My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for initiating this debate at a time of very important developments in the war in Syria. The Syrian war has already lasted longer than the First World War. It is a conflict that has claimed over 250,000 lives, injured a million people and caused the biggest movement of people since the Second World War.
One commentator has suggested that the conflict contains almost every national security threat that we can think of: it is a terrorist safe haven; it has opened up new fronts for Hezbollah; it has allowed training camps for western jihadis to flourish; there is the potential use of chemical and biological weapons; we have the potential for rogue states developing; and we have seen sectarian violence, the marginalisation of reformers and moderates, a massive flow of refugees, a humanitarian crisis and destabilisation across the Middle East, and the growing prospect of regional war.
After so many years, as the right reverend Prelate suggested, we have the first glimmer of hope with the first cessation of hostilities in years, although it is important to note that the jihadist groups of the al-Nusra Front and IS are not included in this cessation of hostilities. This represents the first step in the de-escalation of the conflict but it is a long way from being a formal ceasefire. It is a loose commitment to take further steps, but it is just that—the first step. There is no road map for implementation towards a long-lasting peace, but at this point it is easier to agree to a series of modest truces than to implement a broader plan. The benefits, of course, are great, particularly for the civilian population who have been living through the horrors of this war, and at last we are seeing humanitarian assistance gaining access to areas that have not seen help from the outside world in years.
However, we have a long way to go before we get to the end of this conflict. Let us not forget that the ruling party in Syria was a party to this cessation of hostilities, but there is a fundamental problem that still exists, in that the opposition parties cannot contemplate a future with Bashar al-Assad involved in any way. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria found that 70% of those who left Syria were fleeing from Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who killed 180,000 civilians in the years 2011-15. They still see Assad as a greater threat than ISIS. In fact, it is essential that despite the brutality and inhumanity of ISIS we swallow the uncomfortable reality that many Syrians are more content with ISIS and what they perceive as Sunni protection than they are with the idea of living under Iranian Shia influence and any form of continuation of the Assad regime.
On the other hand, it is worth reflecting on the words of Peter Ford, another former UK ambassador to Damascus, who has described UK policy on Syria as “unthinking”. He laments the lack of understanding in the UK that the weakness of the rebels in Syria means that the alternative to Assad is IS. He questioned whether decimating the Syrian Army would make life harder for the Islamist extremists, who are probably the bigger and more atrocious threat. It was interesting to note that the noble Lord, Lord Wright, hinted at that in his contribution.
As we have seen in several examples in the Middle East and north Africa, it is easy to destroy or destabilise a state but much more difficult to create or rebuild one. Surely we have learnt from our interventions in Iraq and Libya that we must put as much effort into the peace as we do into war, and it is worth questioning to what extent it is the FCO or the military that is leading in terms of how we respond in the Middle East. The fact is that in our intervention in Libya we spent 13 times more on bombing that country than we did on rebuilding it after the conflict. That eight-month intervention cost £320 million, yet we spent only £25 million on reconstruction. Is it any wonder the country descended into chaos? A rebalancing of diplomatic activity and military activity is imperative, and we must not repeat our mistakes in Iraq and Libya in Syria. It was gratifying to see that post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria was central to the Motion put before the House of Commons last year.
An isolationist foreign policy is not the answer for the UK in the Middle East. Syria and its destruction has become a direct threat to us and we have a moral obligation to help the people affected by the crisis. We cannot simply stand by and wait for a political solution to emerge. As my noble friend Lord Judd suggested, the local actors must be central to the solution. There does not seem to be any strategy for this country nor this region and there is a need for a complete reassessment of British and EU foreign and security policy. Piecemeal and ad hoc “measures” cannot replace a comprehensive, long-term foreign policy strategy, which has been lacking in recent years.
There is a danger that Syria will become the theatre for great power rivalry in the world, with countries on both sides supporting or opposing President al-Assad and the groups of rebels that are ranged against him. We cannot afford to see a further escalation in this conflict, because the stakes and the consequences are too great. Ultimately, there is only one way to resolve the situation in Syria, which is to ensure a political resolution to the conflict. It is essential that we focus all our diplomatic efforts on this as the threat of the whole region unravelling and the potential for much wider global tension increases every minute that this conflict continues.