Lest the Syrian city of Homs be destroyed as Hama was thirty years ago at the hands of President Assad’s father, now is the time for the creation of a protected zone of safe haven for refugees. Like the creation of the safe haven for Kurds in northern Iraq in April 1991, this should be a British-led initiative. As in 1991, it seems as though nobody else has the stomach for this – but it does need to be done.
In 1991, Saddam Hussein was allowed to withdraw his tanks and elite troops from the ground war. In the ensuing surrender talks, he was allowed to retain use of helicopters “for humanitarian reasons”. These two serious errors led directly to the massacre of opposition tribes: in the south, but also of the Kurds in the north.
At that time there was no stomach for further military operations. President George Bush senior had been swayed into halting the ground offensive some 24 to 48 hours too soon by misleading press pictures of the so-called “Basra Road massacre”. The idea of invading Iraq to protect anybody was simply not on the card.
Nevertheless, some three weeks after the end of hostilities in Kuwait, a UK/USA force was sent to Turkey with the intention of entering Iraq to provide humanitarian aid for the Kurds, who following extensive genocide from Saddam’s forces, were at the top of his post-war clean-up list ( with the Marsh Arabs) in the south). This force was extensively supported by air power, entered Iraq and achieved its mandate of aiding and protecting the Kurds in the north. By contrast, some 60,000 Marsh Arabs were killed by Saddam’s Iraqi Government , some say with napalm but certainly using helicopter gunships, Only some 10% remain living there.
Operation Safe Haven – it’s US name “Provide Comfort” – was a British initiative, made at a time when the USA was fundamentally disinterested in any further taking of action in the Gulf. The Prime Minister’s lobbying of European colleagues achieved Nato support, leveraging the necessary American air support. Then as Saddam’s retribution activities escalated, US ground and logistic support was also achieved.
This was a distinctly British initiative, which was dramatically successful, even though it appeared to be dangerous – and in the climate of those times almost foolhardy. Operation Safe Haven literally “invaded” Iraq – when throughout the seven months of the Gulf War, there had been intense denials by all allied commanders and politicians this such a thing was even being considered.
The situation in Syria is nothing like as loaded politically, but the exact same threat of genocide is present and must not be tolerated, let alone permitted to take place.
A safe haven on Syrian soil, close to the Turkish border and easily reinforced, can legitimately be protected by ground troops and air power. Declaring a no-entry zone for Syrian forces, plus a very large no-fly zone could be done tomorrow, controlled by AWACS and Nato air force fighters.
This would require UN approval of course, but in the murky world of moral justification, the case is remarkably clean and clear. Why might Syrian air force fighters and bombers need to fly – apart from to terrorise their citizens?
Furthermore, if Syrian forces attacked the “invading” humanitarian force, a battle would take place in the border country well away from the main cities and centres of population. This “battle” would be decided by Syrian forces crossing ‘trip-wire’ type no-go lines and being bombed. The regime would be greatly and possibly fatally weakened.
This ‘safe haven’ military intervention scenario avoids putting in troops to fight with government forces – and in the process of being exposed to accusations of killing civilians. It also avoids involvement in the ensuing chaos as other factions seek to take control. The safe haven remains in force, but can be easily withdrawn at any time, and means boots are on ground if required for further humanitarian intervention.