20 October 2016

Speaking on Dáíl Éireann statements on the conflict in Syria, with particular reference to the ongoing crisis in Aleppo.

The now six year-old conflict in Syria is the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The numbers are easy to throw out, difficult to grasp: 8 million displaced people inside Syria, 4.5 million people under siege or inaccessible, 4.5 million refugees beyond Syrian borders, 1.5 million people injured and 250,000 people killed.

Syria has become a free-for-all, in an open house. Parties involved in the war there have received political, military and operational support from Russia, Iran, North Korea, Algeria, Iraq, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others.

We have seen the Syrian administration’s barbaric treatment of its own population. We are seeing large-scale breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law. In particular, we see civilian populations exposed to indiscriminate attack, loss of life and the destruction of essential infrastructure services and basic medical care.

The Labour Party joins with other parties in the Dáil in calling, at a minimum, for compliance with the humanitarian rules of warfare and for aid agencies to be allowed reach civilians in desperate need of help in Aleppo.

There has been some progress with the announcement from Russia to the United Nations that it will stop bombing eastern Aleppo for 11 hours a day for four days. But that is nowhere near enough. There needs to be time and space to organise a full-scale medical evacuation and the provision of medical support.

And a deal is needed to permit UN aid convoys to move from western Aleppo and from Turkey, to get food into the besieged zones.

Apart from the immediate humanitarian aspects of this crisis, it has another dimension I want to mention, because it touches us all in Europe. That is the fact that the mounting tensions between the US and Russia have stymied United Nations and other efforts to broker a ceasefire.

Worse, even if the US and Russia are not on the brink of direct conflict over Syria, the world seems to be well on the way towards entering a new Cold War.

Indeed, relations between Russia and the United States have not been so bad in a generation, since the end of the last Cold War.

Both countries now have a vital role in resolving the Syrian conflict. But they are at odds in their analysis and they profoundly mistrust each other’s motives and intentions.

There can be no dialogue between them without some basic level of trust and understanding.

In truth, the dispute between them has little enough to do with Syria. Russia believes that it has been treated unfairly since the 1990s. That, unlike its smaller neighbours, it was never welcomed into a new community of nations but remained instead the principal focus of Western distrust.

You can put it down to US over-reach and insensitivity, or to Russian nostalgia for Soviet greatness, or to a mixture of both.

On the one hand, Russia still claims Washington betrayed a promise when German unity was being negotiated, that NATO wouldn’t take advantage of this opportunity and expand eastwards.

We know that the West Germans made such a promise to Gorbachev. And we know that, when President George H Bush heard about this, he said: “To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.”

Whatever about who promised what, the facts are that NATO has added 12 eastern European countries since then, in three rounds of enlargement.

In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined, against strong Russian opposition. Then came Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The three new Baltic states had formerly been part of the USSR itself.

And most recently Albania and Croatia signed up to NATO membership.

NATO has also officially recognized four aspiring members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

This incorporation into NATO of countries formerly in the Eastern Bloc has been a major cause of increased tension between East and West – as we knew it would be back in 1990.

Arguably the subsequent aggression against Georgia and Ukraine – and now Syria – was fuelled at least in part by ongoing resentment about this continuing NATO expansion, to the very borders of Russia.

Although Russia was left on the periphery of a post–Cold War Europe, they have, literally, fought their way back. For a time they retreated from the world stage, but now they are back with a vengeance, and eager to restore a global role.

On the other hand, the West prefers to focus on current Russian “revanchism”, on the stance of Vladimir Putin, who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

I quoted earlier the analysis of George H Bush, whose reputation is as one of the more thoughtful members of his family. And indeed the quality of analysis did deteriorate subsequently. The “End of History” brigade, on both sides of the US Congressional aisle, trumpeted the victory of Western ideology and economics – indeed they seem incapable of distinguishing between the two.

And the simplistic notion that, when it came to the Middle East, all the West had to do was as guide the aims and goals of the Arab Spring, directing it towards an inevitable western-style liberal democracy, has proved to be disastrous. Look at Syria. And look at Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

So, at this stage there is not much point in allocating blame between the initial strategic errors of the West and Moscow’s more recent aggression in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine.

At this stage, people are displaced, disappearing, dying, in their tens of thousands. And it seems clear that Russia can and will use its role to shape a variety of conflict zones around the world.

I would like to be able to assert with some confidence that the leadership in Russia and Syria will someday be called to account for their war crimes against civilians. But, in an increasingly bipolar world, is there any point in claiming such a thing when the United States has yet to even submit to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court?

In a world where all onlookers are again being herded into taking sides in the conflict between these two superpowers, and where many in the EU are again stressing their connections to NATO, our function is to remain non-aligned.

And to insist that the EU’s foreign and security policy is framed and acted on in a genuinely independent way, highlighting the shared values of European countries and rejecting any siren call to become involved in the struggle between two hegemonies for global dominance.

We must use all our available diplomatic means and forums to raise this issue.

We must cooperate with likeminded states in the EU and the UN.

We must work towards an end to aerial bombardment, a genuine cessation of violence, an internationally enforced no-fly zone, and humanitarian aid access throughout the country.

We should call for the withdrawal of personnel, support and other interference by states that have no legitimate interest in this conflict.

And we should resist and reject the great powers’ return to Cold War-style fuelling of proxy conflicts in third countries.

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