Remarks by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

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From a meeting of the All-Party Friends of Syria on 13 September 2016, Committee Room 16, Palace of Westminster. Speakers were Anas Alabdah, President of the Syrian National Coalition, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, and Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE. The meeting was chaired by Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

My involvement in Syria is very much with UOSSM which is an international medical charity, a British, French, Canadian charity, and US charity, and we run a number of  hospitals across Syria. Many of you would know Dr David Nott, the famous war surgeon, you might have seen on Newsnight last night which I’ll come on to in a minute. We help advise and run these hospitals, and have been going there really since the last four years. And that’s really where I get the theme, and what I hope to do is a thematic idea of what Syria is like today, and suggest a number of areas we could go via.

Without wanting to cry tears or anything, but UOSSM is an amazing predominantly British charity that goes with virtually no funding here, maybe from the US, we’re talking to the US Department of State at the moment.

The ceasefire has happened. That’s great. I was as buoyant in February as I am today. It’s really positive in a place where there is virtually no hope. However speaking to our hospitals overnight in Ghouta and in Aleppo, they report 32 deaths in Aleppo, and 30 in Douma overnight. Hopefully that is just the manifestations of trying to put a ceasefire in place. What the ceasefire does show is that Putin can control Assad, and that is absolutely key.

What we’ve seen over the last three weeks in Syria is a morbidly brilliant coordinated bombing campaign by Assad, using chemical weapons, napalm, incendiary bombs, and barrel bombs—all illegal under every convention and law in the world. And sadly these have killed up to 400,000 people over the last four years in Syria. Now the success in Daraya two weeks ago, where you will have seen in the press that 8,000 civilians surrendered and were moved out of Daraya, they are now refugees. That has really galvanised Assad, which is why we’ve seen the raising in the tempo in the last few weeks, with multiple chemical weapon attacks in Aleppo. And my background is in chemical weapons which is why I originally got involved in Syria. And in Iraq where I advise the Peshmerga in their fight against Da’esh, because Da’esh is using chemical weapons.

And what really sticks in my mind, Dr David Nott and I first met in Syria, in Bab al-Hawa in northern Syria, in a hospital. He was just going off to Aleppo, and I’m sure you’re all well aware of what that means. I actually said to him I’m sure we’ll meet again. On that day, seven ambulances arrived from Aleppo from a barrel bomb attack. There were 27 children in there. Sadly they all died. But when I said to the doctors around who I was teaching to deal with chemical weapons, go and deal with them, they said no, we need to learn about this chemical stuff. And I said I just don’t understand. They said we can hide from bombs and bullets, we can’t hide from gas.

The chemical piece of Syria has had a profound effect. And of course after the 21st of August 2013 when the international community decided to do nothing after Assad killed 1,500 people with the nerve agent Sarin, we are now bearing the brunt of that. We are also bearing the brunt of that in Iraq.

Now UOSSM run 48 hospitals across Syria. Sadly that was two years ago, we had 1,200 doctors. Today 32 of our hospitals are still running, but most at 25%, and the medical piece is absolutely fundamental to the overall humanitarian piece in Syria. In Aleppo today, we have 16 doctors still working in our two hospitals. Twelve months ago there were a hundred. You may have seen David Nott on Newsnight last night, breaking the siege, and conducting surgery remotely over Skype into Aleppo to reconstruct the face of someone injured. And that’s something he does on a regular basis, and that we do on a regular basis, that is really making a difference.

Our chief psychologist in UOSSM told me the other day that 75% of children in Syria suffer from PTSD, and in that, 50% manifest as the fact that they’re incontinent, and that is a dreadful problem that is brewing up.

I never went to Syria before the war. Not the sort of place that the British military ever went. I understand it was a beautiful place. Now much of it is razed to the ground. There’s very little electricity. Very little water. And in 17 besieged cities virtually no food. There are stories in Madaya that 65 people died of malnutrition, and that at least six children and teenagers have tried suicide in recent months because of malnutrition and the effects of the war there.

When my military chums ask me what Syria is like, I say to those who were with us in Basra in 2006, it was like that but about ten times worse. I say to those who were with me in Sangin in 2007, it is like Sangin but ten times worse. It is almost indescribable. Since June 2016, we have had 60 direct attacks on hospitals in Syria. Now this is a crime against everything, against every humanity around. With David Nott, and also international human rights lawyer Toby Cadman, and the A&E doctor and BBC doctor Saleyha Ahsan, we set up an NGO called Doctors Under Fire to try and make sure, or to try and point out to the world, that targeting hospitals and doctors seems to have become the norm in modern warfare, as have things like the use of chemical weapons and things like napalm.

Now after numerous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and both Gulf Wars, I know that the phase three and four as we call it, with the humanitarian piece, has not been done well. With this ceasefire I hope there are millions of tons of aid in border towns like Kilis and Reyhanli ready to flow into Syria. Because hopefully from the picture I’ve painted shows that with millions of desperate people in Syria, if we make the ceasefire work, but do not but do not provide that humanitarian support, we are going to lose them.

I hope also that the RAF C17s and C130s in Akrotiri in Cyprus, a 20 minute flight from Aleppo, are full of aid to be able to be dropped into those inaccessible places as the ceasefire develops. And if we don’t we are going to fail them.

I think whatever happens with the ceasefire, and at the moment we are looking for a seven day period, there are really tangible things we can do:

The no-fly zone for helicopters that many of us have been calling for, is very easy to put in place, and will stop the illegal chemical, napalm, and high explosive barrel bombs that indiscriminately kill these people, at a trice.

Tracking aircraft that are attacking those hospitals would be very easy for the British to lead off with our destroyers in the area and our AWACS aircraft, and there is a handout that is left here to show how that might work with no British troops on the ground at all.

And thirdly airdrops, and hopefully Lord Ashdown will talk on as well.

I’d just like to, as an endnote to this, link to my work in Iraq, and I’ve literally just come back from Iraq, near Mosul working with the Peshmerga. Now they’re dealing with chemical weapons attacks on a weekly basis. In fact when I was with them in April, near a town called Makhmur, Islamic State fired 20 chlorine mortars at us. Almost incongruous that the so-called chemical weapons expert should draw in this chemical attack. It was profound to me. We took ten casualties. General Barzani who commands the Black Tigers who in effect are our boots on the ground, they’ve done a tremendous job of booting Da’esh out of northern Iraq and Kurdistan, and they’re within ten kilometres of Mosul, we know that Mosul is the final resting place—but as he says to me, Hamish I know you say to me that chemical weapons, chlorine and mustard gas, is not that bad and we can avoid it, but it really terrifies my soldiers. And just remember Saddam Hussein killed 200,000 Iraqi Kurds, in part with chemical weapons,in the Anfal campaign. We know that Islamic State have also wired Mishraq, a massive sulphur mine, a massive chemical facility south of Mosul, which they’re going to blow up as the Iraqi army advance.

So really on the back of that, the reason that we’re seeing Da’esh using chemical weapons is because we have not attacked the source of it back in Syria, in August 2013. And of course now Da’esh are using chemical weapons, and they got the idea as they’ve been trying to take Deir Ezzor, a strategic military airfield, for a few years, and each time they get close, the regime drop chlorine barrel bombs on them and it pushes them back, and they learned on that, they’ve now learned that using chemical weapons in Iraq is a very good way to keep the Peshmerga at arm’s length.

So really in conclusion, I think, I hope that the ceasefire will hold and will deliver what we require. But the humanitarian effort, and again having been a soldier most of my life speaking about humanitarian things might sound… but having been on the other side I know unless you get comprehensive plan right, unless you get the humanitarian piece right, those people that are so hoping that at last the international community might at last actually do something tangible rather than just talk about it, if we don’t get that humanitarian support and aid in there, they’re either going to turn left and become refugees in Europe, and there are millions of them waiting to do that, or right to be foot-soldiers for Da’esh.

So the three points I’ve mentioned, I hope people will look at in detail and see that we can do, because I think Britain can lead. And secondly, if we don’t want to put British or American or European boots on the ground to defeat Da’esh in Iraq, and Syria, which we must do because they threaten us here in the United Kingdom, we have got to give the Peshmerga the wherewithal to do it, and at the moment they don’t have it, and we’re absolutely reliant on them.


Thank you very much indeed for that, Hamish. Just while we’re waiting for Paddy to come, perhaps we can have a couple of questions. If I can just ask the first one, you mentioned 60 hospital attacks. Who is attacking them, as far as you are aware. Is there firm evidence of this? Is it being documented? Attacking a hospital is a breach of international humanitarian law and arguably a war crime, so it’s very important that we try and ensure that full information about this is available, so we can hold people to account no matter how long it takes.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

Absolutely. If I could just give a bit of background to start off with, when it comes to collecting evidence in war zones it’s really, really difficult, and the level that law requires, I absolutely understand it. I have covertly been in Syria collecting evidence of chemical weapons attacks and have been giving it to the OPCW and the UN. They cannot get to the places the chemical weapons attacks have happened because they’re in rebel held areas. When I present evidence with our teams from UOSSM, we are not an international body etcetera etcetera. We provided the evidence of the chemical weapons attack in a town called Talmenes in April 2014, on the 29th of April 2014, three weeks after the attack; two weeks ago, two years later, the UN Security Council announced to the world that they had conclusive evidence that the regime had attacked Talmenes in April 2014 with chemical weapons. There is a two year gap. My point being, is we need to be more flexible on how we accept evidence collected in war zones.

So when it comes on to your point, Andrew, about hospitals, how do we know they have been attacked, well, they are being destroyed. There is lots of evidence, I accept a lot of it is circumstantial evidence, of jets, Russian and Syrian jets, targeting those hospitals, with some precision weaponry. It’s not the sort of precision weaponry that we in the West or I’m used to, and I thought to begin with it was just the Russians weren’t very good at it, but it’s happened so many times, 60 direct attacks on hospitals. And of course they are supposed to be protected; in a war zone you let everybody know where your hospitals are, because that is the rule of law. Unfortunately Assad and the Russians have used that as a targeting means, which is absolutely reprehensible.

So what is the hard evidence? Most of it is video footage which has the metadata on it, and also from testimony from those people that are on the ground there. But of course what we don’t have are UN peacekeepers or UN observers who are there to do it, and that might well be a really good step moving forward if the ceasefire goes ahead, to have people on the ground who can do this. And unfortunately, despite people like David Nott and myself who occasionally manage to go into Syria and do bits and pieces, Syria is not a place where, dare I say it, white ex-soldiers like me can operate. It’s just not that sort of thing. There are not millions of special forces running around, it just doesn’t happen.

But in cooperation with people on the ground, and again I think UOSSM is an example, we have these 32 hospitals all across Syria in virtually every town, we used to have one in Raqqa as well, and we run them on purely medical grounds, treat anybody, but there is this network. And similarly in most towns in Syria, and others here will be able to explain better than me, there are town councils still running, which are trying to normalise things if you like, and get the little food they have around, and we need to engage with them.

So a very long answer to your question, we’re pretty certain it’s happening. We don’t have the empirical evidence that would probably stand up in the Old Bailey or the International Criminal Court on current norms, but as with the UN Security Council, as with the OPCW, what I would plead is the evidence we collected two years ago, which is sort of in the 80% bracket, we need to look at is that good enough. Had we acted two years ago on the good enough evidence would we have seen as many people killed over the last few years?


Thank you. Ann?

Ann Clwyd MP:

Thank you very much for sharing that with us. I was Special Envoy on Human Rights in Iraq. When we collected evidence on Iraqi war crimes, which perhaps I can share with you later, we were able to do this over a period of several years, and eventually war crimes trials took place, so it is possible. Can I just ask you one question, you mentioned a no-fly zone for helicopters. Some of us have been arguing for some time for no-fly zones. We got one in Kurdistan in Iraq because John Major listened to what we had to say. I wonder if you could tell us later a bit more about that, and how we can impress on Government that setting up a no-fly zone is not all that difficult.


A number of us have very strongly made the case for no-fly zones in the past, and I suppose there’s a legitimate case on whether that should be a priority at this particular moment but it’s certainly something that members of this group have argued very strongly for.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon:

I was in Kurdistan in ’91, so I’ve seen how it works, and having worked so closely with the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Kurdistan people I absolutely agree it’s the way to do it. But I would be more specific, as I mentioned earlier: a helicopter no-fly zone. It’s very easy to track slow-moving helicopters and, dare I say it, even to shoot them down from HMS Diamond that’s sat off the coast of Syria at the moment, or to track them back to their base and take them out on the ground with a precision weapon. So I think that is doable. And that is the barrel bombs, it’s the helicopters that are dropping the chemical weapons that are supposed to be abhorrent and beyond the pale and beyond the red line and everything else, and it’s the helicopters that are dropping napalm which is burning cities like Idlib and Aleppo.

And the other piece of that as I mentioned, and that is in the report that we put together here, if you do that I accept that we cannot start shoot down Russian aircraft or we are in big big trouble, but if we track them, and we can do that again with British assets if need be, it’s very straightforward to go to the UN Security Council, go to Mr Putin himself, and say, your jet, X-Ray 3168, dropped a bomb on M1 UOSSM Hospital in Aleppo this morning at 10 o’clock.

Related resource: Tracking aircraft for accountability in Syria, September 2016.