Should The UK Enforce A No-Fly Zone Over Syria?

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon says the UK has the "necessary surveillance assets" to prevent civilians from being targeted by barrel bombs.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British Army officer and director of the Doctors Under Fire campaign group.

More than 100 women and children have been killed by Russian and Syrian air strikes in Idlib, Syria, this week, to a silent global media.

Barrel bombs full of nails and rusty bolts are being dropped on civilian neighbourhoods with complete impunity. I have seen the devastation myself of these indiscriminate and illegal weapons.

When a barrel bomb fell on a playground in Aleppo in October 2014, 27 children arrived at the hospital I was working in. They were in a shocking state and the injuries too horrific to describe here. 26 of the children died.

Reliable sources last week stated that over 100,000 barrel bombs, some with chemicals in, have been dropped on civilians during the last 8 years of conflict in Syria. These World War One type weapons are pushed out of helicopters at between 3,000 and 5000 feet, which puts them above small arms fire range from the ground.

They are not precision weapons and fall anywhere from a kilometre from their intended target. The school attack in Aleppo was not unique, and there are many other examples where barrel bombs have been dropped on market places and hospitals.

WATCH: Hamish de Bretton-Gordon tells Forces News the UK has the "necessary surveillance assets" to prevent civilians from being targeted by barrel bombs.

They are cheap and easy to use, though illegal under the Geneva Convention, as are chemical weapons. But with no restraint from the international community, Bashar al-Assad is happy to use his favoured killing method.

They are horrifically effective and terrify people in Idlib, just as much as chemical weapons do. At this very moment, 400,000 people are on the move in Idlib, heading towards the closed Turkish border just ahead of this carpet bombing, sleeping in the open in sub-zero temperatures, scratching around for food, with little hope of salvation.

Morally, in the shadow of the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust, surely, we ought to strain every 'nerve and sinew' to find a solution?

Any plan must defeat the jihadists of Al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (IS) in Idlib, without the innocent civilians - at least the women and children - becoming the collateral damage of this action.

The jihadists will not be defeated by this ‘scorched earth’ policy, but by precision strikes from the air and the ground as demonstrated by the US Coalition, supported by the UK, defeating IS last year.

The barrel bomb method sees hundreds of civilians perish for every one terrorist killed. How can this be acceptable?

On this devastating metric, tens of thousands of civilians will die in Idlib in the next few months before this is over and it will most likely drive those who survive into the hands of IS, who are still a significant threat to the streets of London, Paris and New York for many years to come.

Syrian government forces have carried out attacks on Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus (Image: PA).
Syria has been gripped in a civil war since 2011 (Picture: PA).

At the very least, the UK, on its own if need be but better with allies, could impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) for Syrian Regime helicopters over Idlib to prevent these horrific weapons killing and maiming the innocents in this most heinous conflict.

It is only Syrian helicopters that drop barrel bombs and they have no other reason to be over Idlib other than this murderous intent. 

The UK has the necessary surveillance assets in the region, plus Royal Air Force and Royal Navy strike assets to enforce this type of NFZ.

At the absolute minimum we should 'name and shame' the helicopters on those murderous missions and perhaps, at least, make their pilots think twice?

The history of humanitarian intervention in Syria is not a good one; principally I expect civil servants across the West are fixated by not repeating previous mistakes in the Middle East. But this caution fails to recognise each situation is different, and over 500,000 civilians have perished thus far in this conflict.

It is difficult not to revert to the harrowing words of the Holocaust survivors in the past few days. Their impassioned pleas for ‘never again’ come as we collectively witness this carnage in full view – but nobody can claim this time they did not see it.

Cover Image: A building reduced to rubble in Idlib following an attack (Picture: PA).