MPs demand Theresa May permits aid drops to Aleppo

More than 120 MPs – including former Tory cabinet ministers Michael Gove and Andrew Mitchell – today call on Theresa May to authorise immediate airdrops of food and medicine to ease the desperate plight of adults and children trapped in besieged areas of Syria.

In a letter to the prime minister, the cross-party group says “the time for excuses is over” and that it is unacceptable that “nearly 100,000 children are facing the slowest, cruellest death because we cannot reach them with food and medical supplies”.

In early summer, before May became prime minister, the government said “preparations for airdrops will now take place and go forward rapidly because there isn’t a moment to lose”.

The MPs – who also include the Tory grandee Sir Nicholas Soames, a former Labour defence spokesman, Clive Lewis, and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry – say that almost 200 days later thousands of Syrians are still waiting, “none more so than the 275,000 civilians trapped in besieged east Aleppo”.

They write: “This is now the epicentre of the crisis. The Assad and Putin regimes are moving to ‘exterminate’ all those who have not already been killed as a consequence of their indiscriminate bombing campaigns.

“In the last 10 days all hospitals there, including the last children’s hospital, have been bombed out of operation. Centres belonging to the heroic volunteers of the White Helmets [Syrian civil defence] have also been destroyed. The last aid delivery was three months ago and medical workers estimate we have less than two weeks before all food runs out.

“With our Royal Air Force already operational in the air over Syria, we are calling on you to urgently authorise the air-dropping of aid to besieged civilian populations. It is simply not acceptable that during the biggest aid operation in the UN’s history, and in the full glare of the world’s media, nearly 100,000 children are facing the slowest, cruellest death because we cannot reach them with food and medical supplies.

“Air-dropping aid is only ever a last resort, but who can credibly claim we have not reached that point? The Syrian government is refusing all attempts to allow access to UN relief agencies whilst simultaneously dropping chlorine gas onto civilian populations.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said in response to the letter: “Our priority is the protection of civilians in Syria who face an appalling humanitarian situation. We call on the Assad regime and their Russian supporters to bring about an end to terrible crisis immediately. We will continue to look at all options with our international partners to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians.”

The challenge for advocates of aid drops is that Syria’s besieged towns and cities are not in Isis-controlled areas where the British and allied air forces are operating. Instead they would be heading into areas patrolled by Syrian and Russian jets to break sieges imposed by their forces and protected by sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles. Anyone ordering airdrops into these enclaves would have to weigh up the possibility of attacks on RAF aircraft.

Although Russia and Syria both say they are open to allowing supplies into besieged areas under the right conditions, they have repeatedly used sieges to force surrender of rebel-held areas.

A UN aid convoy heading to Aleppo was also bombed in September, and western officials say they believe Russian planes carried out the airstrike.

The MPs say that the UK has dependable allies in Aleppo including the White Helmets rescue group which is ready to coordinate collection and distribution of the airdrops “if we can summon the courage to carry them out”.

Labour MP Alison McGovern, who coordinated the letter with colleague John Woodcock, said May should come to the Commons without delay to announce a strategy for airdrops: “The situation in Aleppo is beyond desperate. Those who said ‘never again’ after Rwanda, after Srebrenica, may have meant it, but we have failed. The least the UK can do is recognise that this is our last chance to save lives in Aleppo.

“Therefore, we must heed the call of the White Helmets, and start aid drops. This is far from ideal – a route by road for aid would be better – but the regime has offered no such route.

“All options should be considered to save lives. And the prime minister and foreign secretary should come to the House of Commons without delay and present a strategy to protect civilians.”

Woodcock added: “The strength and breadth of parliamentary support for airdrops clearly indicates the government would get backing in the House of Commons for bolder action to get food and supplies to starving Syrian families. We will make the world an even darker and more dangerous place if we let the Russian-backed siege continue when the RAF has a clear capability to provide humanitarian support from the air.

“This is a moment of truth for the clear majority in the international community who abhor these war crimes: do we take back the initiative to save lives or watch paralysed as we did in Rwanda?”