Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a director of Doctors Under Fire, a group of medical professionals campaigning for the ceasefire of attacks against healthcare workers, facilities and patients in conflict zones. Here, he reflects on his organisation’s work in war-torn Syria.
One year ago, Dr David Nott (a fellow Doctors Under Fire director) and I were pleading with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al Assad to get 500 children out of Aleppo. This we eventually managed on 15 December 2016.
We spoke to the offices of Mr Assad and Mr Putin and, for once, these leaders appeared to allow the innocents to survive.
The children reached the Union of Medical Care & Relief Organizations (UOSSM) hospital at Bab al Hawa, on the Turkish border, where David and the team patched them up on 16 December 2016.
Not only did he treat those children, but he also had to contend with injured al Nusra fighters who swarmed around the hospital demanding treatment. Few foreigners have survived such close scrutiny from the jihadists.
At the moment, we are doing the same for sick children in Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus. It has been subjected to a similar siege to the one eastern Aleppo was facing just over a year ago.
Following our intervention, at least eight children with treatable cancer are now in Damascus, where they should receive the treatment they need. The eight are suffering from lymphoma, leukaemia and other cancers and should now live when others will not.
However, there are 125 children in Ghouta who will die without urgent medical help. Three of those children, in particular, shame humanity itself.
One, baby Karim, lost an eye and desperately requires medical attention if he is not to lose all his sight.
Qasem, a two-year-old caught in a blast in December which killed his mother, needs reconstructive surgery to allow him to eat, drink and talk. Eight-year-old Rawan is dying of malnutrition and weighs just 8kg.
Neither of us have seen such deprivation and suffering of children on a battlefield before. What is so important elsewhere that we ignore their plight?
On the 13 December 2016, shortly before our colleague at UOSSM Mounir Hakimi went all the way to Aleppo to pick up the injured, we were both in Parliament with the UK’s leading humanitarian, Andrew Mitchell MP, listening to Boris Johnson’s platitudes that the UK must do better in 2017.
Answers to our calls to help the children of Ghouta have come from the unlikely direction of Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign secretary, and the Jordanian royal family.
Sadly, influential people closer to hand appear to be focused elsewhere.
The constant bombardment and lack of food in Ghouta is creating Armageddon every day on the streets of the suburb.
There is very little food, water and medicine and the whole place has been virtually raised to the ground. The medical infrastructure and people have been directly targeted rather than explicitly protected as the rules of war dictate.
Most of the UOSSM hospitals we support have been destroyed by Russian and Syrian air attacks and hundreds of doctors and medics killed in the last 12 months.
The consequence of this failure is that a red cross or crescent on a hospital is now viewed as an aiming mark rather than protective symbol. We expect this to directly affect UK, UN and NATO military deployments in future.
We both have spent enough time in war zones – including Syria and Iraq recently, where we were mortared in Mosul – and have seen enough terror, blood and guts on the battlefields of the world over the last 30 years to know that conflict must be avoided at all costs.
But sometimes you have to fight for people who cannot help themselves. Today, Ghouta, which has been designated a de-escalation/safe zone by Mr Putin, is in reality a killing field.
It has been under siege for four years and shames the UN Security Council, the UN, the UK, the US and all who claim to stand up for humanity. It has 500 children who need urgent evacuation.
Syria has become the benchmark for political and diplomatic failure by the West.
With inexperienced and misdirected politicians – who do not understand the difference between Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2017/18 – unable to make any meaningful contribution to a peace solution, we have allowed Mr Putin to dictate peace and war.
We, in the UK, may not care much about Syria, but surely we must care about these children dying in this medieval siege on the edge of the Mediterranean and Europe?
The only apparent solution, which avoids our direct military involvement, is to put our weight behind the Astana Talks and the UN Geneva Peace Process which, hitherto, we seem only to have paid lip service to.
These talks aim to bring some sort of fair elections to Syria, and to get humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the vast majority of Syrians we have not protected.
The UK has offered £1bn to the reconstruction effort and we could at least offer to take the lead on this reconstruction, with our troops as the peacekeepers.
This is still an area where we are the best in the business. We would say to Boris Johnson, who suggested as much some months ago, that now is the time to be bold as Foreign Secretary, as just a chink of an opportunity is appearing to show itself.
Somebody said: “Terror is allowed to develop when good men sit on their hands.”
There has been a “hell” of a lot of hand sitting over the last 12 months.