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Yet the darkest days of the war appear to be over. ISIS and other Islamist military forces have been driven out from their main strongholds by the Syrian army, assisted by Russia. Reconstruction projects are underway. People are beginning to return to their homes. President Assad, meanwhile, is reasserting his authority. Whether Her Majesty’s Government like it or not, he is winning the war and will almost certainly remain in power.
I visited Syria last month with two colleagues from the House of Lords: Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury; and Lord Hylton, a fellow Crossbencher. We were invited by the Syriac Orthodox Patriach and met a variety of religious leaders, representatives of diverse political parties (including the political opposition), nationally and internationally respected artists, musicians and intellectuals, the humanitarian aid organisation St Ephremel Patriarchal Development Committee and members of local communities. All of those whom we met expressed dismay and anger at the devastating impact of British foreign policy.
- Regime change: Despite the well-documented criticisms of the Syrian Government, many Syrians are deeply concerned by the UK’s continued commitment to impose a transition of power, including the removal of President Assad. Everyone we met passionately believes that Syrians should have the right to determine their own future and to elect their own leadership, without foreign interference. As there is no remaining ‘moderate’ armed opposition, it is feared that forced regime change will – to quote three former British ambassadors to Syria (The Times, 21 Dec 2016) – create a “chaotic situation similar to, or perhaps even worse than, those in Iraq and Libya”.
- Opposition forces: The British Government has provided massive financial support to so-called ‘moderate’ opposition forces (HL Hansard, 19 Oct 2017). However, we heard time and again that these forces, including the Free Syrian Army, are now dominated by jihadist militants. (One example was powerfully publicised in a recent BBC Panorama investigation ‘Jihadis You Pay For’.) The vast majority of these opposition forces have extremist ideologies, with no intention of creating democracy in Syria.
- Sanctions: All of those with whom we met spoke of the serious damage caused by sanctions and the destruction of industrial infrastructure. These greatly harm civilians, for whom it is very difficult to obtain employment, and adequate supplies of food, medicines and medical equipment.
When it comes to devising policies in the Middle East, we have to respect the wishes and concerns of the people in their own country. Yet British foreign policy, as it stands, has failed to adjust to new conditions. There is an urgent need to re-think our priorities and to allow the people of Syria to decide their own future.
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