We have all been appalled and distressed at the horrific bombardment of Aleppo and other towns and cities across Syria in recent months, culminating in the final assault upon Eastern Aleppo this week by the Assad government regime and their Russian allies. Utter brutality has been displayed towards civilians both by the pro-government regime; and by the forces of ISIS/Daesh.
As the Irish Labour Party’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, and as a member of the Oireachtas (parliamentary) Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence, I have been to the fore in raising concerns about the war in Syria and its impact upon civilians. I initiated an all-party motion condemning the bombardment of Aleppo which was passed unanimously in the Seanad (Senate or upper House) in November, and which I brought personally to the attention of the Russian Ambassador to Ireland. I have also taken a lead in questioning witnesses during our Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs meetings and hearings on Syria, during which we have heard from various different witnesses.
“All five members of the Syrian peace delegation were strong supporters of the Assad regime”
On 17 November 2016, the Russian Ambassador to Ireland attended a public hearing before the Committee, and I questioned him closely at that meeting about his government’s attacks on civilians. More recently, on 1 December 2016, a delegation of religious leaders drawn from different faiths across Syria, together with two Syrian surgeons, Dr Ahmad al Khaddour and Dr Bashir Mohammad, appeared as witnesses before the Committee. They described themselves as a “Syrian peace delegation”. Their members included Dr Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. Senior patriarchs from the Eastern Orthodox church also addressed the Committee. However, in their presentations it became very clear that all five members of the delegation were strong supporters of the Assad regime. None of them criticised the actions of the Syrian president, or his international allies, Iran or Russia—even when I raised specific instances of regime brutality towards civilians with them.
In particular, I had a lengthy exchange (through an interpreter) with the Grand Mufti, Dr Hassoun, in the course of which he denied that either the Assad regime or Russian forces had carried out atrocities in eastern Aleppo. I asked Dr Hassoun if he would condemn any Russian complicity in war crimes, but he replied, “Russia and Iran did not kill any civilians. They came to defend the Syrian people”. I challenged him that his assertion contradicted the view of the international community. But again he responded by blaming the opposition for destruction of civilian infrastructure; not the regime.
The focus for this so-called “peace” delegation was clearly aimed at seeking support from Irish parliamentarians for the lifting of sanctions against the Syrian government. At a later Committee meeting the same day, we heard from Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of Burning Country (Pluto Press, 2016). In his presentation, he described the earlier delegation as “propagandists” for the Syrian regime. He also confirmed to us the distressing reality that Assad’s forces are bringing about complete destruction of the moderate secular opposition in Syria.
Reports of detentions and forced recruitment into the Syrian army proliferated as the regime advanced through Aleppo. Some 11 women and 13 children were shot as they tried to flee from the brutal bombardment of eastern Aleppo. UN officials have called it a “complete meltdown of humanity”. Irish-American Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, has rightly condemned in the strongest terms the shameful action against civilians, saying this week that “Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo.”