I thank the House for agreeing to hold this important debate. Although I have put my own views on Syria on the record of this House several times, including this morning at the Oireachtas Committee, it’s important that Members from all sides are given an appropriate opportunity to reflect the widespread concern expressed by Irish citizens over the situation in Syria and the siege and bombardment of Aleppo in particular.
The harrowing images on our television screens and in our print and digital media, in particular the reports from Aleppo, have rightly created a sense of outrage inside the Oireachtas and all across Ireland.
It is important to be absolutely clear that what is happening today in Syria is a direct continuation of events in Syria since March 2011. Assad’s response to the emergence of a protest movement was to resort to mass murder against his own people. Schools, hospitals, food markets, bakeries have all been targeted for airstrikes and artillery strikes.
The regime slogan was clear: “Assad or we burn the country”. I don’t doubt their determination. Their actions have made clear that they want to run the country or leave no country left to run.
This is a regime which the United Nations Commission of Inquiry has accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
This is a regime which has used and continues to use chemical weapons against its own people.
This is a regime of which the UN Secretary General said in 2014 that it was responsible for the “countless killings and the maiming of children” and “for the arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture of children”.
This is a regime which has consistently undermined the efforts of the UN and the international community to end the conflict.
Ireland has been supportive throughout of a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led solution to this conflict. The Syrian people must have the freedom to exercise their rights, including the democratic right to choose their own national leaders. These principles – set out clearly in Geneva in 2012 – have guided my interventions on Syria in Brussels and at the UN in New York, including my address to the General Assembly and in bilateral meetings with our international partners.
A very regrettable aspect of the conflict is the manner in which terrorists and extremists, sometimes with support from regional actors, have coalesced and used the chaos and instability to promote their radical ideologies. The conflict has attracted violent extremists affiliated with militant groups including ISIS/Da’esh; Jabhat al Nusra; the Hezbollah and many others.
Indeed, on a visit to the Golan Heights in June, I was able to see from the Heights the parts of Syria now held by some of these Islamist factions.
In addition to Syria’s long-standing divisions, we are seeing wider regional tensions being played out.
Irrespective of which group is perpetrating the violence, it is the people of Syria who are suffering. And it is appalling to see what is happening to the ordinary civilians of that country as this conflict continues to get worsen. The only way to end the scourge of terrorism and extremism is by resolving the conflict through a political process and restoring the legitimacy and authority of the Syrian state across all of Syria.
I know that many Irish people are outraged at Russia’s actions in Syria and its support for the Assad regime. I share their disquiet. Russia has five times vetoed resolutions at the Security Council to restrain this conflict, to end the regime’s illegal restrictions on humanitarian access, to support efforts at a political resolution and to provide legal accountability for the victims of the Syrian conflict. Use of the Russian veto has protected the Assad regime, while repeatedly denying the Syrian people the legal protections provided under international law. I deplore this abuse of the authority which Russia enjoys at the UN.
Russia’s military intervention since September 2015 has been a self-declared mission to defeat terrorism. However, all evidence is that Russia has adopted the same view of terrorism as the Assad regime – that opposition to the regime is terrorism. Russia has claimed that it is attacking terrorists in Aleppo. UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura has said that there may 800-900 fighters in eastern Aleppo, out of an estimated total population of 275,000. There is no logic in the massive attacks we have all been witness to if the aim is to target a handful of terrorists. Hundreds of civilians in Aleppo have died. All the hospitals in eastern Aleppo have been repeatedly hit by military attacks as have the civilian rescue services.
I do not even understand what Russia hopes to gain from the survival in power of an ally who has destroyed his country. Syria will need many years and immense funding to recover from this conflict. Russian support to Syrians other than Bashar Al-Assad has been sadly limited.
The actions go far beyond what might be judged as errors or collateral damage and appear to be either reckless or deliberate and in violation of the rules of war. It is a matter of the gravest concern to me that a permanent member of the Security Council, with a duty to the United Nations to uphold international law and the principles of the UN Charter could condone or engage in the bombardment on Aleppo, which as the EU stated on Monday may amount to war crimes.
I want to close my address by making clear what I believe can resolve this conflict and bring the agony of the Syrian people to an end.
Firstly, all sides must act immediately to restore the cessation of hostilities – and Russia must use its influence on Assad to compel him to end his violence against the Syrian people; the illegal and systematic denial of humanitarian access must end; all sides must engage meaningfully in negotiations to achieve a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political resolution based on the formation of a sovereign unity government and there must be accountability for victims of this barbarous conflict. We count on Russia to fulfil the vital role it has chosen as a member of the International Syria Support Group to de-escalate the conflict and renew the political process. Today’s brief pause in the bombing of Aleppo is not enough.
Ireland stands ready to play a positive role. My EU colleagues and I spoke on Monday with UN Special Envoy de Mistura, underlining our continuing and strong support for his efforts to stem the destruction of Syria and her people.
Today, the Taoiseach will be discussing the EU’s response to the crisis and the EU’s approach to Russia to end this horrific violence at the European Council.
I continue to press for accountability, both to provide the victims with the hope of redress and in the hope that it will deter those involved from worse atrocities. This has been central to our interventions at the UN in New York and Geneva. We will not let these crimes be forgotten.
There will be need in Syria of continued European - and Irish - support for many years to come. Ireland’s response to the Syrian crisis and the plight of the Syrian people over the last five years has been unprecedented, providing more than €62 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria and the region to date. This support has been channelled through a range of partners, including NGOs, UN organisations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, who are best placed to respond, often by linking with local civil society organisations on the ground to get aid to hard-to-reach areas.
We have resettled hundreds of Syrians across Ireland, including in my home town, some of them survivors of torture by the Assad regime, and will accept thousands more.
Together with our EU partners, we remain engaged through the EU in the International Syria Support Group.
As I stated in my address last month to the UN, Ireland remains strongly committed to supporting the efforts of the UN to achieve both an end to the crisis and a sustainable peaceful resolution – a point which we will be reinforcing in a debate on Aleppo at the UN General Assembly today. The Syrian people continue to face great hardship and danger. Their struggle for liberty and dignity is far from over, but they can continue to count on our support.