House of Lords Debate 4th July 2017: Middle East (IRC Report) – Motion to Take Note

11 July 2017

On the 4th July, the House of Lords debated actions in Syria, with Lord Howell of Guildford asking the ‘House [to take] note of the Report from the International Relations Committee The Middle East: Time for a New Realism‘.

In the debate, Baroness Cox addressed the House with the following statement:

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for introducing this debate, highlighting many issues of profound importance in a violent and fragile region in which countries innocent civilians are suffering.

I wish to focus on Syria. During recent visits, everyone whom we met, including representatives of different faith communities and professionals, highlighted four concerns.

The first is the UK Government‘s commitment to regime change and the removal of President Assad. It is impossible to condone violations of human rights, including the use of torture, by President Assad and other Middle Eastern Governments, but everyone to whom we spoke now sees President Assad as the only effective bulwark against ISIS and its related militias. These include people active in opposition who took part in the demonstrations that erupted into the current war. There is widespread fear that any regime change and the removal of Assad would lead to far greater evil – another Libya or Iraq.

In Lattakia, approximately 1 million people have been forced to flee from their homes, many having suffered atrocities perpetuated by ISIS and related groups. I met many of them, among them a Muslim who had been forced to flee from her home by ISIS. Weeping, she embraced me and told me how her husband and brother and their sons had been beheaded in front of her. She said, ‘In war, people on both sides are killed by shelling. But on one side, you die from shells; on the other, you die from shells and beheadings, and we don’t want the beheadings. The Government protects us from these’. Another person put the position very vividly, and his feelings were typical of many whom we met. Her said, ‘I never voted for Assad. I always called for reforms and change. But now I would die for him’. Among those most fearful or regime change are religious minorities and women. Even those most critical of President Assad acknowledge his commitment to the protection of religious minorities and to the promotion of women’s rights. These approaches are to be respected.

The second concern is the UK Government’s role in the war. To many, it seems that the UK is now keener to strike Syrian Government forces than destroy ISIS – which should surely be the priority. Robert Fisk, in The Independent, used virtually identical words regarding US policy. Britain is reportedly supporting and training so called ‘moderate rebels’. Many are active members of radical groups, some of whose fighters are among the most ruthless in the Middle East. The UK has also effectively given air support to ISIS by apparently striking pro-Assad forces on more than one occasion.

I say ‘apparently’ because it is difficult to be certain; the US, UK and other Allied forces operate under the appellation ‘coalition’. However, in December 2016 the collation admitted killing 92 Syrian soldiers in Deir ez-Zor, where they were defencing that city against ISIS, and the British Government have not denied participating in that appalling action. More attacks were committed recently against forces allied to the Syrian Army in the Tanaf area on the Syrian/Iraqi border, allegedly to protect British and other forces working with anti-Assad militants – a mission for which British forces had absolutely no mandate from Parliament or the UN. Many civilians were killed in these attacks.

I ask the Minister for his response to deep and widespread concerns that the UK has no legal grounds whatever to intervene militarily in Syria. There is no UN mandate to do so, there has been no request from the legitimate Government of Syria to intervene, and the UK has not been attacked by Syria. In addition, I will ask two related questions: what has UK taxpayers’ money done for peace in Syria, and will the Government provide public accountability for the use of taxpayers’ money in supporting rebel groups in Syria?

The third concern is the US/UK response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad in April. To recapitulate, on 4 April a severe aerial attack occurred in Idlib, the stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Syria. Reports emerged of the possible use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces. Within two days, without proper investigation, the American retaliated with 59 Tomahawk missiles, hitting an airbase used in the fight against ISIS near the government-controlled city of Homs. The UK Government praised President Trump’s response, despite the fact that questions remain about the details of the initial attack.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons produced a report concluding that sarin was used but no conclusions could be reached concerning the dispersal mechanism – in other words, whether it was delivered by a bomb. The OPCW report itself has many flaws. The team of inspectors were unable to visit the site, as it is controlled by the jihadists. The team took at face value evidence provided to it by people and organisations linked to Al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra. The report also pays scant attention to disconfirming evidence, such as the fact that video evidence shows responders exposing themselves to materials which, if they had traces of sarin, would have killed them.

Moreover, a team from Medecins Sans Frontieres, treating victims from Khan Sheikhoun at a clinic 60 miles to the North, reported that, ‘eight patients showed symptoms … consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds’. MSF also visited other hospitals that have received victims and found that patients there ‘smelled of bleach, suggesting they had been exposed to chlorine’.

In other words, the evidence suggested that more than one chemical was responsible for the symptoms observed, which would not have been the case had the Syrian air force dropped a sarin bomb, which had no percussive or ignition power to trigger secondary explosions. The range of symptoms is consistent with a release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and organic phosphates, used in many fertilisers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.

Yet, despite the lack of firm evidence, the President of the United States has warned the Syrian Government against a repeat of the April incident, threatening a devastating strike. Our Defence Secretary applauded President Trump’s threat and our Foreign Secretary continues the allegations that Assad bombed using sarin. These threats and allegations by the United Kingdom are deeply disturbing. Surely the priority should be defeating ISIS and related terrorists and protecting civilians rather than striking those forces which are attacking ISIS and kindred jihadi groups. Moreover, President Trump’s threat is causing widespread, profound terror among civilians throughout Syria and can provide the jihadis with every incentive to stage a fake attack, with civilian victims, in order to precipitate the US strike that President Trump so unwisely promised.

Fourthly, I return to humanitarian needs and the effect of sanctions, which are crippling the state and preventing it from providing essential supplies to its people. Syria is struggling to get machinery, raw materials, fuel and basic necessities such as flour and medicines. This is causing great suffering in innocent civilians. When we met the Syrian doctor’s society in Aleppo, it emphasised the disastrous effect of sanctions on the procurement of essential medicines and equipment such as prostheses, exacerbating the suffering of innocent civilians.

The effect of sanctions on food supplies is also having a detrimental effect on attempts to encourage people who have been displaced by ISIS to return to their homes once they have been liberated. The effect of food shortages was graphically expressed by a community leader from the predominately Christian town of Maaloula. This town has been captured by ISIS, which perpetrated atrocities, including martyrdom of Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was subsequently liberated and he is trying to encourage citizens to return to their homes. This is difficult because the lack of food. The situation regarding food shortages is exacerbated by the fact that much of the wheat-growing land in Syria is under ISIS control. This community leader told us, ‘if you don’t die from the bombing and the bullets, you die from beheadings. If you don’t die from beheadings, you die from starvation thanks to sanctions’.

Given the continuing suffering of the people of Syria, exacerbated by UK foreign policy, I was encouraged to read the committee’s conclusion: ‘British confusion and disarray in Syria is a reflection of the contradictions in international policy on President Bashar al-Assad, which must be rethought.  The objective of displacing Assad as a prerequisite of any settlement, with the current means and policy, has proved unachievable. Despite the chemical attack and the recent escalation of military conflict, Assad with Russian support, remains in power … There are no good options available in Syria but the recent chemical attack, the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, with the potential to destabilise the EU and countries of the Middle East with refugees, requires the UK, and international community, to redouble its efforts to achieve a negotiated solution’.

I emphasise the fact that deep concern of the UK’s policy regarding Syria is not new. Before Christmas last year, three former UK ambassadors to Syria signed a letter to the Times in which they expressed their criticism of the UK position regarding regime change. Will the UK Government consider establishing an embassy in Syria? It seems utterly unjustifiable to deny this when the UK has embassies in North Korea, with its deplorable human rights record and current concerns on nuclear weapons, an in Khartoum, despite the fact that the President of Sudan has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and is continuing genocidal policies against his own civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  

Finally, I and many others were deeply disappointed by the Minister’s response when winding up the debate on the gracious Speech. It was repetition of the Government’s mantra commitment to regime change and the displacement or President Assad. However, the situation in Syria has changed fundamentally and the committee’s report has recognised these changes, making well-argued recommendations for changes in UK policy. I therefore conclude by urging the Government to respond positively to the well-reasoned and significant recommendations promoted in this important report.


For the whole debate, click here

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