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My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for instigating this extremely important and timely debate. As other noble Lords have said, as we speak, the deeply fragile and patchy ceasefire is holding, but the current truce, as with the war itself, is complex and highly precarious.
Since last May, I have been working for several days a month in Amman in Jordan as part of a team to assist with the ongoing political reform programme there—I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests. One of my colleagues in Jordan is Syrian. He is a brilliant and dynamic young man. Many of his family members remain in Damascus: his father is unable to contemplate leaving Syria as he is very seriously ill. My colleague frequently talks of his childhood growing up in Syria, with its highly educated population and one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The life that he describes is one of a typical Mediterranean way of life that was really not so different from the countries on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. It is through the eyes of my Syrian colleague that I have been beginning to understand the appalling human tragedy unrolling in his country.
In the EU and the UK, we have tended to view the civil war in Syria through the prism of the fight against ISIS-Daesh, of European foreign fighters and of a struggle against radicalisation. However, I believe that we would all now accept that the war in Syria is considerably more complex than that.
When you speak to Jordanian politicians about the war in neighbouring Syria, they are much more focused on the economic forces and influences guiding the war in the region, not least from Saudi Arabia. I have regularly been told in Jordan: “You need to ask who is funding Daesh”. In Russia, while visiting friends in January, I was struck by the scale of the anti-Turkish, and particularly anti-Erdogan, sentiment that now pervades the thinking of even moderate liberals in Russia. On Russian TV, programmes currently show their “heroic” fighter pilots in action over Syria, with patriotic music playing in the background as they describe how the Russians, rather than the West, are being successful in their strategy in Syria. The alliance of the Syrian Kurds with the Russian-backed Assad regime has undoubtedly added to the already high levels of tension between Ankara and Moscow.
It is impossible to separate the war in Syria from the current refugee crisis facing Turkey, Jordan and the Lebanon, as the two issues are inextricably linked. It is difficult to know the exact figures for Syrian refugees in each of those countries, but the burden on their already stretched economies is genuinely immense and potentially destabilising. For this reason, I commend the Government for their Syria donors’ conference in London last month. Whatever the precise figure for the number of refugees in Jordan, the strain on the Jordanian economy from having such a high percentage of its population as refugees from Syria, as well as from previous conflicts, is enormous. Recognition of this fact, as well as the financial assistance offered from the London conference, was extremely well received in Jordan.
At a conference that I attended two weeks ago in Istanbul on the refugee crisis, the Turkish participants stressed that they had not yet received the promised financial assistance from the EU to help with the approximately 2.7 million refugees in Turkey. This has been much covered in the media following yesterday’s EU-Turkey summit. However, I ask the Minister about the Government’s bilateral assistance for education for those countries with large numbers of Syrian refugees. I know that as part of the UK’s bilateral assistance to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, we have been assisting with educational programmes. Research repeatedly shows that the children of refugees who have not been educated are much more at risk of radicalisation, and risk becoming a lost generation. Given that Turkey has the largest number of Syrian refugees, do the Government intend to increase assistance to provide education for the children of Syrian refugees in Turkey in particular?
The subject of our debate is,
“prospects for a political solution to the civil war in Syria”.
It is difficult to be overly optimistic, but we must continue with the peace talks, as they continue to be our best hope for peace in the region. The current truce at least offers some respite to the Syrian population, who have been living through this conflict for five years.
We should also do more to explain the complexities of this war to the population in the UK and the wider EU. It will continue to be a deeply complex war, there are unlikely to be any quick-fix solutions and we need people to understand that. The refugee crisis will continue as long as there is war in the region. I fear that there is a very real danger that the conflict will slip further into a proxy war between the two increasingly autocratic leaders, Putin and Erdogan, both of whom can legitimately be accused of using the war and the refugee crisis to further their own political ends.
It is an explosive mixture of motives and events, and it is the ordinary Syrian people who continue to suffer. We owe it to them to keep trying to find a solution.