My Lords, just as Syrian territory has become a mosaic of every brand of political and religious extremism and operational terrain for barbarous practices, neither the USA nor Europe is in the mood to intervene decisively on the ground or in the air—shades of Iraq and Afghanistan. So in parentheses, the tragedy of at least one of the Iraq campaigns lies not so much in its moral deficit but in its inadequate preparation and execution. Frankly, can the overthrow of that most savage and inhuman regime in Baghdad, fielding one of the largest armies in the world, be held to be a deep moral error?
In the case of Syria it may well be that by now the choice between the brutal Assad regime and some heinous elements from the terror scene must be extremely difficult, but had the West reacted much earlier, before Islamic fanatics crossed the porous borders of Syria, we might have avoided the present, most distressing, situation.
I fully agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, that this war in Syria is a war of religious sects within the larger frame of the great faith of Islam—probably one of the bitterest fights between the sects. However, it is even more complicated than that, because both the Sunnis and the Shia are not united. The Sunnis are divided into those who take their cue from the House of Saud and from some of the Emirates, and the Wahhabis; the others, such as al-Qaeda and other splinter groups, are much more radical, and indeed hate the guardians of the holy places.
Among the Shia are the Alawites and the pro-Assad faction, and the much more powerful and decisively important followers and liegemen of Iran, which of course wishes to become the great power in the Middle East.
When aspects of existential threat to a peaceful neighbour are implicit in the present situation in Syria, the civilised world must understand and not decry the initiatives of a seriously threatened country. I refer to the Israeli air strikes on a research institute, storage facilities and convoys of the most sophisticated, up-to-date rockets on their way from Iran through Syria to Lebanon and destined for Hezbollah, a movement which, in word and deed, stands for the elimination of the state of Israel.
One of the grim leitmotifs of the political and religious wars on Syrian soil is the ambition of Iran to thwart an international campaign of economic boycott and possible military action by establishing a second front in Lebanon by raining tens of thousands of rockets on Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and in the mean time amassing an arsenal of 60,000 rockets that are meant to have a harassing and demoralising effect on Israel’s citizens. When the stakes are so high, sniping criticism of the Israeli Government from the outside world, some of it full of bile and bias, is at best unfair and at worst irresponsible. Israel’s intervention renders a signal service to the cause of peace by weakening Assad’s strongest partner and arms procurer, Iran.
The recent visits of President Obama’s Secretaries of State and Defence to the region may hold out a flicker of hope and faith in the resumption of bilateral talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Enemies of a two-state solution in the Arab world have gained ground since the Arab spring because neither the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egyptian Government, with their links to Hamas, nor restive forces on the West Bank reluctant to drop sweeping preconditions make compromise easy. However, there is a more realistic outlook in the Gulf emirates and above all in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. On the other side, recent Israeli elections have brought new forces to the fore which consider a two-state solution the only desirable outcome. If Obama were able to rival President Clinton’s solid personal engagement, and if Europe seconded him, the chances of success would grow exponentially. In parentheses, ironically and sadly, the possibility of Europe playing a part comes at a time when we are discussing whether we should be in or out of the European Union.
For peace talks to succeed we could now have spokesmen on both sides who are filled with good faith. In Mr Netanyahu’s Government, Mrs Livni and Mr Lapid, a rising star, are passionately committed to an honourable agreement. The Palestinian Authority should make use of that remarkable man, former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who with President Abbas’s help could be reinstated. The Arab League, Saudis and Jordanians can be trusted to opt for peace, but it is a challenge for all of us throughout the world to work for reconciliation and to avoid offensive and provocative initiatives.
In conclusion, I will express my deep regret that the great scientist and humanist, Stephen Hawking, felt that he should boycott a scientific conference in Israel under the auspices of the one man who has always stood for peace and close co-operation between Israel and all her Arab neighbours: President Shimon Peres. Academic boycott strengthens the enemies of free speech and, in its radical forms, one must classify these associations of academics, certain human rights groups, trade unions and professional organisations as either innocent “useful idiots” or intentional handmaidens to the enemies of freedom.