Minister Blok: stop humanitarian catastrophe with a no-fly zone over Idlib

The scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Syrian province of Idlib is scarcely imaginable. A million people, most of them children, have fled towards the Turkish border, which has already been hosting about 3.5 million Syrian refugees for many years now. Many people in this new wave of refugees had already been displaced within Syria and ended up in Idlib. Since the Sochi agreements in 2018, a fragile truce of sorts has been in effect in Idlib, but with its military offensive the regime in Damascus has chosen to consign this truce to the scrapheap. Now these same people have to flee once more from the violence of this regime, whose actions are backed politically and militarily by Russia and Iran. It is no surprise that Ankara says that taking in another million refugees is more than it can manage. And this is increasing the migratory pressure on Europe.

Last week twelve European foreign ministers and I warned in an opinion piece of the danger of military escalation and of a mounting humanitarian tragedy in Idlib. Since then, an airstrike has cost the lives of 34 Turkish soldiers. The danger of a direct military confrontation in Idlib between units of NATO ally Turkey and Russian forces is now real. We called for de-escalation, and pointed out that the tragedy in Idlib – one of so many in war-stricken Syria – underscored once more that this protracted conflict in the heart of the Middle East cannot be resolved militarily by any party. It demands a political solution.

              De-escalation and a political process – in that order – are not hollow phrases. They are the guiding principles as we seek a way out of this conflict – in the interests of the Syrian people, and of our own stability and security. But after nine years of conflict, it is clear that these goals must be pursued with small, modest steps. There is no immediate prospect of an all-embracing solution. We need to be realistic about this. This conflict will continue to demand our attention for years to come. The road towards a political settlement is littered with landmines, while barrel bombs are being dropped on civilians.

              I am going to make the case, starting this week in the run-up to the emergency meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council this Friday, for de-escalation of the military situation, which risks getting out of control. De-escalation is crucial to prevent armed conflict between Turkey and Russia over Idlib, as well as to safely provide essential emergency aid to the civilians who are fleeing from the violence. We owe emergency workers our utmost efforts. My cabinet colleague, Minister Sigrid Kaag, is committing extra funds for the humanitarian needs in Idlib. But equally important, Turkey must be given a tangible sign that we hear their legitimate security concerns and take them seriously.

              At the same time, the EU needs to engage in dialogue with Russia. We agree with Moscow on important points of principle, such as the inviolability of Syria’s territorial integrity, which has never been questioned by us. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia has a special responsibility. And we agree that it is not up to us, outsiders, what a future Syrian political system should look like. It is up to the people of Syria, who must be given the freedom to have their say on this issue, without pressure or coercion. The same goes for the fight against terrorism. Here in the Netherlands and Europe, we are not naïve. After all, we have suffered major attacks, with many victims killed or wounded.

              As far as I am concerned, the first small step must be aimed at fostering security and building trust. Not only for the civilian population in Idlib and the emergency workers, but also for the parties directly involved militarily. Let us all take a step back and at least ensure that attacks from the air over Idlib are brought to a halt. This means no more Syrian fighter aircraft or helicopters. In other words: a no-fly zone for Assad over Idlib. The EU needs to consult with Russia and Turkey, so that Assad has no choice but to keep his air force on the ground. That is what I will argue for in the Foreign Affairs Council on Friday. The closure of the airspace over Idlib must then be monitored internationally, and if an airstrike should then occur in Idlib, we will at least know who is responsible.

Ideally, such monitoring should have a UN Security Council mandate. Unfortunately the Council has been paralysed for years on Syria, but we still have a duty to try to break the deadlock. If a mandate should prove impossible, however, the monitoring will have to be arranged more creatively, for example through sharing intelligence, drawing on information from local organisations or monitoring remotely. The overall aim must be to stop the violence and to identify and hold to account those responsible for inflicting that violence.