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My Lords, we are grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry for initiating this debate. Some of his remarks towards the end, about the need to act, were very apposite. When we were recalled from our holidays three years ago when there was a danger of Assad waging chemical warfare on his people, I remember saying at the time that we should have intervened then. The question was not whether to intervene but when, and the later we intervened, the weaker our position would be.
I have also argued many times in your Lordships’ House that the problem of Syria is not a problem of Syria alone but a general problem of the Ottoman Empire, as it used to be. The problems of Syria and Iraq are intertwined, and what has happened is a sort of general war within Muslim society in the Arab Middle East, with the added complication that the Iranians are now also intervening, because it has become a Shia-Sunni war as well.
Ideally, one would have a regional conference on establishing peace in the Middle East, in which these many interconnected problems, including Syria, ISIS, Kurdistan—the movement to establish Kurdistan has got further, thanks to the civil war, than it ever has before—and of course the instability in Iraq. All these problems are intertwined, and I do not know that we are going to do ourselves very much good, or even build a lasting solution, by concentrating on Syria and Assad alone. Our problem of course has been that we do not like Assad. We wish that there was a viable national opposition to him, but it has been mixed up with the likelihood of jihadists from al-Qaeda and elsewhere—at the start, ISIS was not as powerful as it is now.
In the situation we face, although we have lost quite a lot of time, it is still possible to say that we should not just concentrate on the problem of Syria and Assad, although that is a central problem. There will be an unstable peace if, for example, we do not deal with the problem of Kurdistan, which touches on the territories of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Turkey’s role is of course vital here, because it faces a lot of pressure from Russia and other forces.
I would still urge Her Majesty’s Government, along with our allies, to see to it that we have comprehensive negotiations on the various problems in the Middle East, especially to try to pacify the situation in Syria. That may, inevitably, involve the continued presence of Assad, but with some recognition that there is a legitimate opposition which has been fighting him, and perhaps the partition of Syria—I do not know—but it must also take up the problem of Kurdistan and peace in Iraq. Those would be vital tasks for us to perform.
Because we did not act quickly enough, Russia is much more involved now that it was when the question of chemical warfare first arose. Neither we nor the United States intervened, and our reluctance to go out and fight there has meant a much longer civil war and much more misery.
I know that, because of the Iraq war, we are all reluctant to go to intervene with boots located in the war, but our reluctance to act has made the war longer, more violent and more difficult to solve. However, given that is where we are, it is very important that we take every possible opportunity to propose an interconnected general solution to the problems of the former Ottoman Empire. We created the problem 100 years ago, and we have to solve it.