My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all noble Lords who are speaking in this debate and to those, such as my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond, who have expressed their support but are unable to be present. I am also grateful to another former British ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who has provided invaluable briefing.
My concerns arise from a visit last September in response to invitations from the Melkite Patriarch, the Grand Mufti and leaders of Christian and Muslim communities in Aleppo. Our programme was arranged by friends in Syria and was not organised by the Government. We met many Syrians in Damascus, Aleppo, Maaloula and Latakia, including representatives of Muslim, Christian and Yazidi communities; members of government and internal opposition parties; civil society organisations such as the senior council of doctors in Aleppo; IDPs in Latakia who had fled for their lives from ISIS and ISIS-related militias; and survivors of ISIS attacks in Maaloula.
We also met President Assad, a meeting for which we received vehement criticism in the media and by the FCO. We stand by our decision to meet the President, not because we are uncritical but because only by meeting can one raise concerns and learn about current and proposed policies.
Many noble Lords will have seen newspaper coverage this weekend condemning Assad for atrocities—including the killing of 13,000 people in Saydnaya prison—citing a report attributed to Amnesty’s Beirut office. Time permits me only briefly to address three issues related to those allegations.
First, the fact of torture in Syrian jails is well known, is cause for genuine concern and is in no way condoned, but there is a serious asymmetry in these reports. There is no mention of the conditions under which Syrian soldiers and many civilians are held by Islamist militants or of the atrocities perpetrated by those militias, including torture, beheadings and slaughter of civilians by suicide bombs. When we were in Syria, a suicide bomber attacked the checkpoint at Homs, killing more than 30 people, presumably including families burned alive in their cars in the queues. Secondly, these reports are accepted uncritically as true. However, in 2014, photographs of an oddly similar number of corpses were proven to be a farrago of half-truths. The third issue is timing. The report, apparently a year in gestation, emerges now, when it can do maximum harm to the chances of success of the peace process emerging out of the recent talks in Astana.
The report by our group which visited Syria is widely available and I want to highlight our priority concerns, which are still relevant despite the seismic changes which have taken place since September. First, everyone to whom we spoke in Syria was deeply disturbed by the UK Government’s commitment to regime change. But Her Majesty’s Government retain their unabashed commitment to a transition culminating in the departure of President Assad. Transition is therefore just a euphemism for regime change.
Leaving rights and wrongs to one side, it is delusional to pretend that Assad will have to step down. Following the recovery of eastern Aleppo, he is now in a commanding position on the battlefield, with domestic and external support bolstering his position. HMG should realise that were Assad to do as they wish, the first to suffer would be the Syrian people. Everyone whom we met was deeply afraid that Assad’s departure would cause implosion of the regime, leading to catastrophes similar to those in Iraq and Libya. I ask the Minister why Her Majesty’s Government are not listening, for example, to the faith leaders in Syria, both Christian and Muslim, almost all of whom are urging the international community to engage with the Syrian Government.
Secondly, there is widespread, understandable dismay and anger over the UK continuing to provide opposition Islamist militias with practical assistance, including training, equipment, help with propaganda and diplomatic support. Helping to sustain the armed opposition can only prolong the suffering of the Syrians to no purpose whatever. So many people told us: “War is terrible. People die from shelling on both sides. But here, you die from shelling or you die from shelling and beheadings. And we don’t want the beheadings”. I therefore ask the Minister why the UK is continuing to support the Islamist “rebels”, when the consistent word from the Syrians, who have suffered under their brutal tyranny, is that the “moderates” no longer exist and the vast majority of these groups have extreme ideologies and no intention of creating a democracy in Syria.
Thirdly, there has been widespread dismay over the long-standing reporting by the BBC and other Western media which is perceived to be very biased, focusing on the suffering resulting from military offences by the Syrian and Russian armies, with no comparable coverage of the suffering inflicted by ISIS and other Islamist military offensives, including the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons. The latest case of indiscriminate abuse of an innocent population has been largely ignored by the western media. It is the month-long poisoning by diesel fuel, and later the complete cutting off, of the water supply to Damascus by so-called moderate jihadists between late December 2016 and late January 2017. Water supplies were restored only after the Syrian military diverted significant forces from other fronts and retook the Wadi Barada springs from the jihadists in a major military attack.
The bias in media reporting seems to be intent on demonising President Assad and his Government and drawing a veil over the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamist forces. On 13 December the House of Commons held an emergency debate on Aleppo. The Foreign Secretary underlined condemnation of the offensive against eastern Aleppo, the importance of protecting civilians and an ongoing commitment to bring about a political settlement in Syria. That statement by the Foreign Secretary raises many questions. Why do the vast majority of civilians from east Aleppo chose to flee to government-controlled areas if they are all so terrified of the Government, apart from a small minority who joined the evacuation of terrorists to Idlib? Why, after months of lamenting the plight of 300,000—a grossly exaggerated figure, by the way; it turned out to be 130,000—civilians in east Aleppo, has there been so little media coverage of what had actually been going on?
Reverend Andrew Ashdown, who organised our September visit, was in Aleppo as the city was liberated. He visited areas of east Aleppo including the Jibrin registration centre and other reception centres, as tens of thousands of refugees from east Aleppo fled to government-controlled areas. I quote from his report:
“The voices of the civilians emerging from ‘rebel’-controlled East Aleppo were absolutely consistent—of the brutal murder and execution by the ‘rebels’ of anyone who opposed them; the killing of men, women and children who tried to flee; regular torture and rape of civilians; the withholding of food to civilians, or selling food at exorbitant prices; the withholding of medical aid to those in need even when they begged for assistance; telling civilians that they would be killed by the army if they fled to government-controlled areas; and, that if they did not adhere to the ‘rebel’ ideology, they were not real ‘Muslims’ but were ‘infidels’ and deserved to die. Also those refugees who fled from East Aleppo who knew of the widely acclaimed ‘White Helmets’ (many didn’t) repeatedly said that ‘they only helped the terrorists’. They were all visibly delighted to be free, and were being given food, medical assistance and shelter on arrival. The narratives of these people directly contradict all that the western media were reporting for months previously”.
In the last month, efforts at restoring facilities, opening schools and making areas of eastern Aleppo habitable have already begun. Many people are asking why no one is reporting these positive developments in post-conflict situations in east Aleppo.
Her Majesty’s Government’s position is coupled with an insistence on maintaining sanctions. These greatly harm Syrian civilians, who cannot obtain medical supplies such as prostheses, more than they harm the Government. It is also sometimes claimed that Assad is not really fighting ISIS. To that, I say: tell that to the brave defenders of Deir ez-Zor, the people of Palmyra or the inhabitants of Damascus and the Homs countryside, for whom all that stands between them and beheadings are the government forces.
I take this opportunity to record that the people of Syria are profoundly grateful to Russia for taking ISIS seriously and assisting them by defending their people against its barbarities. I ask the Minister: what is Her Majesty’s Government’s position with regard to the Astana talks, which appear to be the only current initiative likely to deliver a policy capable of defusing the present situation?
In conclusion, I open this debate with a heavy heart and with deep sadness because I have seen a glimpse of the suffering of the people of Syria under the onslaught of ISIS and related Islamist jihadists. I am all the more sad because I have seen that suffering exacerbated by UK polices of support for the jihadists, and I am deeply saddened by Her Majesty’s Government’s continuing commitment to regime change, by whatever name, which is profoundly dreaded by the people of Syria. Will Her Majesty’s Government reconsider their entrenched position, which has exacerbated the suffering of the people of Syria, and allow the people of Syria the democratic right and the dignity to choose their own future? If that involves re-electing President Assad, that is their right to do so and a right that we should respect.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. She is absolutely right to highlight the extent of the humanitarian horror of the Syrian crisis. I applaud her for her efforts on behalf of the Christian community that is left there, and in essence agree with her vision. I personally mourn the death of a great friend, the Archbishop of Aleppo, who disappeared and was presumably killed.
In 2000 I attended the funeral in Damascus of President Hafez al-Assad, representing the Opposition. It was the first time that I met his son Bashar, and there were great hopes that he would modernise the economy. Indeed there was some progress, and the new President fully protected the minorities. However, when minor demonstrations broke out in Syria, and after some hesitation, President Assad ruthlessly cracked down, and the rest is history. It was a grotesque misjudgment and wholly unnecessary. Had we and others taken out his capacity to rain cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons on his population by bombing his airfields, he would have been forced to the conference table. We never did, though, and our support for opposition groups was limited and sometimes wholly counterproductive.
As a result of the Russians moving in substantially in 2015, Assad is now on his way back to controlling the country. It is a tragic and ironic situation that the man who had so much to do with the destruction of his country should now be seen as part of the solution. It now appears to be recognised even by us that he is there to stay, as expressed by the Foreign Secretary. However, I immediately praise Her Majesty’s Government, who have so generously committed money to good humanitarian efforts to alleviate the plight of the refugees. We can be truly proud of the generosity, added to by private funding and care. I was very pleased personally to help in raising money for relief.
However, we are where we are, and we have to face the clear reality. When a recent meeting took place in Astana, it was essentially led by Turkey, Iran and the Russians, whose influence and role in Syria is now decisive. I therefore ask the Minister if she is in a position to clarify what the next stage will be. I understand that additional meetings in Geneva were planned, but may have been postponed to cement a ceasefire. Do we know if the anti-Assad opposition is to be involved? This would be appear to be essential to make progress, and of course it would be under UN auspices. President Trump has advocated, with the support of Saudi Arabia, the establishment of safe zones to provide some degree of security for refugees. Do we agree with this? I understand that he has commissioned a report to be ready by April.
Of course there will simply be no progress without the agreement of Russia and indeed President Assad himself. The Foreign Secretary reiterated his view that President Assad ideally should go, but we now have to accept the new reality of his staying. Indeed, all I can say in retrospect is that all of us should pray and yearn for this unspeakable horror and heart-breaking situation to end.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for tabling this debate. She spoke about her concerns that arose both during and subsequent to her visit to Syria. My own interest and concerns with Syria go back considerably longer, and long before the war. When I went to see if there was at the time any possibility of rapprochement between Israel and Syria, it was clear that there was. I came back and told the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, but when he sent out Sir Nigel Sheinwald, what was engaged in was the kind of finger-wagging diplomacy that informed the President that if he did not do what Britain wanted, it would be the worse for him. I mention that because it seems to me that the attitude of Her Majesty’s Government to Syria and the regime there has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution, going back a very long way. To come to the view in almost any conflict, particularly in the Middle East which I know quite well, that there are good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, simply lines you up with one side or the other so that you become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
When the war itself broke out subsequent to a failed attempt at revolution—indeed, apart from in Tunisia, none of the attempted revolutions in the Middle East has been positive and successful—I urged Her Majesty’s Government not to engage militarily or make any intervention. Of course, the House of Commons subsequently made doing so impossible. However, I agreed that support should be provided for our allies on the front line, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, because without supporting them the situation would get worse. The Government were not able to engage militarily because of the decision of the House of Commons, but that did not mean that we have not engaged through military training, materiel and intelligence operations which have merely made the situation worse. I recall having discussions in 2012-13 with some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues and one of them saying to me at the time, “John, you say it could be worse, but I don’t believe it could be any worse if we were to intervene”. I replied by saying, “Not only could it be worse, it will be much worse because what we are seeing is a descent into chaos that will not be restricted just to the Middle East”.
We are already some years into a third global conflict and we are merely contributing to the difficulties around it. It is not really a Sunni-Shia fight because there are Sunnis on both sides. We are contributing to something which, if we are not careful, will ensure that Christians who have been living in communities in the country for two millennia will be driven out.
My question for Her Majesty’s Government is in many ways a simple one. When will the Government understand that the policy they have been following through several Governments has failed? Continuing with it is not going to help the situation either for the people in the region or for this country because of how it is perceived in the wider region and indeed by some within our own communities. I have just a little hope, given the Statement made recently by Prime Minister Theresa May that it was not for the United Kingdom to engage with the use of force in order to change the way other people run their countries, that perhaps some reflection is beginning to take place in Her Majesty’s Government.
I was an eyewitness in Jazira in north-east Syria in May 2015, Diyarbakir in Turkey in November of that year, and in government-controlled Syria in September 2016. I met the Jazira canton administration, all the political parties, young people learning democratic theory and practice, as well as refugees from ISIS. In Diyarbakir I saw military damage to the historic mosque at Sur and learned of the bulldozing of cemeteries where militants were buried. Since then, MPs, mayors, lawyers and journalists have been arrested and tens of thousands of state employees dismissed. Last September, along with others including my noble friend Lady Cox, I visited the four main Syrian cities. I am amazed that Her Majesty’s Government refuse to visit Jazira and Kobane. How can they understand the political and humanitarian situations without direct contact? In Turkey, they fail to address the causes of civil unrest and armed uprising, which have lasted with only short intervals since 1984. Our Government have asked for proportionate measures, and Turkey has replied with field guns and bulldozers, besides aiding and abetting Islamist fighters in Syria.
Of course there have been atrocities on all sides, yet the western media still place all the blame on the Assadists. No one can deny that outside states have helped many foreign jihadis to enter Syria and provided arms and explosives in large quantities. For these reasons, I welcome the ceasefire agreed by the Assad Government with Russia, Turkey and Iran, although of course it leaves the war against ISIS quite unresolved. I would urge the Minister when she comes to reply to say all she can on that subject.
The conclusion I draw is that all have lost the war, though Assad and his allies have won most of the battles. He has the support or the acquiescence of most Syrians. All the religious and ethnic minorities prefer him to a possible extreme Islamic Government. All are war-weary; they want to get on with their lives and fear chaos or Islamist dictatorship. For those reasons I urge our Government to re-establish at least some level of diplomatic representation in Damascus.
My Lords, I also add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for giving us the opportunity to discuss the recent developments in Syria. Whatever the Government’s assessment of what is happening there, in a country of shifting alliances and international power play there are no easy or simple answers. There is one constant, though: the misery being endured by the proud Syrian people. I will confine my remarks to the efforts being made to secure as meaningful and sustainable a future as possible for those dispossessed by this awful tragedy.
Just over a year ago, the world met here in London for the second Syria donor conference, where the huge generosity both in hard currency and in spirit towards those fleeing terror was enormously welcome and much needed. One of the key objectives of our Government, whose commitment to this appalling situation is something of which we should all be proud, is that alongside aid and refuge we need to put in place practical solutions that give Syrian refugees and their families not just hope, but a sense of purpose and a chance to rebuild their shattered lives, and which supports the countries in the region to which they have fled.
One of the ways we are doing that is through the Business Taskforce, set up by David Cameron and being not just continued but actively supported by the Prime Minister and her Government and chaired by two Secretaries of State, my right honourable friends Liam Fox and Priti Patel. Here I declare my interests as a member of that task force and as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Jordan. The task force is charged to secure,
“an ambitious package of measures that would spur economic growth and enable … Syrian refugees across the region to work”,
and study. Those are the very people that are needed to rebuild Syria, when this tragedy is one day—soon, I hope—over.
As well as the enormous sums of money being donated by the Government—to date, £2.3 billion—and the generosity of the British people, so rightly highlighted by my noble friend Lord Risby, a great deal of time, effort and innovative thinking is being put into practical solutions to further these aims. If we support refugee families in the region—who are the very people needed to rebuild Syria, as I said—that will not only build economic capacity in the countries that have so generously offered them refuge, but reduce the risk of too many people gambling their lives in hazardous journeys to Europe and, if they make it, an uncertain future.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for securing this debate. My main reason for speaking is to draw your Lordships’ attention and, especially, Her Majesty’s Government, to a recent report by the World Council of Churches, The Protection Needs of Minorities in Syria and Iraq. It is a serious piece of field study that has gathered the first-hand views of some 4,000 people, over 2,000 of them Syrians from minority communities: Christians, Yazidis, Druze, Turkmen and many others. I was in Baghdad and Irbil last month as part of a World Council of Churches delegation to test the findings of the report with community leaders and members, as well as with UNAMI and locally based NGOs, and confirm the soundness of its recommendations. I have every reason to believe that the report’s analysis of the Syrian situation is as credible as we found its Iraqi analysis to be. Therefore I ask the Minister that the Government engage with this robust report.
It was quite an uncomfortable visit for a British person to take part in, because of the great sense among the minority communities of our own culpability in the chaos in Iraq. I can well imagine the strength of feeling that was expressed in the noble Baroness’s visit to Syria. The research showed that despite the manipulation of sectarian tension in Syria by government and armed opposition, there still remains greater confidence among minority communities—including even Christians—in Syria than in Iraq that they have a future in their land, although that confidence is diminishing. The report argues that protecting the minority communities and preserving their place in Syrian society needs to be mainlined into the humanitarian response. This requires a differentiated approach to the particular security, economic and social needs of diverse communities, based on accurate assessment tools that capture distinctive ethno-religious vulnerabilities.
Those needs are large and complex; critical among them is housing. It is not only the horrific damage to the property that is the problem but the loss of property, either through being forced into selling at low prices by stronger communities or by confiscation by malign activities. Sensitive processes of property reallocation will need to be found. That is only one example of the restoration of the diversity of Syrian society that will be needed in the years ahead—a task too great for its own resources to bear. Will the Minister therefore confirm that Her Majesty’s Government are committed to the long-term pursuance of a just peace for all Syria’s people, forging an international coalition of reconstruction—physical and psychosocial—to work with whatever political settlement emerges to ensure a safe Syria for all?
My Lords, whatever the position of Her Majesty’s Government vis-à-vis President Assad, I hope it is uncontentious to say that a future for Syria that protects and respects religious minorities is essential. This should be part of Her Majesty’s Government’s strategy overall, and of our refugee policy in particular.
In 2010, the population of Syria was 21 million. According to the US State Department’s international religious freedom report, Sunnis made up 74% of the population, other Muslim groups 13%, the Druze 3%, and various Christian groups constitute the remaining 10%, although there were estimates even at that time that due to migration it may have dropped to 8%. There were also around 100,000 Yazidis and a small population of Jews. Five years later, in 2015, the same source reported there are now just under 18 million people in Syria; 74% of the population remains Sunni Muslim, the other Muslim groups still amount to 13%, and the Druze are still there at 3%. However, reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest that the Christian population is considerably lower than 10%. There is no reliable information to confirm the continued residency or the current size of the Jewish population. Media reports suggest that the figure for Yazidis is higher, as many Yazidis from Iraq have fled into Syria.
There is therefore a disproportionate decline among Christians in the population of Syria. Accordingly, among Syrians outside of the country there will be a proportionate increase in the number of Christians. That is not surprising, as they have no regional ally. Sunnis have the support of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Shias the support of Iran. In addition, the attacks on Yazidis, Christians and Mandaeans by Daesh have been of particular ferocity, and there is a growing intolerance in the local population. This is why it was not religious preference but a statement of particular vulnerability when the 2015 Conservative manifesto pledged to defend freedom of religion or belief for all but made a specific commitment to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
The United Kingdom statistics on the Syrian vulnerable person resettlement scheme state that between September 2015 and September 2016 we have taken 64 Christian Syrians out of a total of 4,175, or 1.5%. The United States has taken 19,336 Syrian refugees over the last three years: 108 Christian Syrians and 46 Yazidis. That is 0.55% Christians and 0.24% Yazidis.
Her Majesty’s Government rely on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to assess refugees against the vulnerability criteria. However, at the end of last year, DfID produced its own assessment of the effectiveness of that UN agency. The categories are very good, good, adequate and weak. DfID rated it as good on matching the UK priorities index, but only adequate on the organisational strengths. Will the Minister at the very least confirm that this agency has tracked the religious minorities in the region so we know where they are, and will she please invite the new commissioner for this office to come to the United Kingdom Parliament to explain the disparity within these statistics?
My Lords, representatives of the international charity Aid to the Church in Need, of which I am a trustee, have just been in Aleppo. They learned that the Christian community there has fallen from around 250,000 to barely 30,000, and that in Syria as a whole from around 1.8 million before the war to an estimated 300,000 now. As my noble friend Lady Cox said in her eloquent and compelling speech, ISIS has waged a bestial campaign of genocide against Christians and other minorities for nearly three years. The terror group has carried out its slogan: “We will break your crosses and enslave your women”. As His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales warned in his Christmas broadcast, such ancient communities face total annihilation. I ask the Minister: how can we make the protection of minorities and the re-creation of the plural, diverse communities that existed in places such as Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq before these events a greater priority?
In April 2016, by 278 votes to zero, the House of Commons officially designated ISIS as responsible for genocide against various religious minorities. I press the Minister to say what specific actions arose from that resolution of Parliament to help those who are cruelly suffering. In particular, on an issue that was raised with the noble Baroness yesterday during Questions, is the United Kingdom willing to encourage the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate fighters not currently being prosecuted from signatory nations to the treaty of Rome? Has there been any progress concerning the role that the Iraq Government might play in pursuing an investigative mechanism for crimes committed by or against their people in Syria? Will the Minister also tell us what progress has been made in severing ISIS supply lines to Raqqa and in securing its liberation?
My first visit to Syria was in 1980, as a young Member of the House of Commons. Our ambassador was Patrick, now the noble Lord, Lord Wright, and we met the previous President Assad. If we can have a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang and Sudan, the leader of which has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, why, as my noble friend Lord Hylton asked, do we not have a senior diplomatic presence in Damascus? Why is that still the case, in the light of the changed policy position of Her Majesty’s Government following the evidence that the Foreign Secretary gave last week, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Risby? Prioritising persecuted religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis, and upholding our highest ideals in offering refuge to genocide survivors—as I proposed in an all-party amendment in your Lordships’ House exactly a year ago—will serve justice and ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes face their Nuremberg moment.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and support her views. I start by asking my noble friend: when will Her Majesty’s Government recognise the reality of the situation after six years of war? Assad, his Government and his people dominate all the cities, towns and most of the countryside. They are, of course, assisted by their long-term ally, Russia, and by Iran and Hezbollah, because they are Shia Muslims. Our Government have failed from the start to understand and recognise that this was, frankly, no more than the fourth Shia-Sunni war in that troubled country.
On top of this is the policy of the Arab spring, which we all know and recognise. In my judgment, the failure of that policy in Libya, Egypt, the Maldives and now Syria shows that we should never have interfered in the first place. Do Her Majesty’s Government recognise that France, our closest ally on so many issues, now has an embassy in Damascus? The information I have is that it is not just one man and a dog but a full technical support team. Is it ready for the rebuilding of Syria? From what I can see, we appear to be sitting on our hands, thinking of war crimes and worrying about what our allies in the Arab world would think of us. Are we going to go back to Damascus? If not, the whole of the United Kingdom’s Brexit approach in the Arab world will be somewhat undermined. If our policy is to deal with Daesh—my colleague on the other Benches clearly raised this issue—surely we have to have the Syrian armed forces alongside, at least working or communicating with us. Are we once again waiting for somebody to say something? Are we waiting for President Trump to give his views on what we should do? Surely we have enough experience of the Arab world to decide for ourselves.
We all know that peace is coming. We all know Assad is staying and, yes, we all want to see elections. Above all, we also want to see Syria rebuilt again. Frankly, Her Majesty’s Government should take the initiative and look for the equivalent of the Marshall plan, as in Europe after the Second World War. That way, we can bring back these poor refugees from the Middle East who are sitting in the cold and get them out of the camps and back into their own country. If we do not, Syria will be a living hell, just like Libya is today. Surely, we should let the Syrians themselves settle their own structure and we in the West should stop interfering, but we should give some generous aid in rebuilding and have that presence in Damascus—on the ground—so that at last, for once, our English and United Kingdom firms will also benefit from any Marshall plan equivalent.
My Lords, I welcome the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on the facile narrative that underlies much of the western media reporting. As she has noted, in Syria, we have for several years collectively promoted a demonised portrayal of one side and a highly romanticised version of its opponents. That leads to my general theme—that of legitimacy.
For several years, the British and the United States political leaderships have maintained that this war is largely a matter of a dictator killing his people. It is the accepted line whereby western Governments have sought to promote the policy of regime change to their public. By contrast, what has most impressed me on my visits to Syria recently is the overwhelming and objective evidence of deliberate programmes of assault by ISIL or Daesh, by al-Nusra, as it was, and by other, largely external, forces. It is an assault aimed at dismantling the Syrian state, and the very concepts of Syrian society, identity and culture. This is why it is so crucial to focus on getting hold of genuine facts, evidence and contributions from Syrian citizens and representatives of civil society. They know, none better, what destruction has been inflicted by the militants on their educational infrastructure, for example, deliberately to ensure that ignorance and illiteracy prevails in what is being called a lost generation of students. They know and have seen what is being done to their women, who are carted around the streets of Aleppo in cages for public humiliation—and worse—by the groups we call moderates. They know that those moderates seldom control or influence an area or constituency larger than the extent of this debating Chamber, whatever they may claim in Geneva as they negotiate with our diplomats.
This assault on the structures of the state is, for Syria, an existential war for its identity. The British Government have repeatedly said that Assad can have no legitimacy among his own people. That is a judgment that I believe history will show to be suspect and one which will in due course be put to the test, if there are elections. I have seen little evidence of a craven personal loyalty to Assad in Syria, but there can be no doubt that where the Syrian Government and army have established enduring control, there is order, health provision, schooling and none of the takfiri horrors that the armed militants impose. These are public goods that are welcomed with respect and command large support.
It is often said that Assad would not survive were it not for Russia, Iran or Hezbollah. I myself have seen no evidence that either Russia or Iran has an unshakeable, personal loyalty to President Assad. They support the existence of a coherent Syrian state. If another figure, hypothetically, were to replace Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran would undoubtedly continue to uphold the state. But what we have really been implying all along is that we want not simply Assad’s departure but some kind of popular movement—fomenting a resistance to illegitimacy that we endorse—that will effect regime change. This is not going to happen. It is an illusion we should not continue to entertain. I think of Ariel Sharon’s warning to President Bush after the last Iraq war that if Bush intended to go about the same dismantling of Syria as he had effected in Iraq, he would create an explosion throughout the Middle East.
I have gone on too long already. We need to engage in a thorough, probably painful reappraisal of what the structures of Syrian statehood should be, which we will support, and the conditions of their legitimacy that we can recognise.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, most warmly for giving us a chance to mourn for Syria. This war will end, yet I suggest the conflict will remain. As the right reverend Prelate said, this is a very difficult war. It is very unlikely that, when the bombs stop, the people’s minds will change immediately and become peaceful towards each other. We will have a society where the torturers and the tortured perhaps live side by side. Physical reconstruction begins immediately. That is the easy bit. But the conflict remaining is the thing we should think about.
I turn to Mr Attlee’s noble words in the preamble to UNESCO’s constitution, and remind colleagues that,
“since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.
I offer a model that has been proved to work. Next door to Syria, not far away in Baghdad in the middle of the war in 2004, the AMAR Foundation, which I have the honour to chair, began to work on health for all. Why? Because this is the opposite of the inequality of men and races in ISIL’s doctrine. We go for the common welfare of mankind here today. Peace in the minds of men can be best reflected by helping the tortured person in physical and mental pain.
We began immediately in July 2004 in Al-Suwaib, where there had been no health anywhere ever. It was a completely confused society—violent, bullying, war, nothing at all. By February 2005 we had 12,000 patients. We moved on to the next centre, keeping that one going. By 2010 we had 30,000 patients. The second was Al-Jahadi. In June 2005 we had another 30,000 patients. They were all new builds—25 across the whole of Baghdad, with 500,000 medical consultations every year by 2010. We worked closely with and were financially supported by the 1st Cavalry Division, General Chiarelli, General Joe Anderson, General Odierno, General Mattis and General Petraeus. There was no interference, just support and understanding. The US military, like the British military, understands that at the end of the story it is hearts and minds, not bullets and bombs.
The creation of a peaceful and productive society has resulted in this. Compare Baghdad with Mosul and tell me that all these revolutions in Baghdad are just not happening. All those medical centres are still working. Indeed, the AMAR Foundation now has 1 million patients over the whole of society. On top of that, you add all sorts of other things as you build, train and replicate. You add culture, the education of humanity, the wide diffusion of culture, chess, music, dancing and writing. You train, teach and enhance. I tell noble Lords that by building on the base of terror and destruction, you can create peace, love, harmony, smiles and joy. I recommend this model.
My Lords, civil wars are dreadful. We lost 800,000 in the English Civil War. To put that in context, that would be 9.1 million people killed if we had a civil war like that today. UK policy has prolonged the Syrian war. It has failed. It needs a rethink. Assad is loathsome, yes, but he is a fact of life on the ground. The other players are just as bad. There are no good guys in this sort of situation. At least Assad’s regime was secular. Our failure has allowed the Russians to become the powerbrokers in the region. We absolutely must change our policy or the war will go on and people will die.
My Lords, I will be brief, as I want to leave as much time as possible for the Minister to respond—and obviously in three minutes we have time to ask only a few questions. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for initiating this debate. It is our responsibility to try to create the conditions for the people of Syria to decide their own future. Every act of genocide or crime against humanity needs to be investigated and the people responsible to be held to account for their actions. Impunity must be challenged; we cannot have a situation where years and years of crimes against humanity are ignored. I accept that there are two sides to this equation but, as we have heard in the debate, the sides are very complex—it is not just the people of Syria who are involved in this crime.
I have heard coverage on BBC Persian news and in the Afghan media about Iran coercing Afghan refugees to fight on behalf of—and in favour of—the Assad regime in Syria. Many are young children; the youngest I have heard about was 16. The Iranians promise these Afghan refugees citizenship and money and then send them to fight in Syria. Can the Minister tell us whether these claims have been investigated by the British Government?
I am also very aware of the need for humanitarian support, and I have supported the Government’s actions in the region. I particularly want to hear from the Minister about what more we can do to support the host nations and to save their economies and societies from collapse from the weight of refugees currently in those countries. One obvious matter on which we need to hear the Government’s assessment is the progress of talks and the parties being brought together—we know that there can be no settlement without the Russians and the Iranians, but the Saudis need to be involved as well. We know that this conflict has wider implications.
However, at the end of the day, we cannot allow this situation where the crimes that have been described in this debate go on without action—we cannot allow impunity to be the watchword for the future in the Middle East. I hope that the Minister can assure us that work will continue to collect and retain evidence so that we can ensure that justice will be done in the end.
My Lords, I congratulate noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate. Working for a solution to the crisis in Syria remains a top priority for the Government. We recognise the realities of the situation across the whole of the Middle East and the implications of the displacement of so many millions of people, as well as the generosity of counties such as Lebanon and others which have hosted those forced out of their own country. The conflict has now lasted nearly six years and caused appalling human suffering, as noble Lords have graphically set out today: over 400,000 people have been killed, half of the country’s pre-war population has been displaced and millions of Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian help.
The military offensive against eastern Aleppo before Christmas was one of the worst episodes of this terrible conflict. For over five months, more than a quarter of a million people were besieged and cut off from food and medical supplies as the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers blocked access to humanitarian convoys. I was asked about Iran and the way that it recruits people to fight in Syria. I will certainly follow that up—I had not seen that particular newspaper report, but I will make inquiries. In Aleppo, every hospital in the eastern part of the city was put out of action by air and artillery strikes—it is only the Assad regime and its backers that have access to air and artillery strikes. Hundreds of civilians were killed. As the UN has shown, in October last year, there were 400 casualties in that one month alone.
That is across the range; I am not picking out particular groups, rather I am adding to the descriptions given by noble Lords about the impact of what happened. Ultimately, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave the city. All this was justified by the regime and its backers in the name of fighting terrorism. We reject that explanation, and indeed even Russia’s own figures show that terrorists accounted for only a tiny fraction of Aleppo’s population. The real targets were the moderate opposition forces. Far from combating terrorism, the actions of the regime, Russia and Iran have served only to fuel it and worsen the suffering of the Syrian people.
In reality, the regime and its backers are responsible for the vast majority of deaths and civilian suffering in Syria. I am not going to go into the detail of what happened in the prison highlighted in the Amnesty report, but any form of torture is wrong. Tens of thousands of people disappeared from their families and the streets into Assad’s clutches, and goodness knows what happened to them. The fact is that the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have confirmed that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons. I understand that Daesh may have done so as well, but it is wrong for anyone to use them.
Even after the fall of eastern Aleppo, some 700,000 people remain in besieged areas across the whole of Syria, the vast majority of them trapped by pro-regime forces. The UK’s policy has always been to support a sustainable, Syrian-led political settlement to the conflict while doing everything we can to help and protect civilians in the country. We are not and never have dictated to the Syrian people what they should decide as to the outcome and what should happen to Assad, rather we have expressed our view that he has failed to protect his people. He has military backing from Russia and Iran, and without it he would be nowhere. Moreover, he does not care for his people as a leader should. That is our view and it is what we have always said. Any process to rebuild the country must be Syrian-led. I also take very much to heart the words of my noble friend Lady Nicholson. She said that even after a treaty has been signed, conflict remains afterwards, so it is about rebuilding. I agree with her that conflict remaining is what we should be thinking about today. There can be no military solution to the conflict; you can win a war, but you do not win a peace.
Recent developments have confirmed our assessment that the only way to bring back stability to Syria and thereby address the terror threat which is here and present with us today in the UK, and to allow the millions of refugees to return home, is a political settlement which ends the civil war so that we can then start to rebuild. As the Foreign Secretary has consistently said, it is our view that there can be no sustainable peace in Syria while Assad remains in power. Strange things have been said in the debate about the Foreign Secretary saying that Assad must stay. No, he has not. He has reaffirmed our belief that Assad cannot lead the country but that it is for the people of Syria to decide. That has underlined all our work throughout the peace negotiations. Those negotiations would include, in our view, the right of the 11 million people who have been displaced as a result of conflict to take part in free and fair elections. It may be some way off, but let us hope that we can all help Syria to reach that point.
My noble friend Lady Berridge raised in particular the question of displaced Christians and minorities. We are not in a position to track exactly how many and from which minority or faith have been moved and to where, mostly of course because as people have travelled and their groups have fragmented, no records have been kept either in the refugee camps or indeed where they have now settled in western Europe and beyond. As some noble Lords have reminded me on previous occasions, some people are scared to reveal their ethnicity and their minority status. We should think of that very carefully indeed when we think about rebuilding. I understand why my noble friend raises these points. It is right for noble Lords to ask about Syria surviving as an entire country. If Syria is to survive as an entire country, not with a little bit picked off by Assad because he likes that bit and does not like the rest but as a country in which Syrians are able to determine their own future, it needs to continue to adhere to its history of respecting different ethnicities and different religions. Over the last few months, it has been my privilege to meet senior faith leaders who represent a wide range of orthodox Christian faiths. They are very brave people. Having come here to give their views, they go back to Syria to tend to their flocks.
At the UN Security Council, we have consistently advocated for action to bring about an immediate ceasefire and enable humanitarian access for all those in need in Syria. At the Human Rights Council, the UK has led efforts to monitor human rights violations and abuses committed in Syria and to call for accountability for those responsible. My Whip is very kindly saying that I have only two minutes left. I think that I have a little more, but not much more. As she is my mentor, I normally obey her immediately.
In October we proposed, and secured the adoption of, a Human Rights Council resolution which mandated the UN commission of inquiry to investigate and report on violations and abuses during the siege and offensive against eastern Aleppo. We continue to support the important work of the UN commission of inquiry.
Humanitarian support was raised by many noble Lords. I say merely that it is vital that we all support that. I was very interested in what my noble friend Lady Morris said about the Business Task Force. That is a very practical way forward.
As regards recent progress, it was right for noble Lords to concentrate their minds on Astana and the progress that has been made there with the ceasefire. The ceasefire is not a political solution. It is valuable in itself. It would have been so much more valuable if, as a result, Assad had allowed humanitarian access, but still people are being starved. Those taking part in the Astana process recognise that the real progress is to be made by the Geneva talks. I welcome their recognition of that. The UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, has announced that he plans to reconvene talks between the Syrian parties in Geneva this month. We fully support those efforts.
I was also asked whether we should have an embassy in Damascus. I have answered that question in some detail on the Floor of the House. The simple answer is that we have no reason to trust Assad. To establish such an embassy would be a sign that we felt that he was the way forward. Our view is that he is not and that we must allow the Syrian people to make that decision. What decision the Syrians reach, we should then follow. It is as wrong to dictate to the Syrian people that they must keep Assad as it would be to dictate to them that they should get rid of him. We should listen to the people. We are a democracy. Let them be one.