Bishop of Coventry leads Lords debate on political solution to war in Syria

On 8th March 2016 the Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, led a short debate in the House of Lords “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current assessment of the prospects for a political solution to the civil war in Syria.” The Bishop’s speech opening the debate is below, alongside the Minister’s response. All speeches made in the debate can be viewed here.

Bp Coventry May 2015The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, today’s short debate enables us to return to the prospects of a political solution to Syria’s catastrophic civil war—a civil war which now represents the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster and most dangerous geopolitical hotspot. The timing of this debate could not be more critical because, thankfully, we are now seeing tentative steps towards a cessation of hostilities in Syria and fragile efforts to resume face-to-face negotiations. The coming days and weeks will be difficult but when set against five years of utter desolation and destruction, these signs of hope represent an opportunity that must not be missed.

The tragic costs of this conflict are well known: 400,000 dead, at least 10 million displaced and more than 13.5 million in need of humanitarian aid. The contagion of Syria’s war extends beyond its borders. We see this in the destabilisation of Lebanon and Jordan, in the growing pressure on Turkey’s already tenuous democracy, in the threat of a wider conflict between NATO and Russia, and in the exacerbated tensions between Sunni and Shia majority countries across the region. Without peace, worse will come.

I have looked into the eyes of Syrian refugees who have come to my city of Coventry and in them I have seen something of the suffering they have experienced. There are those among those refugees who have lost hope for their beloved country. Next week, on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of this horrific war, I am visiting Iraqi Kurdistan to see some of Christian Aid’s work among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have found shelter among the Kurds. They, too, I am told, are rapidly losing hope. What is the real hope that we can hold out to refugees in Coventry, Cologne, Irbil and Beirut?

Noble Lords will be familiar with the story of Coventry Cathedral, emerging as it did out of the horrors of the Second World War. The House may be less familiar with Coventry’s ongoing work for peace and reconciliation today and its grass-roots community reconciliation projects in Nigeria, Iraq and elsewhere. It is all too clear from this work and from other engagements with conflict that other Members of your Lordships’ House will have had that the civil war in Syria takes its place in a wider picture of civil war in human history. Of course, we must study every war on its own terms but there is now a body of knowledge on what drives and what resolves such conflicts.

Four lessons stand out. First, negotiation does not work if either side thinks it can win outright. It also does not work if either side is unable or unwilling to act on its promises. Secondly, external supplies of arms do not help bring peace; they only promote and prolong the conflict. You give weapons to one side to help it win, not to help it make concessions. Thirdly, proxy wars result in stalemate. Civil wars where outsiders are involved on both sides are deadlier and more difficult to resolve. Fourthly, civil war leaves legacies of betrayal and hatred that require patient processes of reconciliation upon which societal stability and lasting peace depend.

Seen from this perspective, we are still a long way away from a reliable political settlement in Syria. Every side recognises that military solutions are no solution, yet all sides are betrayed by their actions. Everyone continues to jockey for position on the battlefield to secure a diplomatic advantage. If this continues or even worsens, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia becoming more involved, the Syrian people will surely come to see any political process as nothing more than a cruel façade.

Yet the ceasefire agreement offers the beginning of hope, with its provisions for a cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access and advancing political transition. As the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said just two weeks ago, it represents “our best chance” to end the violence in Syria. Secretary Kerry put it more starkly and called it our last chance. Yes, there have been ceasefire violations, and, no, the violence has not stopped, but it has been reduced. There are innocent civilians alive today who would otherwise be dead, and the agreement has given hope to those on the ground that an end to the violence is possible.

However, surely we can be more ambitious in the pursuit of peace. Too much of Syria remains an active conflict zone. What scope is there to bring different groups, whether officially or not, under the umbrella of the agreement? Is there not more that can be done here to agree with Russia the specific geographical contours of the agreement and to restrict Russian, and Turkish, latitude for military action? Are UK-Russia relations at such a low ebb that we have no influence in Moscow? Looking further down the line, to the long-term rebuilding of peaceable relationships between those who have fought each other, what work is being done to identify those people and organisations of peace in Syrian civil society who are already engaged in the work of reconciliation, among them some notable religious leaders? I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on all these matters.

The vital importance of providing humanitarian aid to Syria cannot be doubted. We all welcome and applaud the UK’s efforts to date, especially the recent donor conference. In that spirit, a key part of the agreement was that, at the start of the ceasefire, aid would be delivered rapidly, safely and unhindered to areas in need. However, save for a few small deliveries by the UN, the vast majority of those going hungry have by all accounts seen nothing. In Darayya, one of worst-hit suburbs of Damascus, many remain on the edge of starvation. In other towns, access to medicines and other necessities remains poor. How can we build on the commitment to a ceasefire and widen its scope to meet these urgent human needs? How might we extend the agreement to prevent the looming humanitarian disaster in Aleppo?

Advancing a political transition in Syria is fraught with difficulty. Western Governments, including our own, have rightly accepted that sudden and violent regime change in Damascus cannot be made into the condition for peace, but we have yet to see a corresponding shift in the narrative over Assad’s future. We need to accept that there is no viable opposition Government-in-waiting in Syria and little prospect of creating a unitary Government out of the myriad opposition groups. Other ways of resolving this impasse must be found. Could Her Majesty’s Government instead explore ideas for gradually devolving political power in Syria, both from Assad to a newly formed Government and from Damascus to the regions? A devolved approach would not be without its difficulties of course, but it would help to protect civilians, open the door to aid and de-escalate the conflict before it reaches new heights. It would re-empower local communities while maintaining the country’s territorial integrity.

There are no ideal policy options in Syria and no easy answers. None the less, we must surely now focus on the security and safety of Syria’s people. This must be our priority, over and above geopolitical gain or the victory of any side in an unwinnable war. Whatever the shortcomings of the existing diplomatic track—there are many—it needs dedicated support and resourcing. Even if timetables slip, it is vital that progress is made, securing local ceasefires that could open the door to essential aid. If we do not act now, worse will follow. If we do not act now, it may be too late to act at all. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords as to how we might assist the Government in these efforts and rekindle hope for Syria’s people.

The Earl of Courtown (Con): My Lords, I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry and join other noble Lords in thanking him for tabling this debate. I also thank other noble Lords for their contributions which, although they came from wide-ranging parts of the House, all had the common aim and wish to see peace in the part of the world we are discussing.

The right reverend Prelate said that timing was critical and went on to talk about the four lessons that should be drawn from his activities in that part of the world. His description of refugees in his diocese was particularly poignant. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, on the work she has obviously been doing and thank her for describing her experiences from travelling in that part of the world as well as in Russia. I also listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who asked a number of questions. If I do not cover them in my response, I will of course write to him.

As we have heard in detail today, the conflict in Syria—now approaching its sixth year—has had a terrible impact on its civilians. However, we must remember that Assad’s regime is responsible for this crisis. There has been a complete disregard for international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, have been targeted by cluster bombs, barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Assad and Daesh have callously used siege and starvation tactics. Russia’s military intervention last autumn—mentioned by a number of noble Lords—compounded the violence as it carried out air strikes on moderate opposition groups and civilian areas.

The UK’s aim remains a stable, peaceful Syria with an inclusive Government who are capable of protecting its people from Daesh and other extremists. This is necessary to stem the flow of people fleeing Syria and seeking refuge in Europe, to tackle the threat we face from Daesh, and to ensure stability in the region. The United Kingdom is working strenuously to find a political solution as part of our strategy for Syria, which the Prime Minister set out in the House of Commons in December.

In late 2015, the International Syria Support Group began work to facilitate the start of political negotiations. In December, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 set out the framework for these, and proximity negotiations between the regime and opposition began under UN auspices in January in Geneva but were paused on 5 February. To facilitate a resumption of the negotiations, the ISSG agreed there should be a cessation of hostilities, and humanitarian access to named locations in Syria.

Since the cessation of hostilities came into force on 27 February, we have seen a reduction in violence, as many noble Lords mentioned, but obviously, there is still much to be done. Although imperfect, the cessation is an important step towards bringing a lasting political settlement.

Through our participation in the International Syria Support Group task force on the cessation of hostilities, we are working to create a more robust verification system and to agree measures to address violations. We are, however, concerned about violations against opposition areas, which are in direct contravention of the cessation agreement. If these violations do not stop, opposition withdrawal is inevitable.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, mentioned my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who recently joined other European leaders in a phone conversation with President Putin to ask him to seize the opportunity created by the cessation to create a “positive dynamic” for the Geneva negotiations. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we will continue to try to work with Russia to resolve the conflict, but much depends on Russia’s will.

A number of noble Lords mentioned humanitarian access. The desperately needed aid convoys now arriving in some besieged areas of Syria must be allowed to continue. Through our participation in the ISSG task force on humanitarian aid we are pressing for the United Nations to use the cessation to seek greater humanitarian access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas, as called for in Resolution 2254. It is deplorable that the regime continues to delay access by not acceding to UN requests for access to Darayya, Aleppo and other places in desperate need. As of 3 March, 42 out of 56 UN requests for access this year remain outstanding.

As all noble Lords have said, Syria’s conflict cannot be resolved militarily. Equally, a collapse of all its state institutions is not in anyone’s interests. Assad cannot be a credible partner for us. He cannot unite Syrians, he cannot win broad, international backing and he cannot defeat Daesh. We must remember that he is the cause, not the cure. That is why we seek an urgent, inclusive, Syrian-led political transition away from Assad’s rule. I listened very carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, with all his experience in this area. I am sure that my colleagues in the department will take careful note of what he said.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed UK support for the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee after he hosted Dr Riad Hijab, the general co-ordinator of the HNC, in London in February. The HNC is the broadest possible spectrum of Syrian opposition groups, representing political, armed opposition and civil society voices, and it is a legitimate and credible negotiating party. However, I make it clear that UK support for the opposition does not include lethal weapons.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan, mentioned Geneva III and, in particular, the UN special envoy. I confirm to the noble Lord that we support UN special envoy de Mistura’s plan to resume peace negotiations this month. These negotiations must deliver a political transition away from Assad to a legitimate Government, agreed by the Syrian parties, as called for in the Geneva communiqué. We are under no illusion that the political talks will be easy. We are, however, committed to doing everything we can to support them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, mentioned the London conference. As all noble Lords will be aware, $11 billion was committed—the largest amount raised in one day for humanitarian aid. In addition, on 4 February 2016 my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced that the UK would more than double our total pledge to the Syria crisis from £1.12 billion to over £2.3 billion. This is our largest-ever response to a single humanitarian crisis.

The right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, mentioned reconciliation. We are providing a range of support for Syrians, including the moderate opposition, to help save lives, bolster civil society, which is so important, counter extremism, promote human rights and accountability, and lay the foundations for a more peaceful future. To date, this amounts to more than £70 million in non-humanitarian assistance inside Syria, with a further £30 million to bolster regional stability.

The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, also mentioned education and children, which are such an important part of this. The noble Baroness is no doubt aware that the London Syria conference agreed to provide long-term support for refugees in the region to help them access jobs and education. Agreements made with Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon cemented this by committing to create over 1 million new jobs for refugees and residents, and by giving 1 million children access to education.

A number of noble Lords mentioned the religious minorities in Syria. I can confirm that we are supporting non-governmental efforts to promote dialogue between the different ethnic and sectarian groups in Syria as we seek further progress on a political settlement. Minorities including the Alawites, the Christians, the Druze, the Kurds and the Turkmens have been represented in these projects.

Noble Lords will be aware that, in February, we supported a UN Security Council statement condemning the abductions of the Assyrian Christians in the Hasakah region of Syria by Daesh and demanding their immediate release.

To conclude, we will continue to do everything in our power to ensure that the cessation of hostilities holds and that it creates favourable conditions for the resumption of political talks in Geneva. The United Kingdom will continue to engage with international partners and moderate representatives of the Syrian people to achieve a lasting and just peace.