Stop what you’re doing, and read these words.
“It’s our moral duty to speak up … We are not able to reach the conscience or the ears of politicians, of decision makers, of people in power … We are running out of words.”
They are the words of Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. And he sounds like a man close to despair.
Mr Moumtzis has been working for the UN for nearly thirty years, mainly with refugees and dealing with humanitarian emergencies in places like Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon. I imagine he is not easily shocked.
Yet he clearly is shocked – not only by the callous, indiscriminate air attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes on the country’s few remaining rebel-held areas, but also by the Assad regime’s unconscionable refusal to allow in any aid.
For me, this is where the media spotlight should be focused. I welcome, of course, the reported capture of the two British-born IS fighters who are said to have been responsible for some of the most gruesome atrocities against Western journalists and others in Syria in 2014. (I hope, incidentally, that they are put on trial rather than incarcerated indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay as two of President Trump’s so-called ‘bad dudes’.)
But here’s another atrocity. In the past two months, according to the UN, not a single aid convoy has been allowed into any of the areas under siege by Syrian government forces, nor has permission been granted for a single medical evacuation. In the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, an estimated 400,000 people have received no deliveries of food, water or medicine since last November.
The enclave has suffered four straight days of unceasing bombardment this week; according to one monitoring group, fifty-nine civilians, including fifteen children, were killed on Thursday alone.
According to the New York Times, Mr Moumtzis spoke to reporters in Beirut earlier this week ‘with a degree of emotion not usually conveyed in the United Nations’ carefully worded statements.’
I’m not surprised. After nearly seven years of war, nearly half a million deaths, and more than ten million people having fled from their homes (five million of them have left the country), we have lost interest.
Syria? Oh, yes, terrible tragedy. Pity there’s nothing we can do. (Except go after IS remnants whom we have identified as a threat to Western security.)
In fact, not everyone has lost interest. Russia hasn’t – quite the opposite, as it seeks to finish off, on behalf of its client regime in Damascus, what is left of the opposition.
And nor has Turkey, which will do whatever it takes to crush a Kurdish revival in parts of northern Syria which border Turkey and which President Erdoğan regards as an existential threat to his country’s survival.
Perhaps you thought the war was all but over. Perhaps you also thought that President Assad had all but won. Even if the second of those assumptions may be true, the first is not. Just as they did in Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian air force are pulverising Assad’s opponents into submission. Their action is brutal, it is calculated, it is clearly against international law – and it works.
In September 2016, when rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack, another senior UN official, Stephen O’Brien (a former Conservative MP as it happens), addressed the Security Council in New York and pleaded with them to take action to stop the violence.
‘It is within your power to do it,’ he told them. ‘If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this Council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.’
They ignored him – of course – and countless more Syrians were killed and injured.
In Washington, US diplomacy is effectively moribund. All Donald Trump cares about is that IS are on the back foot, and he can claim the credit. What Russia is doing in Syria appears to have been of far less concern to him, although that may be about to change following reports on Thursday that US forces killed more than 100 fighters loyal to President Assad in the east of the country, possibly including some Russians. The Syrian government has called it a massacre.
The EU is overwhelmingly preoccupied with its own internal divisions: not only Brexit but also growing signs of rising anti-Brussels sentiment in Warsaw and Budapest. Germany has been without a government since elections last September, and it is by no means clear that the shaky coalition deal reached this week will result in an administration strong enough to take the initiative on the international stage.
When Aleppo was under attack in 2016, leaflets were dropped advising residents to flee for their lives. ‘You know that everyone has given up on you,’ the leaflets said. ‘They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.’
To our eternal shame, it was true. And it is still true now.