Editorial: 'Hell beyond hell': The situation in Syria is actually getting worse

Russian President Vladimir Putin can be embarrassed into forcing his client to abide by international law

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The promises of muscular humanitarianism in Syria have been deferred. When John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov reached a deal last month that the Assad regime would verifiably dispose of its chemical weapons, the world united in resolving to help the Syrian people suffering in civil war.

David Cameron insisted that the UK would remain fully engaged with the humanitarian mission in Syria, saying that the chemical weapons deal should not allow the world to assume that Syria had been "solved".

Yet there has been an all too predictable lessening of the pressure of world opinion. Although the work of the UN chemical weapons inspectors seems to be going ahead with surprising despatch, the war itself – and the plight of refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq – is getting worse.

Yesterday brought the testimony of David Nott, the "Indiana Jones of surgery" who has led a group of international doctors in Syria. He says snipers, assumed to be hired by the Assad regime, have been using pregnant women for target practice, aiming at unborn children for sport. Mr Nott, whose scheme to train doctors in Britain to work in conflict zones was featured in The Independent on Sunday in August, describes his experience in Syria as "hell beyond hell".

It is to be hoped that this reminder of the horror of the Syrian civil war will rouse the world's conscience and spur renewed diplomatic effort. The unusual protest of the Saudi Arabian government, refusing to take its place on the UN Security Council, might add to the pressure. The Saudis accused the UN, among other things, of allowing the Syrian government "to kill its own people with chemical weapons... without confronting it or imposing any deterrent sanctions". That seems overstated, given that the use of chemical weapons has been confronted, but if it helps Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the region, live up to its promises to help refugees, no one should complain.

The British Government has made a contribution. Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, announced a week ago that a further £12m over two years would be going to Jordanian local government to provide help. But a more assertive humanitarian effort is needed. Mr Nott suggests UN-supervised corridors in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and medical help. Now that UN inspectors are working in Syria to enforce the deal on chemical weapons, would it not be possible to push the Russians to make good on their rhetoric of humanitarian protection? Let us hope Dr Nott's hope of meeting David Cameron to make this point is not in vain.

The Russian government is the Assad regime's main external sponsor – and its second international ally, Iran, is also looking for an improved relationship with the US and Europe. Vladimir Putin has shown that he can be embarrassed into forcing his client to abide by international law. Let us hope that the outrage over Mr Nott's revelations could be put to similar use.

Last week Ms Greening's department put out a news release about British support for "Global Handwashing Day". This was actually about British support for clean water and sanitation projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ms Greening must ensure that it does not become a deeply ironic comment on the rich countries of the world, including the UK, washing their hands of responsibility for helping to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

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