The Bishop of Wakefield speaks in debate on situation in Syria and the Middle East

The Bishop of Wakefield spoke during the debate on Syria and the Middle East, highlighting the increasing complexity of the conflict in Syria, the difficulties facing outside countries such as the UK in responding appropriately and effectively, the huge displacement of the Syrian population, and the need to invest significant resources in the region to facilitate a peaceful solution to the conflict. He asked the Government to support efforts to bring about reconciliation between two key actors in the conflict – Iran and Saudi Arabia, and called for support of civil society within the refugee populations, particularly in Lebanon and Jordan.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her characteristically clear introduction to this debate and for setting the context so succinctly.
In December 2002, I was called to 10 Downing Street for a clandestine meeting with the Prime Minister’s appointments secretary to talk about the possibility of my going to the See of Wakefield. When I arrived, I was terrified that my cover might be blown, since television cameras surrounded us and, indeed, I followed Andrew Marr through the security gate. The cameras were, of course, not for us but for President Assad, who was paying an official visit to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Indeed, there was even talk at the time of persuading the Queen to confer a knighthood on the Syrian leader.

I begin there because we now, as they say, find ourselves in a very different place. For some time, the UK, alongside other western countries, has been backing the so-called Syrian national coalition, an association of most unlikely bedfellows whose only cause for unity is opposition to the Assad regime. That is, even with the typical vagaries of international affairs, an extraordinary volte face.

The complexities facing Western nations in looking to future policy on Syria are greater still. For since the intervention in Libya, originally styled as a humanitarian crusade, became fairly swiftly a policy aimed at regime change, international relationships have shifted significantly. It was of course that policy change, more than anything else, which assured the West of a more than usually tricky interface with Russia in any attempt to bring the tragic bloodshed in Syria to a swift conclusion. That conflict has already claimed more than 130,000 lives—someone said earlier that it was now 140,000.

Last summer, with the discovery of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the western nations were faced with another critical decision. Did the enormity of that terrible abuse of human rights and inhumanitarian behaviour deserve a powerful intervention from the USA, the UK and other North Atlantic allies? We all know the denouement of that crisis, and many of us may be proud that this Parliament, by offering us the opportunity to debate the issue, was almost certainly instrumental in making certain that no western nation intervened in that way at that time.

Where does that leave us now, as this tragic war enters its fourth year? First, all analysis of civil wars suggests that wholesale military intervention from outside the country will lengthen the war. Indeed, as we continue to see, even Iraq has still not thrown off the shackles of the internecine strife with which both this country and the USA engaged so controversially just over 10 years ago. To answer my question as to where that leaves us is itself fraught. It does not leave us, as some simplistic analyses suggest, with either Assad or al-Qaeda. Nor does it leave us with any clear sense that our support for the Syrian national coalition has done anything to bring closure to the conflict, or even any clear resolution of the situation which continues to claim so many lives. It does, however, leave us with a displacement of people on a terrifying scale. In January 2014, the United Nations published figures showing that within Syria, 6.5 million people are already internally displaced and in desperate need. A further 242,000 are under siege, with more than 2.4 million people in external refugee camps.

With more than 2 million refugees, that indicates that the future of Syria lies to a large degree outside the country. That is true not only because of displaced persons but because of the vested interest of powerful nations from both the East and the West. Russia, China and Iran all have interests outside Syria which need to be included in the equation.

Let me return to my question again: where does that leave us now? It does not point us to a religious conflict—despite the destruction, since the beginning of the conflict, of so many of the ancient Christian Syrian communities: Assyrians, Melkhites and Antiochene Orthodox. Of course, the suffering of Christians pales into insignificance when compared with the suffering of the wider Syrian community as a whole. No, this is not a religious but a political conflict, and the only positive way forward must be a political, humanitarian and diplomatic strategy. As we have already heard, the challenges are immense, but the fact that Syria’s future lies to such a degree outside its own borders puts a great moral responsibility on countries like our own.

With that in mind, where might Her Majesty’s Government find leverage? There is no doubt that leverage within the regime in Syria and, indeed, within the myriad of opposition groups, is very limited. I have already hinted at the problems of unqualified support for the Syrian national coalition. It is almost, by definition, a western-selected coalition and therefore does not represent widespread support on the ground within Syria. So, to take a rather contrasting approach, removing international support both for the regime and for opposition groups is a policy which may lead to more possibilities of leverage from the West. Russia, China and Iran’s external interests were alluded to earlier. Removing international support in both directions—that is for the regime and opposition groups—will, of course, not end the civil war in itself. It may, however, help starve the conflict by reducing the resources which continue to fan the flames.

Alongside this, will Her Majesty’s Government support efforts to bring about reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to offer a new axis of stability in the region? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, referred to these various tensions, pressures and axes within the region. Will Her Majesty’s Government also, as I have hinted, seek means to maintain Syrian civil society in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region—in Jordan, for example—where vast numbers of displaced persons are living as refugees?

In asking these questions, let me press the point that we should prescind from further support for a military solution and invest resources—financial and human—in seeking the seeds of a humane and lasting political solution.

Baroness Warsi: My noble friend Lord Palmer and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield asked about the human suffering in Syria. As I outlined much of this in my opening remarks, more than 9.3 million people are being displaced. Noble Lords have referred to the UK’s total funding, which now stands at £600 million, which is three times the size of its response to any other humanitarian crisis. Our support has reached hundreds of thousands of people across 14 areas of Syria and in countries around the region: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey. UK aid supports food and water for millions of people, as well as medical consultations. However, the right reverend Prelate was right to ask how we can move from this towards a ceasefire. That is why we were so strongly supportive of the Geneva II process. As I said at this Dispatch Box before, that was the only show in town—the only process where we could have made some progress. Noble Lords heard in my opening remarks the concerns that we had about the lack of progress that was made because of the regime’s action….

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, asked about the Iranian nuclear programme and said that it should be a top priority. It is. We are committed to securing a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. A successful resolution to that matter could positively change Iran’s relations with the Middle East and, indeed, the rest of the world, including Saudi Arabia, as mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield….