In the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson gets to the heart of the matter regarding Syria, with his usual clear thinking intelligence. Our moral duty is to make Syria safe, well put Boris!Boris says: “If there is one lesson from the European migrant crisis, it is that there is absolutely nothing – once they have decided to come – that will hold them back. It doesn’t matter how many barbed wire fences we throw up, or how many Alsatian dogs we send snuffling after them. It makes no difference whether the would-be entrants are abused by xenophobic western politicians or corralled for months on unsanitary Balkan railway platforms. Every day, we see the tragic results of their desperation – as their overloaded dinghies go down in the night and their nameless corpses are washed up on the holiday beaches.
Nothing we say or do can seemingly deter those brave souls who have decided to come in search of safety or simply a better life. Whatever the EU policy is – and it is far from clear – you could hardly say it was working. Just over this weekend there were 11,000 who entered Austria on Saturday, and a further 5,000 yesterday, some of them ramming themselves though train windows; and that is just the ones the police have detected – not the uncounted thousands tramping through the fields or stowing themselves on vehicles or landing by moonlight in Greece.
Croatia has taken 21,000 in the last four days. We are seeing the biggest movement of peoples in our lifetime, and we have no way of knowing how many more will come. This week Britain will attend one of those European councils where we will be ritually put on the naughty step, for our “failure” to agree an EU-imposed quota – our share of the 160,000 that Brussels has deemed must be distributed around Europe.
As it happens, I am inclined to think Britain is in the right. We have a population boom of our own, and a serious housing crisis in London. The Prime Minister has announced a plan to take 20,000; and it is possible at once to admire the Christian compassion of Angela Merkel, and at the same time to think that by posing as a teutonic version of the statue of Liberty, and by holding out her arms in welcome to the huddled masses of the Middle East, she has exacerbated a very serious financial, logistical and political problem for everyone. And yet I hope that the UK government will not be too defensive – indeed, we have nothing to reproach ourselves for – but rather will lead the debate: not about how to keep them out, but how to stop them leaving in the first place.
It is time we came up with a plan to staunch this haemorrhage of humanity, this flow of energy and talent that is bleeding Syria of any future economic strength; and that means trying to heal the wound itself. The world should look again at an idea that has was proposed 18 months ago at least by the Turks, kicked around by the British, and filed by the Americans in the box marked “too difficult”. We need to think how we can keep the Syrians safely in Syria, and the proposal – most recently articulated by former development secretary Andrew Mitchell MP – is for “safe havens”.
The idea has on the face of it much to be commended. You create an area of Syria that is safe from both sides of this horrific civil war: an enclave where kids can go to school, and where people can go about peaceful economic activity. You use overwhelming military force to protect the zone – funded and administered through the UN – and you ensure that it cannot be overflown by Assad or anyone else. The beauty of the proposal is that it gives displaced Syrians a place of refuge that is not some miserable foreign camp, but part of their own country; a place they can stay, and work, until peace eventually returns.
Two such zones have been identified, one in the north, near the border with Turkey, and one in the south, nearer Jordan. The difficulties, needless to say, are immense. First, you have to create such zones – and that cannot be done by air power alone. You need to invest each area with ground troops, and then you need to hold that ground; and inevitably there will be fears – reasonable fears – that you are being sucked into an Iraq-like quagmire that will prove hideously expensive in cash and in human life.
In order for the zone to be a true place of safety, you would have to make sure that it was not infested by jihadis and Daesh-backers; and symmetrically you would have to ensure that the venture was not somehow construed as an attempt to prop up the Assad regime. There are, incidentally, those who say we should be “realistic” and support the Baathist tyrant, on the grounds that he is the lesser of two evils. That would be wholly counter-productive.
Nothing is more calculated to turn any remaining moderate Syrian rebels away from the west than the suggestion that we are now supporting Assad – a man who barrel-bombs his own civilians. The wretched truth is we don’t want either side to be victorious in this horrific conflict; and the result is that we have not a clue how to bring the carnage to an end. We just sit on the sidelines, wanting the fighting to stop and the talking to begin. But how many more will be killed in the meantime? How many more Syrians will have fled to Europe?
We have tried inaction. We have tried inertia and passivity. It isn’t going well. In the absence of any better ideas, and in the hope of protecting the innocent civilians of Syria, we should at least now try the safe havens. John Major did it in 1991, when he led the world in creating the no-fly zones for the Kurds in northern Iraq. It was a prodigious feat of diplomacy; and though the position in Syria is very different, and the challenges on the ground much greater, it is time for the spirit of John Major today. If we don’t help keep them there, they will simply try to come here.