My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this very important debate, and his very moving opening speech. Violations of human rights by President Assad and his Government are widely reported and condemned, and certainly not condoned by me. Yet many Syrians and people in this country are concerned by the one-sided nature of such condemnations.
I have visited Syria twice at the invitation of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. I and colleagues met faith leaders, including the Grand Mufti; representatives of diverse political parties, including opposition parties; internationally renowned artists, musicians and intellectuals; NGOs; internally displaced persons; and members of local communities in Damascus, Latakia, Saidnaya, Maaloula and Aleppo. Everyone to whom we spoke expressed deep sadness and often anger at the devastating impact of British foreign policy, highlighting, for example, the horrendous effect of sanctions on the humanitarian crisis. These sanctions greatly harm civilians, for whom it is very difficult to obtain employment, adequate supplies of food, medicines and medical equipment.
The crisis is highlighted in the Lancet:
“The economic losses of the country at the end of 2014 stood at US$143.8 billion, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty, of whom a third … were in abject poverty, unable to obtain even basic food items … Life expectancy has been reduced from 75.9 years in 2010 … to 55.7 years in 2014—a loss of 20 years … The cost of basic food items has risen six-fold since 2010, although it varies regionally. With the exception of drugs for cancer and diabetes, Syria was 95% self-sufficient in terms of drug production before the war. This has virtually collapsed as have many hospitals and primary health-care centres. Economic sanctions have not removed the President: as with other countries under siege … Sanctions are among the biggest causes of suffering for the people of Syria and a major factor perpetuating the conflict”.
Many Syrians are also deeply concerned by the continued commitment of outside powers to imposing regime change rather than listening to what the Syrian people want. Her Majesty’s Government are wedded to the mantra that President Assad must go. This is despite the fact that his military capacity, supported by Russia, has achieved the virtual expulsion of ISIS and related Islamist forces and, as there is no moderate armed opposition, his removal would result in inevitable chaos. To quote three former British ambassadors to Syria, who wrote a letter to the Times, forced regime change,
“risks creating a chaotic situation similar to, or perhaps even worse than, those in Iraq and Libya”.
The ambassadors urged the UK Government,
“to respect the right of the Syrian people as a whole to choose their own future”,
a point emphasised so appropriately by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. All those whom we met believe that Syrians should have that right to determine their own future and elect their own leadership, without foreign interference. As the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch told us:
“No regime in the world is perfect. Of course, we want reforms. But change has to come from the Syrians, for the Syrians”.
Another cause for widespread concern is the British Government’s financial support for so-called moderate opposition forces, spending as much as £60 million of taxpayers’ money per year on groups that oppose Assad’s regime. However, we heard time and again, including from those previously opposed to Assad, that opposition groups are now dominated by jihadist militants. The vast majority of these groups have extremist Islamist ideologies, with no intention of creating democracy in Syria.
The UK has Special Forces on the Jordanian border and in the Al-Tanf enclave. These forces are ostensibly assigned to anti-ISIS missions; in reality, their mission is believed to involve the training and equipping of anti-Assad forces. The UK also has officers embedded in headquarters in coalition-occupied Syria. How is this compatible with assurances given to Parliament in 2015 about our forces’ mission being limited to fighting ISIS and there being no ground presence? This issue has certainly not been clarified by the Answers given to my Parliamentary Questions. Will the Minister clarify the situation regarding the legitimacy of the involvement of UK military forces in the war in Syria without any invitation from the elected Government? The response given in the Answer to my Parliamentary Question was that the legal case for having a British military presence in Syria is based on “the self-defence of Iraq”. This seems highly problematic. It is surely a pernicious doctrine to claim that a mandate to act in one country automatically gives an entitlement to take military action in a neighbouring country.
Can the Minister also explain the apparent gross double standards of Her Majesty’s Government’s policies? For example, they are promoting trade with Sudan, whose president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and whose Government are responsible for the deaths of 3 million people, including their genocidal policies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile—I have witnessed those myself—and the displacement of 5 million people, while still perpetrating gross violations of human rights in Sudan. However, Her Majesty’s Government will not even consider opening an embassy in Damascus.
I have received a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for which I thank him very much, but I am afraid it raises a number of questions. For example, I was puzzled to read that, “the people of Eastern Ghouta are desperate for a break from the regime”, presumably the Assad regime. This needs to be seen in the context of their experience of life under the jihadists in Eastern Ghouta, where there are widespread reports of food and medical assistance being withheld from civilians by the jihadists, of civilians saying they were held as human shields, of the execution of anyone who opposed the militants, and of the widespread theft of property by those militants. Is this really the choice that the people of Eastern Ghouta would prefer? It is not, according to those who have recently escaped.
There has also been widespread condemnation of the Syrian army’s offensives against Eastern Ghouta. However, these also need to be seen in context. Since 2012, an estimated 11,000 civilians have been killed in Damascus as a result of shelling from those rebel-held areas, including 1,500 children. Around 30,000 have been maimed and disabled. I have not seen this toll of death and injury in Damascus reported in the UK media. Ninety per cent of Eastern Ghouta is now in the hands of the Syrian Government. The main remaining group of Islamist militants is the Saudi proxy, Army of Islam, based in the town of Douma. It is being offered conditional surrender. There remains another small pocket in the south-west, in Yarmouk, controlled by a few hundred ISIS fighters. These are not moderate opposition forces but jihadist militants with extremist ideologies.
Her Majesty’s Government and the UK media have also failed to acknowledge the policies adopted by the Syrian Government to mitigate the tragedies of war, such as the maintenance of humanitarian corridors for the delivery of aid and the exit of civilians. They did this in eastern Aleppo and 75,000 civilians have availed themselves of this facility in Eastern Ghouta. They have also given permission for militants to leave with their families. That is in stark contrast to the fate of Syrian army soldiers captured by jihadists, who are regularly slaughtered.
The initiatives of Dr Ali Haidar, a former prominent opponent of President Assad and now the Minister for National Reconciliation, are also totally ignored by western media. Although at great risk, those involved in reconciliation initiatives have facilitated more than 1,000 local truces, bringing peace to hundreds of towns and villages. Her Majesty’s Government often applaud the work of the White Helmets. I regretfully have to say that there is a lot of evidence to prove that they are not always the heroes of humanitarian aid and peace, as widely portrayed. There is now an abundance of evidence to indicate their support for jihadists in many parts of the country and of their complicity in many atrocities. Civilians who have recently escaped from Eastern Ghouta report that the White Helmets did not help civilians but worked with the jihadists, including on the production of propaganda footage for western media.
The letter written by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, also said that “only one side in this conflict has deployed all the machinery of war, including chemical weapons”. Yet despite claims from the jihadis about the Assad regime’s use of chlorine, which have repeatedly been highlighted by western media and Governments, there has not been one recorded instance verified by a credible witness such as the UN. However, in areas that have been liberated, jihadi workshops used for making chlorine bombs have been found. The letter also states that “overwhelming responsibility for the heart breaking human suffering … lies with the Assad regime”. As I have already said, one cannot condone atrocities committed by the regime, but responsibility for human suffering must predominantly be attributed to the insurgency of ISIS and other Islamist groups who have perpetrated genocidal policies and atrocities on a massive scale, including abductions into sexual slavery, torture and beheadings. I will never forget weeping with a Muslim woman in Latakia who had been forced to flee her home by Islamist fighters after she had had to watch them behead her husband and son. She said, “War is tragic and people die from shelling on both sides. But on one side, you die from shellings, on the other side, you die from shellings and beheadings, and we don’t want the beheadings”.
The UK Government’s current approach risks oversimplifying a very complex war. Moving forward, it is crucial that the people of Syria be allowed to decide their own future without any external political agendas or conditions, so that the country can recover and maintain and preserve its plurality and diversity as a place of freedom of faith, deep culture and historic civilisation.