Bishop of Coventry urges more effort on diplomatic solution to conflict in Syria

On 19th April 2018 the House of Lords debated a Government motion “that this House takes note of the national security situation.” The Bishop of Coventry, Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, took part in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the Minister for bringing this debate forward at this pivotal time in our national security and foreign policy. It is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Owen, and other distinguished speakers with their panoramic perspectives. Given the timing of the debate, I shall offer some reflections on the Syrian situation, both the danger it represents for national security and the role it might play in recasting relations with Russia, even in the stressful times described so clearly by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup.

The risk that Syria poses to national security is beyond doubt. A seven-year war has, as we have heard, produced massive displacement of people and placed pressure on Europe as refugees flee the violence. Regional and international powers, with their different strategic aims, are fighting a proxy war, and the spectre of clashes between Israel and Iran hangs over the conflict. There is the ideological contamination and the political ambitions of Daesh and a multitude of jihadist groups populated by Syrians—some of them radicalised, often through the cruelty of the regime—and foreign fighters. There are allied strikes, with Russian retaliation threatened. And all the while, there is the moral outrage of the untold suffering of the Syrian people.

In the last debate in your Lordships’ House before the Easter Recess, a debate on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, I said that,

“history is on the side of hope”.—[Official Report, 29/03/18; col. 957.]

Despite the recent turn of events, I still hold faith in hope, and I dare to suggest that our continued diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria, to which the Prime Minister recommitted the Government in her Statement, may be an opportunity to mobilise the diplomatic and global reach that the Minister referred to, not only to save Syrians from more suffering but to improve the state of UK/Russia relations. Could it just be that the cause of peace in Syria offers a chance to recast relations with Russia away from confrontation towards co-operation, beginning to rekindle trust?

We know that, crudely perhaps, the UK and Russia have been working with different narratives over Syria. They are projections of the contrasting stories that I hear from the Syrian people themselves. The Syrian refugees that I meet in Coventry, good people who stood on the side of a noble reach for freedom, suffered terribly at the regime’s hands and can see no future for their country with Assad. That is the side that we took, again for noble reasons. Other Syrians whose testimonies that I hear, and I heard some more this week, have been so traumatised by the fear of chaos and the threat of jihadi control and cruelty that, even if they held out some hope for the rebellion in its early days, now long for stability at all costs and can see no future for Syria without Assad. That is the side that Russia has taken, and it has invested heavily in that outcome—and, as we have heard, that serves its strategic interests. Stated in that form, the two narratives sound irreconcilable, but they have a deep point of connection that is ultimately for peace, stability and a future that, for the Syrian people, is genuinely in their hands and that, for the UK, Russia and other nations, does not risk further, even military, confrontation between them.​

The Geneva and Astana peace processes testify that a desire for a lasting peace is a common cause of both narratives. If the same diplomatic energy and skill used by the US, the UK and France to conduct missile strikes last week is deployed to focus on jointly bringing the conflict to a close, not only are we fulfilling the moral imperative of ending the suffering of Syrian people but we are beginning a work of repair on UK/Russian relations, strengthening them as trust grows in pursuit of a common objective. The principles governing the UK military action—that it was primarily humanitarian, that it was not seeking regime change, that it was not an assault on Russian interests—offer the sort of approach that could allow a common cause to arise. The Astana process has not delivered peace, and without Russia, Turkey and Iran the Geneva process is flawed. Are Her Majesty’s Government working with the US and other partners and protagonists to bring together the two separate peace processes that, as they stand, seem to reinforce rather than reconcile the narratives?

A new way is needed that gathers the international players under one roof behind closed doors, without grandstanding, where the reality of the situation can be faced and whatever makes for the cessation of violence, secures a semblance of stability to Syria and removes the risk of the conflict spiralling into regional or global conflict is agreed. Given Russia’s stake in the Syrian war and the ongoing threat of jihadist terror, hard choices will need to be made about Assad’s future, as we have heard, but, at the same time, tough deals struck over whatever transitional arrangements will lay out a route to Syria determining its own future.

After Aleppo and east Ghouta, it is clear that another theatre with catastrophic potential is looming: Idlib. It raises the sharp issues mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. How is a bloodbath in Idlib, with its risks of escalation, to be avoided? Could even Idlib become a means of reworking international relationships, a chance, even at this stage, to inject a humanitarian logic into the military logic, to secure corridors of safety for civilians, to require forms of warfare that accord with international norms?

The Government have faced unenviable moral and military decisions over the past week. Their appeal has been to defend humanity in Syria and beyond from the scourge of chemical weapons. The humanitarian instinct to preserve people from unspeakable suffering must now drive renewed efforts for an end to conflict and the beginning of stability, conducted with the sort of energy, skill and resolve shown in the military action. Without that, our claims to serve the best interests of humanity will sound hollow and be judged wanting, and our national security will continue to face a major threat.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) (Con):…My noble friend Lady Helic, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lords, Lord West, Lord Campbell and Lord Hylton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry asked about the future strategy for Syria and the game plan for ending the conflict. Mr Assad’s regime bears overwhelming responsibility for the suffering of the Syrian people. His oppression has caused untold human suffering, fuelled extremism and terrorism and created the space for Daesh. It has ​been suggested that we should recognise the reality of the Assad regime and rebase our diplomatic policy in the light of that. I listened carefully and respectfully to the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Campbell, and others on that issue. However, I am afraid that I cannot offer any comfort to them.

The image of an ambassador of Her Majesty shaking hands with Mr Assad following a restoration of diplomatic relations with Syria is anathema to me and my ministerial colleagues. We believe that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy, due to its atrocities against the Syrian people. In our view, a sustainable political settlement in Syria requires a political transition. For that reason, we remain committed to achieving our long-standing goals in Syria: defeating the scourge of Daesh and achieving a political settlement that ends the war and suffering, one which provides stability for all Syrians and the wider region….


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