COMMENT: Blowing Up Schools And Hospitals Is The 'New Normal' In International Relations

The decline of UK foreign policy and the destruction of a future generation in Syria and the Middle East and North Africa.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon et al.

After 10 years of vicious conflict, Russia and Syrian aircraft are again attacking schools and hospitals in Idlib, Syria.

While the world is gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest toxic shock since the Second World War; the other existential crisis since 1945 is happening to millions of people on the shores of the Mediterranean a few hours flight from London and a boat ride from the tourist beaches of Europe.

Syria is now synonymous with crimes against humanity, the use of chemical weapons and the direct targeting of children, schools and hospitals.

The UK and the US fluffed their Redlines regarding chemical weapons use when up to 1,500 people died in August 2013 from nerve agent poison in Ghouta. Sadly, for political reasons, we collectively did nothing in the face of mass murder. 

Most in Washington and Whitehall were keen to not replicate the apparent misguided intervention in Iraq 2003, that they could not even contemplate thinking through the scenarios or outcomes of intervention or non-intervention in the Syria conflict.

Now millions of Syrians and host communities in neighbouring frontline countries have to deal with our lack of inaction on a daily basis in terms of the economic, social and political fallout.

Political atonement for the COVID-19 pandemic appears to make sure we are better prepared for the next virus. The plan: to ensure countries are equipped to react to another inevitable pathogen-fuelled disaster through international collaboration. 

Can this renewed global impetus for collaboration also help end the conflict in Syria? A conflict that has caused the deaths, injury and displacement of millions provides the perfect breeding ground for future public health crises and security threats to the region and to the UK.

Library image of people cycling amid rubble in Syria (Picture: UNICEF).

When the first hospitals and schools were attacked at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, so morbidly illustrated in Daren Conway's evocative Panorama 2012/13 film, there was mass condemnation.

The Geneva Convention is very clear that schools, hospitals must be protected in conflict areas.  For 100 years, this convention has largely been adhered to.

But in Syria and the region the United Nations, Western governments and International Humanitarian Law are viewed by the Russians and the Syrian government as irrelevant.

Children, schools and hospitals have become legitimate military targets in policies of attrition. This has set a 'new normal' that, no doubt, has not gone unnoticed by other Bad Actors such as those in Myanmar, who are also resorting to bombing civilian targets with aircraft.

UK foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa currently has no direction or plan. Our interventions in foreign conflicts and wars over the last 20 years have not been our finest hours.

We intervene and convene but there is little thought given to what next?

Our reputation and credibility among the Syrian people and our partners in the Middle East and North Africa have been further crippled by cuts to the Overseas Development Aid (ODA) and research budgets reducing our already flimsy trustworthiness as a force for good in the region.

Fellow G20 members like Russia and China are more than happy to occupy the void left by our indecision, lack of investment in research and capacity building in the MENA.


Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, Dr Adam P. Coutts, Dr Saleyha Ahsan

University of Cambridge

Professor Richard Sullivan & Dr Karim Ekzayez

King’s College London

Dr Fouad m. Fouad 

American University of Beirut

Cover image: A library picture of a Syrian girl sitting on old pieces of metal (Picture: UNICEF).