23rd Oct 2016


Coercive EU diplomacy can save Syrian lives

  • British warship escorts vessel carrying Syrian chemical weapons to disposal site in 2014 (Photo:

It has been one year since Russia began bombing Syria. In this period, Russian airstrikes have killed over 3,500 civilians - far more than the jihadist group Isis.

Russia has targeted humanitarian convoys, schools and hospitals. The disproportionate loss of civilian life caused by Russia’s intervention is driving extremist recruitment and exacerbating the refugee crisis.

  • Al-Abdah meeting EU foreign relations chief Federica Mogherini (Photo:

More importantly, it is breathing life into a regime otherwise long delegitimised by its own horrendous crimes against its own people. The international community must face the truth: this will never end unless Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad are threatened with serious consequences.

Last month, I was in New York for the UN General Assembly. What was clear to me is that the international community is being bullied by Russia and its allies.

World leaders stood idle in the corridors of the UN during this General Assembly and watched while the Assad regime unilaterally declared an end of the cessation of hostilities and escalated its attacks against Aleppo.

Today, the international community continues to stand by as Aleppo is obliterated, as children are being murdered, hospitals attacked, and relief workers targeted.

Russia’s barbaric use of indiscriminate weapons, including incendiary weapons and cluster munitions, makes Russia party to war crimes, as UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson has acknowledged. Yet Russia’s atrocities - like Assad’s - are met with total impunity.

The time to put the credible threat of force back on the table is long overdue. Appeasement is not an option.

Back in 2013, we saw how a credible threat of force changed Russian and regime calculations - when the West threatened to use military force in retaliation for the Assad regime’s gassing of more than 1,400 civilians. This approach can work again.

As US secretary of state John Kerry declared following the disgraceful Russian attack against the Syrian Red Crescent convoy on 19 September, the time has come to ground Syrian air forces.

This cannot be achieved through negotiations with Russia in good faith, as it has time and again shown its willingness to violate deals and undermine the credibility of the international community.

Language of force

The only way to force Russia and the regime to halt their murderous and illegal actions is through public guarantees that the indiscriminate killings of civilians will be met with consequences in the form of limited military retaliation against regime targets.

A public guarantee to enforce the protection of the civilian population is the only way to stand up to Russia.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition and opposition at large have long been arguing that a no-bomb zone would serve as deterrence against indiscriminate attacks, saving approximately 200 civilian lives a week.

Enforcers of a no-bomb zone would declare that the indiscriminate killing of civilians would be met with consequences aimed at deterring further breaches of the international humanitarian law.

Any attacks on civilian targets - by either Russia or Assad - would be met with a single strike launched from the sea onto a Syrian regime target. Such an operation would not require boots on the ground or planes to police the sky.

A no-bomb zone will make a political solution more likely, as it will change the Assad regime’s assessment of the military balance on the ground, forcing Assad to negotiate a political transition.

We expect the next US next administration to intensify its effort to find a political solution in Syria, including by applying the necessary pressure on Assad and Russia to stop the killing of innocent civilians.

Idle Europe?

Meanwhile, Europe cannot sit idly by until the outcome of the US presidential race is decided.

Europe has more at stake with the continuation of the crisis in Syria and the flow of refugees that it produces.

This is why Europe needs to lead the way to its resolution. Among other practical steps Europe can take now are efforts to bring justice for the daily war crimes taking place in Syria.

Europe can also coordinate extensive plans to help the recovery of a future post-Assad Syria. This planning needs to be taking place now.

The price for international inaction on Syria has been steep: a global refugee crisis, a growing terrorism threat, the end of the political process, and the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It is up to the international community to stand up to Putin and Assad to secure a political process on the future of a democratic, inclusive Syria.

Anas al-Abdah is president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, a group of anti-Assad opposition factions


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