magnificent motherland into subordination; when instead we just hope for a reliable, rational and responsible partner.
In Syria, our forces are doing what they can to act responsibly, and reasonably. Russia is doing all it can to back an evil regime, and have undertaken evil acts themselves. Putin and his country must make a choice about whether they are seen as a force for good or evil in the world. It’s currently all too clear on which side they stand.