"The West let the best strategy be the enemy of the good in Syria – and now we have seen the enormous price of not intervening, as it fell to Tony Blair to argue this week, in his partial mea culpa for the invasion of Iraq. The UK’s efforts in Syria have only tinkered at the edges of a humanitarian catastrophe. When Assad crossed Barack Obama’s stated red line in his use of chemical weapons in August 2013, the US president stood back and did nothing. All the time, Syria’s people faced slaughter – and now Vladimir Putin has stepped into the vacuum to shore up the faltering regime of the murderous Bashar al-Assad.
I saw the humanitarian and security situation decline throughout three six-week visits to Syria in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Later, I told of what I saw in interviews: the children blown apart by barrel bombs; the snipers targeting pregnant women.
An oft-repeated line was that all the anti-government protagonists are equally extreme, equally impossible Western allies. I can say that from my experience that they are not. Towards the end of my time there in 2014, I went to visit a Catholic Church in Aleppo. There, having tea with the priest, were a group of Free Syrian Army fighters, their rifles slung across their chests as they chatted amicably. The Church had been protected by the Free Syrian fighters and the priest respected for the kindness he showed to many sick and dying people. In March this year, I was shocked to hear that this kindly priest had been killed. Not by supposed Islamist rebels intent on destroying all those of other religions; but by a barrel bomb dropped by one of Assad’s helicopters.
The West has so far abrogated its moral responsibility to the Syrian people and has paid a price not only in the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees flocking to Europe’s shores but also in Putin’s audacious power play, so that we find ourselves in a situation where Russia, Iran and Hizbollah are leading this brutal dance.
All the major powers involved are now to meet at a peace conference in Austria. Here’s what they must secure: a safe haven in Syria, probably from Aleppo northwards, which is free from air attacks and allows humanitarian access via corridors which can be policed by the UN or by a western coalition with the Gulf states and Turkey."