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Syria — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:05 pm on 8th March 2016.

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Photo of Lord Williams of Baglan Lord Williams of Baglan Crossbench 8:05 pm, 8th March 2016

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry is to be commended for obtaining this debate. It is timely because, for the first time since the commencement of the conflict in early 2011, there are signs that a fragile cessation of hostilities is taking hold, and we all hope that it will be successful. It is too early to be overly optimistic, and it might be useful to remind ourselves of Winston Churchill’s remarks after the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, when the British Army secured its first substantial victory over Nazi Germany, that we are not at beginning of the end, but we may be at the end of the beginning.

With this in mind, I take the opportunity to salute the efforts of my former colleagues in the UN, especially Staffan di Mistura who, with his team, has worked tirelessly to bring this ceasefire about. I also commend the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which has endeavoured in the most difficult and dangerous of circumstances to bring relief to the hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced within the country as well as in huge numbers in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. History will surely recognise their generosity when Europe floundered amid recriminations not worthy of traditions that had hitherto welcomed those escaping wars and oppression.

As each year of the Syrian war has passed, the options have become worse and the choices more, not less, difficult. In 2011, it seemed that President Assad might join President Mubarak and Colonel Gaddafi as another dictator heading for the exit, and there was no apparent cost in saying that he had to go, as the Prime Minister said on many occasions. But on the ground, the situation has deteriorated and Europe has shown itself less and less able and willing to deal with the consequences, let alone the root causes, of this savage war.

As with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, we have fatally underestimated the dangers inherent in the situation. Why were we so taken aback by the rapid rise of so-called Islamic State—Daesh—which has further complicated an already hideous war? Then we were further surprised by Russia’s dramatic entry into the war, which has radically changed the landscape, ensuring that Russia will be one of the principal arbiters of Syria’s future. If there is any doubt in that regard, I refer noble Lords to the widely reported telephone conversation between President Putin and President Obama on 14 February. In a real sense, and at least in the Middle East, the bipolar world reminiscent of the Cold War has returned. The consequences of this are clear, given the cards that Russia holds; namely, that there cannot be any early exit of President Assad, but we can and should hope and plan for a meaningful transition. That, at least, we must guarantee for the Syrian people. To do less would not be worthy of a permanent member of the Security Council. In this regard, can the Minister say whether this was discussed in the recent summit between the Prime Minister and President Hollande of France?

In previous conflicts where I served with the UN, evidence of war crimes was referred to tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, where I gave evidence against indicted war criminals such as President Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadžic. There and in Cambodia, where I also served, we took it for granted that there must be justice when such terrible violations of human rights take place. What steps are the Government taking in that regard, given the widespread evidence of massive human rights violations in the Syrian war? Surely, as a permanent member of the Security Council, we have a huge responsibility in that regard. Specifically, could the Minister perhaps advise the Government of the necessity to consider seconding or otherwise making available forensic experts to the appropriate UN bodies?

We all hope that the UN may be able to strengthen the existing cessation of hostilities to make it a real ceasefire and perhaps a prelude to a political settlement. That will not be easy. Making peace, the great German statesman Bismarck is reputed to have warned, is like making sausages: you do not always want to see the ingredients. It will be a painful process. Finally, in that regard, I hope the Government are aware that Syria has a vice-president, a secular Sunni, Farouk al-Sharaa, who is widely presumed to be under house arrest by the regime. He could yet be an important figure in the transition that inevitably must come in Syria.