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Saturday 6 February 2016

MPs call again for air drops to besieged civilians

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon on air drops, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, February 2016.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon on air drops: “I’ve seen it with my own eyes many times under fire in Afghanistan and I see absolutely no reason why it cannot be done in Syria.”

Roger Godsiff MP has tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to “act immediately to airdrop food, fuel and medical supplies” to besieged communities in Syria. So far the motion has received cross-party support from 39 MPs.

On 27th January, Roger Godsiff chaired a meeting on civilian protection which discussed air drops and other possible measures.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, British Army veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke at the meeting. He talked of the work done by Syria Relief and UOSSM for whom he’s worked for the past four years, including giving them training on responding to chemical attacks.

“UOSSM runs 32 hospitals and clinics across Syria. The main hospital in Bab Al-Hawa near the Turkish border has been deliberately targeted by Russian airstrikes in the last few weeks, and in fact in the last two weeks an airstrike just next to the hospital killed a number of employees and family members. For those who’ve been to Bab Al-Hawa you know there’s no way it could be anything else but a hospital. We’ve also had to evacuate the hospital three times in the last few months, and this has had a huge impact. Bab Al-Hawa does about 25% of surgical procedures in north-west Syria, about 1,500 procedures per month, and this has been tremendously hampered since the Russian attacks on it,” he said.

“The UOSSM hospital in Moadamiya in Ghouta, Damascus, is virtually on its knees. It’s being pounded by Assad forces, there’s virtually no medicine left, and as I’m sure you’re aware the people of Moadamiya are starving, as are people across Syria. Given these two illustrations of dreadfulness, which are repeated across Syria, it’s not difficult to see why the refugee crisis in Europe is what it is, and why it will get even worse if there’s no direction coming to it.”

Everybody knows exactly where these hospitals are, he said, “Putin, Assad, Turkey, the US, the UK,” and it must be time for the British Government to demand that Putin stop targeting hospitals, and that he also forces Assad to do the same.

“Giving protection for civilians from air strikes, especially in north-west Syria which I know well, would start to give hope to some of the seven million displaced within Syria that there is a future for them which doesn’t involve trekking across Europe to countries who at best do not welcome them,” he continued.

And moving on to air drops, Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said:

“Along with 17 other cities and suburbs in Syria, the people of Moadamiya are starving and getting to a point where their only option is to run the gauntlet to Lebanon, and then the winter seas to Europe, or die in situ. Either stay and starve to death, or flee and face a likely death at the hands of Assad, Daesh, or the sea. And I think we in Britain can do a lot more. I’ve seen the accuracy of precision RAF air drops in Afghanistan where they can now drop these five ton containers into an area the size of this room. People tell me that some of this food might fall into the wrong hands; so what? The odd bit of water, the odd food or medicine going into the wrong hands, whatever that might mean? The excuse that it can’t be done—I’ve seen it with my own eyes many times under fire in Afghanistan and I see absolutely no reason why it cannot be done in Syria. And for the UK operating out of Akrotiri in Cyprus is but a ten minute flight to Damascus, and actually RAF Hercules can probably cover the whole area of Syria without the necessity to refuel. And given the fact that a Hercules can take ten to fifteen tons of aid you can very quickly, rapidly, build up a huge supply of water, food, and medicines to these besieged cities and towns where people are dying in almost a mediaeval type context. I find it unbelievable in the 21st century that people are being starved to death,” he said.
“We in the UK could have a massive impact. We have the skills, we have the base in Cyprus to do it. I keep hearing that we are providing a billion pounds worth of aid, but actually what we need is to make sure that aid gets into Syria to the right people, and I personally believe air drops are a way ahead.”

On the current air strikes, he said, “As far as the average person in the UK is concerned, they’re concerned about Daesh, about Islamic State doing something here in London or in cities around the UK. To them that is the key thing, but conducting a battle just to get Daesh without simultaneously supporting and protecting the civilian population to me is a completely nonsensical approach; a very short term approach to repeat the mistakes particularly of Iraq 2003. It must be done together.”
Questions from the audience began with Audrey, a midwife, relaying a description of conditions in Deir Ezzor, of increasing air bombardment of civilians by the Russian air force at the same time as those same civilians are trying to resist ISIS/Daesh on the ground, and are gathering evidence of ISIS crimes.

During questions, Fardous, a Syrian living in London, raised the Government response to the current petition to Parliament calling for air drops to begin. Her question was, “When will the Government come to admit that most of the aid going into Syria is controlled by Assad, and understand it’s not going to the intended people? Even charities doing work with good intentions have been used to support Assad in his crimes against Syrians. The Government say air drops are high risk and they want to save them as a last resort. That’s frustrating, when is it the last resort? How many more Syrians do we want to see starving and dying?”

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon responded, “Ideally you do get stuff in on the ground, but as you say it’s being controlled by Assad, and it gets in very irregularly. I personally think we are at the last resort. We know that in Madaya fifty, a hundred people, have already starved to death.”

When is it time for the last resort, he asked, if not now? “It’s very much up to, hopefully, members of this House to convince the Government that we have a very excellent capability, and we could make a real difference, and it is the last resort, and if we don’t use it now then we’re going to lose the window.”

In response to a question on whether there are people on the ground in besieged areas to coordinate with on air drops, who can distribute food fairly and organise where aid is dropped, a Syrian activist talked about the civil society groups working in besieged areas.

“There are a lot of grassroots organisations that have created their own means of verification to make sure that the world knows that they are doing the actual work on the ground. One of the ways that they are doing the verification is by using media; they document everything. They even for example if the diaspora community have a donation, the receipt of that donation and where it went, it’s published online, on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube. And the actual action is documented, for example they open a hospital unit, or they provide food for someone. So they have actually created ways of verification, and they are very well known for this in the Syrian diaspora because the main funder of these groups is the Syrian diaspora community.”

She said that what is missing is communication with these groups:

“I work in international development, and I can understand why big NGOs may fear going onto this ground, because it’s uncharted territory, but that is not an excuse for anyone; if Syrians created ways of verification, others can come half-way and find ways to help them.”

Read a full report of the event in Syria Notes.

Clearly the UK military can do the job, and there are local medical workers, local councils, and local civil society organisations to coordinate with. Even if air drops cannot substitute for ground access, they can provide critical emergency relief, particularly of urgently needed medical supplies as well as of food. Every day of excuses means more lives lost.