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Columnists

A savage stalemate

A savage stalemate

My brother posted a video on his Facebook page the other day. It shows a film shot by some Russian drone as it flew through the devastated Syrian city of Homs. It looks like the set for a Hollywood science fiction fantasy with some dystopian vision of the future of the world. But this was no fantasy. It was real.

Things appear to be dramatically worsening in Syria all the time. Aleppo seems likely to be the next city to follow in the tragic fate of Homs. As I write, tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing to the Turkish border. But the Turks, who have already taken two million Syrian displaced people, have closed the frontier. Those who have left everything behind in Aleppo are trapped in makeshift camps, unable to go forward, unable to go back. Unthinkably in this terrible trap they find themselves the victims of Russian bombs as Moscow, indifferent to human collateral damage, continues to wage war on all enemies of its Syrian ally President Assad. Doctors in the camps say most of the injuries they treat are caused by Vladimir Putin's blanket bombardments.

Only overwhelming force or politics can end wars. But there is no political solution in the offing. A savage stalemate prevails with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah backing the Shia side in this proxy war and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other oil rich Gulf States backing a range of Assad's Sunni opponents from so-called moderate factions to the terror tactics of Isis. Barack Obama, in the fag end of his presidency, and his allies in Europe, do little more than stand by, wringing their hands in anguished impotence.

It is as if the West has decided not to repeat the mistake it made in Afghanistan, where it opposed the Soviet Union and armed the Mujahedeen and became the unwitting midwife to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The default position now seems to entail waiting until Putin wipes out all of the opposition to President Assad apart from Isis - and then presenting the rest of the world with the Hobson's Choice of which side to back.

What can the West do? Angela Merkel's brave attempt to open Germany's borders to a million or more refugees has backfired domestically as her poll ratings show. Sweden's welcoming attitude to Syrians has undergone a dramatic reversal. Denmark has even passed a law to allow its officials to seize cash and jewellery from arrivals to pay for their resettlement. And Britain continues desperately to stave off the 'hordes' at Calais.

Our best response has been to raise cash to keep refugees in camps near their homes. A UN fundingconference in London in February raised a record $10 billion in pledges for humanitarian aid for Syria. That's something, though my experience of decades of lobbying for aid for Africa shows that such promises are rarely honoured in full. To keep the money flowing requires activists to hold politicians' feet to the fire with sustained campaigning. Political pressure also needs to be exerted upon the Gulf States to pay their fair share. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have been honourable exceptions. The Saudis and Qataris have been disgracefully remiss; they claim to be making major donations but Amnesty International casts doubt upon their protestation and points out that 'all six Gulf countries… have not offered to resettle a single refugee'. Rich Arabs must be pressed to take their share of refugees too.

Someone else's brother shone a penetrating spotlight over the debate recently. David Miliband (would he be in government had he contested the last election as Labour leader, one wonders) is now running a major international aid agency with 2000 staff inside Syria. He has issued a stark warning that the world must abandon the fiction that refugees need short-term aid to tide them over until the war ends and they can go home. This is the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and it is redrawing the political map of the Middle East in a more permanent manner.

The West says it wants refugees to stay near their home. But Turkey has two million, Lebanon 1.2m and Jordan 600,000 plus and yet there are some six million more Syrians who have been forced to abandon their homes. How many of those can the neighbouring countries take? Very few without massive international help.

Shamefully we have left these countries to foot the bill. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned his country cannot continue to take in Syrian refugees unless it receives massive help. 'The psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it's gotten to a boiling point,' he has said. 'Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst.'

It's more than the psyche: Jordan's debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 70 per cent in 2011 to 90 per cent in 2014. It is not just the 80 per cent of refugees in Jordan living below the poverty line who need help; aid must also go to the creation of jobs for Jordanians who resent those refugees who have found illegal work in the cities. Jordan needs a ten-year package of support to develop the schools, hospitals and jobs infrastructure to cope, with refugees and local people taking them in agreed proportions. The camps could then become temporary cities in which enterprise is legal and encouraged.

The story is the same in Lebanon and Turkey. The countries around Syria can absorb more refugees only if we give far far more. That means lifting World Bank rules which categorise them as middle-income countries. It means EU trade concessions and other difficult changes. It means facing up to the fact that we are our brothers' keeper.