There was a sombre mood in the chamber this afternoon as MPs gathered to discuss the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. After Russian planes dropped bombs that destroyed a UN aid convoy, Andrew Mitchell called for the Commons debate — drawing parallels between Russia’s disregard for international law today and the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy in the 1930s.
Supporting Mitchell’s call for a no-fly zone, Labour’s Alison McGovern gave an emotional speech as she urged the government to do so ‘if it can be shown to be an effective way to protect civilians’. Referring to her late friend Jo Cox, McGovern — the co-chair of the friends of Syria group — said that if the Labour MP were still alive today she would have ‘been here and would have known what was needed’.
‘With bombs raining down, we should be volunteering to take the lead. There is legal precedent for the possibility of a no fly zone and my belief is that this must not be off the table if it can be shown to be the most effective way of protecting civilians.’
McGovern’s calls were supported by fellow Labour backbenchers including Mary Creagh and John Woodcock — who found time to criticise his party’s frontbench for its soft approach. However, it fell on Boris Johnson to lay out the government’s opposition to establishing a no-fly zone. Pointing to the fact that it could equate to declaring war on both Assad and Putin, he said that while he had ‘every sympathy’ for the proposals, you cannot have no-fly zones unless you are willing to shoot down planes and helicopters. He did, however, warn that Russia is at risk of becoming an international ‘pariah’ — suggesting that those responsible for attacks on hospitals and a humanitarian convoy should be investigated for war crimes.
For all the strongly worded statements, the Foreign Secretary concluded that the best hope was to persuade the Russians to take the initiative, to win the acclaim of the international community and stop the bombing. The issue is that no matter how tragic the events in Aleppo are, few are keen to wage war — and Putin knows this. While Johnson’s hope for Russia to bring an end to the bombing is wishful thinking, unless the government is prepared to shoot down planes and risk a showdown with Putin there is little else anyone can do but hope.