My Lords, I normally speak only on countries where I have on-the-ground experience, which is not the case with Syria. However, I feel compelled to convey concerns expressed by people for whom I have profound respect, currently living and working in Syria, witnessing and enduring the horrific situation there.
First, I refer to Damascus-based Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch. Speaking to the very respected charity Aid to the Church in Need, he argued that military intervention by the West against the Assad regime in Syria would be disastrous, stressing that, despite the ongoing conflict, reconciliation initiatives are still viable and should be the top priority. While condemning chemical weapon attacks, he highlights concerns about foreign fighters coming into Syria. He says:
“Many people are coming from outside Syria to fight in the country. These fighters are fuelling fundamentalism and Islamism … and the problem is compounded by the flow of arms into the country … The extremists are wanting to fuel hatred between the Christians and Muslims … and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace”.
Of course, not peace at any price, but serious consideration of alternative measures, as emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord West, and other noble Lords, and in accordance with paragraph 4(ii) of the paper on the UK Government’s legal position, which states that,
“it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”.
The patriarch, who last week narrowly escaped a bomb blast close to his home in Damascus, has described the threat of western armed intervention as
“a tragedy—for the whole country and the whole Middle East”.
He highlights the implications for the suffering of Syrian civilians, including the 450,000 Christians now either displaced within the country or forced to flee as refugees abroad. Describing his country until recently as a,
“beacon of hope for Christianity in the Middle East”,
he highlights growing concern that Christianity is being eradicated from the very place Christ and his first disciples once knew as their own.
I shall now move beyond the plight of Christians to the plight of all civilians in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, which has been highlighted by CAFOD, working with partners inside Syria and neighbouring countries. In Syria, as other noble Lords have reminded your Lordships, nearly 100,000 people have been killed since the beginning of conflict in March 2011, many of them women and children, with 5,000 deaths every month. There are 6.8 million people in need of assistance, including 4.25 million internally displaced—a figure that has doubled since the beginning of 2013. Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, the long-term repercussions of the conflict are huge, with an estimated economic cost of more than $48 billion, which is more than 80% of GDP.
One-third of all homes—1.2 million houses—have been damaged or destroyed. Livelihoods have been ruined, healthcare, education systems and the economy have collapsed, and food is scarce. The civil and social fabric is in ruins. Recovery and reconciliation will be deeply challenging. Reconstruction costs will be huge. As has been pointed out by other noble Lords, there are also regional implications for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and north Africa, as 1.9 million refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, exacerbating economic, political and sectarian tensions, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan, which bear the brunt of the huge refugee crises. An international military response will increase spillover of the humanitarian crisis. Official Lebanese government figures for
CAFOD’s partners both inside Syria and across the region are clear that the only lasting solution is a political settlement through dialogue and diplomacy. Father Simon Faddoul, president of Caritas Lebanon, has emphasised that a potential military response,
“exposes thousands of people to more dangers. Further wars have never been the answer; political might and influence however have given better and more peaceful results. We pray that peace will reign”.
It must also be emphasised that it is not only Christians who are suffering from the violence. Many Muslim groups and communities are also being attacked and are living in constant fear.
For many years, despite a despotic regime, Syria ensured freedoms for diverse faith traditions and for women which were enviable in comparison with its neighbours in the Middle East. There are real fears that any replacement regime, almost inevitably ruled or influenced by Islamists, will reduce Syria to the potentially irreversible destruction of religious freedoms and women’s rights. I therefore share the profound concerns about a military intervention that could unleash even more suffering. Bringing the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice must be the priority, not supporting, either directly or indirectly, militias that are also committing heinous and egregious violations of human rights. Adding to the number of hapless refugees and escalating the conflict seems to be neither rational nor productive. It will simply add to the totality of human misery, and certainly the first to suffer will be the minorities in Syria.