Syrian Conflict: Irish Syria Solidarity Movement
In the first part of the meeting we will meet Dr. Annie Sparrow to discuss the effect of the Syrian conflict on children.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even when left in silent mode, with the recording equipment in the committee room.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. If, however, they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I invite Dr. Sparrow to make her opening statement.
Dr. Annie Sparrow
I thank the joint committee for inviting me to speak about this important issue. I am an Australian. I trained in the area of paediatric intensive care and for the past 20 years have been working as an aid worker. I am proud to be back in Ireland because I spent many years working with Catholic Relief Services here, the American equivalent of Trócaire, to establish relationships with Irish aid organisations which are some of the most effective in the world. The Irish people are also among the most generous in the world. I am happy to explain to the committee how aid is manipulated and controlled by the Assad regime, as well as highlighting how we must we ensure this multi-billion dollar aid effort does not continue funding President Assad’s killing machine.
Few of us remember that once upon a time this conflict was a revolution. The Syrian uprising began on 15 March 2011. The regime has been in place since illegally seizing power in 1963. Hafez al-Assad established himself as President in 1971 and his family has exerted control ever since. It has a policy of civilian oppression and a poor human rights record. We saw this in 2011 when civilians who had taken to the streets were shot. Even children who wrote anti-regime graffiti were arrested and tortured. Doctors were killed for the crime of treating civilians injured in protests. On 22 March 2011 the first doctor and ambulance driver were killed while trying to save unarmed student protestors who had been shot. Shortly afterwards, the international community responded with sanctions. Initially, they were travel bans and asset freezes in respect of key individuals deemed to be responsible for the violence such as the chiefs of the military and intelligence forces. It was done initially by the United States and the European Union followed rapidly. By May 2011, sanctions had even been imposed on President Bashar al-Assad himself.
His atrocities continued. The next year a lot of effort went into a peace process led by Mr. Kofi Annan. By this stage, not only had the European Union which was Syria’s principal trading partner at the time extended it to economic sanctions, many other countries had also imposed bilateral sanctions. Mr. Annan’s six-point peace process failed and a massive humanitarian crisis began to unfold. Millions were forced from their homes inside Syria and there was a massive exodus of refugees.
In response to the crisis, UN agencies were mobilised. The primary UN agency involved in this work is the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, which has a mandate based on UN General Assembly Resolution 46-182. It mandates it to co-ordinate an international response, mobilise funds from governments and implement measures through other UN agencies and partners. It has to do this work while respecting the principle of sovereignty. The condition imposed was that everything would operate from Damascus, that all aid would go through it and that the Syrian Government would be fully in charge of aid efforts. These aspects are the biggest problems and have led to the current situation. Seven years later we are faced with the worst crisis in modern history. It is certainly the largest and most expensive with which to deal. It is a multi-billion dollar effort for Syria alone. There are 5.7 million refugees outside the country and an equivalent number inside it. Sadly, the atrocities continue, as evidenced by the chemical attacks last month in Duoma in the Ghouta region, after which further sanctions were imposed. There is great concern about whether the sanctions hurt the humanitarian efforts. I shall explain the matter a little. Syria not only has a terrible humanitarian crisis, it has also suffered a public health catastrophe. One of President Assad’s claims is that the catastrophe has been caused by the sanctions imposed.
Syria has experienced two polio epidemics. In 2013 polio reappeared in Syria for the first time in 19 years, but the outbreak was covered up by the government. Unfortunately, the World Health Organization, the primary role of which is to support the efforts of the Syrian Government, has had to toe the line. It was a task force in northern Syria, operated from Turkey with the permission of the Turkish Government, that took control and successfully administered a vaccination programme. Last year there was a resurgence of vaccine derived polio and the outbreak is ongoing. We had never seen it happen in a war before. The war in Iraq lasted eight years, but polio did not emerge. I hope I have given a useful example. Well before the war in Syria broke out, vaccines were withheld from politically unsympathetic areas, leaving people extremely vulnerable. It was one of reasons people took to the streets to demonstrate in 2011. After 50 years of brutal repression, they did not take to the streets to discover all of these new ways of dying – being shot at, made to disappear, tortured, arrested, gassed with chemicals, starved to death in a siege and attacked with vacuum bombs and barrel bombs. They protested because they wanted a better life and, most importantly, for the sake of their children, which is why we all care.
The terrible consequence of the Syrian conflict is that children have suffered the worst and are most vulnerable. The Syrian Government fully controls the aid effort. It exercises control through its partners. They include the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the national non-government organisations, NGOs, operated by President Assad’s family and friends. They determine exactly where the aid goes and deliberately ensure it does not reach the regions most in need. This is entirely consistent with its targeting of civilian homes and schools. By this time last year the Assad regime had bombed well in excess of 4,000 schools. There has also been the deliberate destruction of hospitals and doctors have been killed, which weaponises healthcare and turns people’s need for it into a weapon against them by violently depriving them of it.
In areas under siege, the regime deliberately withholds humanitarian aid and refuses to allow civilians to leave them, which makes the siege illegal. The proper way to operate a siege is to allow humanitarian aid in and civilians to leave, especially women and children. The policy of denying humanitarian aid to anyone who needs it is entirely consistent with a war that the regime has practised consistently. It is responsible for fuelling this massive refugee crisis. It does this by using an incredibly effective intelligence and security apparatus, which is how one stays in power. The Assad regime has been in power for 50 years because it has relied on brute force, a strong military and a very strong intelligence force.
Let us not forget that the people in power in Syria have all been sanctioned. The first slide shows the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with Prime Minister Imad Khamis. The picture at the bottom of the slide shows President Assad, the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister. Let us recall that all of them have been sanctioned. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies must work very closely with the same individuals who are held entirely responsible for the Syrian conflict. Prime Minister Imad Khamis used to be the Minister for health. The Minister for Health is also on the sanctions list and has been for years. Every single government Minister in Syria has been sanctioned for participating in human rights violations – acts of violence, killing, shooting and disappearances – yet these are the same people with whom the aid agencies in Damascus are forced to work under the terms and conditions stipulated by the Syrian Government.
The second slide shows Mr. Bashar Ja’afari, the Syrian representative in the permanent mission to the United Nations. In the photo one can see him embrace Mother Agnes whose name is designed to provide reassurance and allay fears. Even though she has her own NGO, aid is withheld from those who need it the most. She has also denied that chemical attacks ever took place. She is one of the many people who have been appointed to roles to control the distribution of aid. Syria is an authoritarian state and the only way one can succeed is through maintaining close proximity to the people in power.
At the bottom of the slide one can see Mr. Faisal Mekdad, former permanent representative of Syria to the United Nations. Mr. Mekdad and Minister Walid Muallem are the most powerful people in the regime and have a direct relationship with the intelligence forces. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs dictates which agencies can enter Damascus.
Once they have agreed an agency is allowed to come in, the condition is that it must partner with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, SARC, which is a local member of the Red Cross-Red Crescent movement and Syria’s largest humanitarian agency. It is long established and staffed by thousands of dedicated volunteers. However, it is also controlled by the same intelligence forces and has been for a very long time. All of the agencies have to work through SARC, the primary aid agency that delivers aid, but they also have to apply for approval before they can recruit any staff. Through the Ministry and SARC, which is controlled by the intelligence forces, they control who comes in to Syria. We cannot get our best people to deliver an aid project when they are excluded because they are deemed to be politically unsympathetic. They control the aid agencies, the people who staff them and the programmes delivered by SARC and through the national NGOs, which is another name for Assad’s family’s and friends’ enterprises.
Faisal Mekdad’s wife, Shukria, was hired by the WHO as the consultant for assessment of the mental health needs of internally displaced persons. In the absence of any qualifications or experience she was put into this leading position by the World Health Organisation. It is a measure of the influence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs that she was put into a position for which she is unqualified. Her only qualification is that she is his wife. She is meant to assess the mental health needs for which Faisal himself as one of the chief prosecutors is responsible.
The next slide shows the major general in charge of the blood bank. As the member can see, it is part of the Ministry of Defence. Elizabeth Hoff, the country representative of WHO Syria, was awarded a shield by the Minister of Defence for her special efforts in her services. This is one of the most egregious examples of how the aid is controlled. Blood is a very important resource in war, of course. In cases where the Red Cross controls blood, we are able to donate it and receive it when we need it. In Syria, the blood bank is controlled entirely by the Ministry of Defence. Since 2013, because Abbott in the US was no longer allowed to supply the transfusion hardware and software or the screenings kits for HIV, hepatitis B and the blood-borne diseases, the Ministry of Defence approached the WHO to procure those items for it. Since then, the WHO has been buying millions of dollars’ worth of transfusion equipment, screening kits, blood bags, and all of the serums and fluids. None of these is allowed to reach those in need, however. Not to Darayya five miles away, nor to Ghouta, under siege since 2013. They are not allowed to receive intravenous fluids, let alone blood. In full knowledge that the blood products are being withheld from the population that is most in need, and that their supply is controlled by an agency that is responsible for the air strikes, the trauma and barrel bombs that drenched the country in blood, they are subsidising Assad’s killing machine, bypassing the sanctions and even profiting. Because they do not have to do so, they do not reimburse the WHO, of course.
None of us has any problem with a military Ministry overseeing aid. In Liberia in the ebola crisis the US military helped build the roads and infrastructure that allowed aid to be delivered. But when it is used, manipulated and controlled to deny those who need it most, that is a problem. There are other alternatives. The situation also benefits Abbott. The spotlight here is on the UN agencies including the WHO but other companies find ways to get over the sanctions and they are equally in need of scrutiny.
I wanted to show the committee the next slide because it represents to me the obscenity of the Syrian regime. This is Moaz and Nawras, who were conjoined twins born in eastern Ghouta in July 2016. I am a paediatrician and have worked in many war-torn countries including Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan. I have also worked in First World countries such as England, Australia and America and although I have seen lots of different things, I had never seen conjoined twins. The doctors in eastern Ghouta are faced with siege, chemical attacks, outbreaks of infectious disease and trauma in addition to diabetes, cancer, kidney disease and then they were faced with these twins, these tiny little pieces of newborn humanity. After a lot of effort we managed to get the twins into Damascus and there were many international offers to take them to a centre where they could be safely separated with a multidisciplinary expert team. They were eventually allowed to be brought into Damascus with their mother who was breastfeeding them. They were joined at the chest. They could have lived their entire lives as conjoined; that they were breastfeeding tells us they were well. Then they suddenly died. The mother was not allowed to breastfeed them for five days and then they were reported dead and buried. To the best of our knowledge, this is because the Syrian regime decided to try to separate them itself. If it had succeeded, it would have been a great PR coup and if it did not succeed, they did not actually care. They did not want to allow babies that could remind the whole world that there are babies in Syria too. They could not let that out beyond their control. If they cannot let these babies survive, there is not much hope for anyone else.
I have provided a lot of resources for the committee to review. The next slide shows an illustration of the way convoys are controlled. Convoys are just a drop in the ocean of the aid effort. The current situation is that aid goes into Damascus. All agencies have to partner with SARC which is corrupted, as I have said. One of the leading figures is Tammam Mahriz, a nephew of Assef Shawkat who before his death in 2012 was the head of military intelligence. It is very sad because there are thousands of volunteers who are brave on the ground, who are doing their best to still get aid to those who need it most but they themselves are shot, executed, arrested and tortured for that same crime of trying to help those who actually need it. In addition to being already staffed by key people in the intelligence forces, after 2011, many more intelligence agents posed as volunteers from the bottom to be able to observe and inform on their colleagues. At the top, those who were experienced and qualified were dismissed and replaced by retired military officers who belonged the regime and were known for their loyalty. SARC is controlled by the agencies.
In an authoritarian regime, there are a lot of different branches of security forces. I have included an illustration of that in the supporting documents also. What happened eventually after a couple of years was that in order to exert maximum control over aid, the intelligence forces themselves had to form a co-ordinating agency in order to make sure they were all talking to each other as well as with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Health, which is charged with deleting agencies and deleting the lifesaving supplies from all the convoys.
This is all done by the department of preparedness which I describe as the “department of deletion”. The department is run by Dr. Al Hajjaj al-Sharaa who is the individual in the photograph dressed in red. His agency deletes all life-saving supplies from the lists, which means that instead of a supply of adrenaline or insulin, lice shampoo and empty jerry cans will be received. Dr. al-Sharaa is one of the owners of the national non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that are approved and accredited by the Syrian Government. He is, therefore, well positioned to redirect supplies and resources to his agency, Al Cham for Health, one of the major implementing partners for the World Health Organization, the UNHCR and UNICEF to provide mobile health services. He is also one of the staff at the warehouse who ensures none of the life-saving supplies makes it onto the convoys. These staff check the list carefully. It is then sealed with a seal from the intelligence forces before leaving. One of the most recent convoys towards the end of last year reached the warehouse in Ghouta, but the warehouse was then bombed by the government to make sure nothing was used. The convoy in question included 50 dialysis sets which would have kept people alive for another week or two, but even it was bombed.
I will explain what the weaponisation of health care means. Collateral damage is usually the primary reason for the deaths of civilians in war. However, that is not the case in Syria where civilians are the target. There are various ways of pursuing a strategy of suppressing and repressing a revolution which started as a protest for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. One way of doing so is to arrest and torture demonstrators. Military intelligence, air force security and the ministry of defence have thousands of black sites where they keep hundreds of thousands of disappeared persons, many of whom have been tortured and held for years.
Another way of doing so is to control health care delivery. As I stated, one week into the protests, the hospitals which were under the control of the ministries of health and higher education were informed that they would not be allowed to provide aid for anyone hurt in demonstrations. In response field hospitals were established, one of which was located in an ancient mosque in Daraa. On 21 March 2011 medical personnel were providing care for more than 50 people in the field hospital when a student protest outside, attended by a few hundred unarmed protestors holding olive branches, was attacked by military forces, including Iranian forces. The mosque put out a call and one of the doctors responded in an ambulance. They managed to pick up one patient who had been shot by the security forces. He was thrown into the ambulance which was then hijacked by the Syrian military on its way back to the field hospital. The driver was shot and killed; the doors were opened and machine gun fire killed the doctor and critically injured the nurse. The patient was shot six more times.
The massacre that day was covered up and when one reads reports, they suggest only six people died because that is the number for which we have records. No one believed Bashar al-Assad, a doctor in training to be an ophthalmologist, would exert this level of brutality. We have since documented the direct killing of more than 900 doctors for the crime of assisting people injured by the Syrian Government. This tactic was even legislated for in July 2012 and, as a result, a person who does what my colleagues and I do is designated a criminal and a terrorist and charged as such. Hundreds of attacks on hospitals across Syria have led to a policy of building underground hospitals to provide protection from bombing. It is a testimony to a country that has not been allowed to have a civil society and the depths of relationships and networks among Syrians that they have been able to create this informal and decentralised health system which has endeavoured to meet massive needs. The needs of Syria have gone from primarily being first world needs to encompassing the whole spectrum, including outbreaks of infectious diseases such as polio, cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis to chemical attacks, which we were not trained in medical school to treat.
The map shows that the attacks take place according to area and are directed at any opposition held area or any area that has been politically antipathetic. It shows the trajectory of the attacks during the years, although it is a little difficult to see this. The slide features an analysis of attacks on hospitals since 2012. It shows intentionality and that attacks are continuous and systematic. The only time they stop is when the hospital has been destroyed and no longer needs to be attacked.
Ghouta was besieged shortly after the chemical massacre of August 2013 which was highly visible to the eyes of the world. Who can forget the images of the naked, limp bodies of recently killed children? A siege is invisible. Irish people are familiar with starvation as a weapon of war and the withholding of food and creation of famine as a political weapon. This practice was imposed on Ghouta shortly after the chemical massacre. The second picture which was taken two years ago shows my colleagues in Ghouta. They were very tired at the time and their message was to stop the killing of civilians. At the end of last year the co-ordinates of the hospitals were published to show the government where they were located. That the government subsequently bombed these hospitals shows that the destruction of hospitals in full view has been a deliberate and intentional policy. The next picture shows a patient who died in a hospital in Ghouta.
Last week the widow of one of my great colleagues called me to say Kafr Zita hospital in Hama was being targeted again. The hospital has been bombed hundreds of times and forced to move many times. Unfortunately, when the Russians entered the conflict with much better weapons than the Syrian forces, they were able to destroy hospitals much more quickly and, as members can see, their attacks are highly effective.
Members will recall the Khan Sheikhoun chemical massacre of this time last year. Khan Sheikhoun is an entirely civilian area. Government forces first dropped barrel bombs on it. People’s response to barrel bombing is to take cover underground in basements and caves because this offers the best protection. Shortly afterwards, there was a sarin attack. Chemicals sink into basements and caves because they are heavier than air. Government forces first put people in a position of maximum vulnerability in order that they would then suffer horrendously. People did not want to go to hospital because they knew that they would be targeted. However, sarin does not wear off and survivors of the attack had to go to hospital. The Russians were able to track their movements, discover hospitals that had not been destroyed and target them immediately as people arrived.
Last month, in Hamouria and Douma in eastern Ghouta, government forces dropped chemicals to force people who had been living underground for weeks in an effort to protect themselves from the dedicated barrel bombs and missiles to go back on to the streets again.
They dropped chemicals to force them into the streets where they were then gunned down by machine guns in helicopters. As someone who has worked in many wars, I have never seen such brutality and obscenity. The egregious manipulation and exploitation of the aid response means that the generosity of the Irish, which is renowned, is contributing towards profiteering by the Syrian Government, the same people who are responsible for the crisis, which must be addressed. Another example can demonstrate some of the ways in which Syrian aid in the hands of the military is corrupted and misused. I would also like to provide the opportunity for questions.
I thank Dr. Sparrow. Over the past number of years, the committee has heard very graphic descriptions of the horror inflicted on innocent people in Syria, the displacement, the loss of life and the never-ending conflict. Her contribution today again highlights the savagery imposed on so many innocent people. In excess of 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 5.6 million people are in acute need. Dr. Sparrow said that the people most in need of humanitarian aid are not getting it. It is a horror story. As she quite rightly said, it is the worst crisis in history.
We will take questions from members. Unfortunately we are on a tight time schedule. Ireland will take the chair of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance support group in June. It is an opportunity for our country to play a leadership role in ensuring aid to Syria is delivered effectively and in line with humanitarian principles. It is obvious to us that the principle of the impartial delivery of humanitarian aid has not been adhered to over the past number of years.
I am sure the committee will agree to bring the very important issues raised today to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his Department officials. We will ask them to ensure that when Ireland takes over the chair of the support group that it works in the most diligent and effective way possible to try to ensure humanitarian aid gets to the people who are most in need.
Due to time constraints we will take three questions together and then go back to Dr. Sparrow for a further contribution. I will call Senator Bacik, who will be followed by Deputies Niall Collins and Barrett.
Senator Ivana Bacik
I thank Dr. Sparrow for her moving presentation. As the Chair said, we have heard other eyewitness accounts of the war in Syria but she has described graphically and clearly the horrific impact of the war on children, in particular, and the outrageous brutality of the regime. Many of us have sought to put that to the Russian government representatives here, as well as to people who have appeared before us who have been, in effect, apologists for the regime in Syria. I thank her for appearing before the committee and making a very powerful presentation.
She wanted to highlight some things to us and for us to highlight with our Government, the UN and the EU the withholding or controlling of aid distribution by the Syrian Government for its own purposes and, allied to that, the weaponisation of healthcare, including the targeting of medical personnel, hospitals, clinics and so on. Above all, she raised the impact on civilians, especially children, that has had during the years of the war.
How do we address these issues? I have read some of Dr. Sparrow’s work, in particular her critique of the WHO which she described as having become an apologist for Assad atrocities. I read a briefing from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade which pointed out that Ireland has contributed over €100 million to the Syrian crisis since 2012, our largest ever response to a single crisis. Clearly, we are stakeholders in this. Our briefing also tells us that our support inside Syria is mostly channelled through the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, SARC, which is best placed to respond on the ground, including hard to reach areas.
If the view is taken that SARC is not the body through which aid can most effectively be distributed, what is the alternative? If we are seeking to ensure that the aid distribution is not corrupted by the regime, as Dr. Sparrow described, how else can we reach the 5.6 million civilians who are in hard to reach or besieged areas? We have carried out an extensive review of Irish Aid programmes. We have heard in other contexts about the difficulty for aid delivery programmes in conflict situations and how quite often aid agencies and Governments have to work with deeply corrupt and brutal regimes in order to be pragmatic in the delivery of aid to the people who need it most. How else do we address this and deliver aid, other than through co-operation with SARC, in particular, or other bodies that are otherwise compromised by the regime?
I have had the privilege of meeting the white helmets, who are superb front line humanitarian workers. I am conscious that beyond the white helmets, who are working in the most horrific conditions, there is a need for a network for aid distribution at a broader level. Is that why the WHO and other agencies are working with government-controlled bodies? Do they see that as the only way to deliver aid? Does Dr. Sparrow have an alternative?
Deputy Niall Collins
I thank Dr. Sparrow for her presentation. It was very insightful and had an impact on me. This may not be Dr. Sparrow’s area of expertise, but I ask her to outline her view of the implementation of the sanctions which are or are not being imposed on named individuals within the regime. How effective are they? What should be done? What more can be done in regard to sanctions?
Deputy Seán Barrett
I find this most frustrating. When I was Minister for Defence I visited troops in Lebanon and went to Syria to try to keep in contact with the regime because our troops were under fire from rogues who came from Syria. That was over 20 years ago. I find this a most frustrating problem because nobody seems to know exactly what the likes of us, as politicians in Ireland, can do at a practical level to contribute towards the solution to this problem. Aid is one thing and, of course, people in distress need help. Ireland has a tradition of doing its bit in respect of aid, but there seems to be no possibility that an end may come to all of this. That is the most frustrating thing for me.
Can Dr. Sparrow give us some light? We hear all of the bad stories. We know who is involved, who is propping up the regime and all of that type of thing, but the reality is from afar. Given that we have, if I remember correctly, about 500 troops in Lebanon it is very important to Ireland but has never been discussed. It is possible that there will be spillover from time to time, in particular where our troops are located. I am frustrated to have to ask Dr. Sparrow whether she would ask us to do one, two or three things of a practical nature to try to bring a solution of some kind to the situation.
It is all very fine to condemn Russia and so on but condemnation will not bring about a solution to this problem. I am searching for a ray of hope whereby if actions were taken in a certain direction, there might be a solution to the problem but there does not seem to be any talk of this.
Dr. Sparrow will note from all the contributions that we are anxious and willing to put forward to the Government and the Minister, in particular, specific proposals that she has, which could help to ease the situation. It is a huge task, unfortunately, as Deputy Barrett said, but has she specific proposals that she could outline to us which we, in turn, we could advocate to our Government and it could promote at the Council of Foreign Ministers or at the UN? We would be glad to hear specific proposals from her, if it is possible to condense them. I do not take from the gravity of the situation and the huge task that lies ahead to bring peace to the region.
Dr. Annie Sparrow
There are things that are being done that are pragmatic and will mitigate the disaster while providing a way forward. One of the most important is cross-border aid, the bulk of which goes through Turkey. The Syrian regime was able to assert sovereignty to control aid because it has a seat at the UN and sovereignty is a primary principle of the organisation. Syria is backed by Russia and China. Thanks to the persistent work of many governments and other key organisations in July 2014 cross-border resolution 2165 was put in place, which is a binding resolution of the Security Council and carries the most weight. That provides the legal authority for all cross-border aid. It is important to renew this because the assistance provided through cross-border aid is not obvious. More than 2 million people in Idlib can be easily accessed from Turkey still while Dahal in the south is accessible from Jordan. As the war appears to wind down, now that Ghouta has fallen, although the pattern of extermination or oppression of the civilians left in hospitals continues in Idlib, there has been talk of reconstruction and rehabilitation. There is a massive need in the country where life expectancy has fallen from 71 years before the war in 2010 to 55 years. That is a measure of the devastating public health crisis, which was not created by the sanctions, as is claimed by some people. That is a measure of the pre-existing policies, which were compounded by the weaponisation of healthcare and an inability to do surveillance of these most important global threats.
Renewing a cross-border resolution provides the possibility not only for Irish NGOs, such as Trócaire, Concern, Goal and Catholic Relief Services, to work from Syria but to provide direct support and funding to the massive health services provided by the Syrians themselves with much greater accountability. It is important to do that as well because it offers a pragmatic way to do the surveillance of infectious disease, which Turkey is behind because of the potential regional spread of diseases such as polio, TB and cholera. Ireland can get behind cross-border renewal, which is important, and instead of Damascus asking Russia to put pressure on Turkey to shut it down, it is good governance to keep it open. If that leverage is lost, more control will be in the hands of Damascus. When the resolution came into effect, SARC, as an International Red Cross agent, was allowed to dramatically increase the number of cross-line convoys because the government wanted to take back control. The resolution offers the leverage to make sure the government will give more aid in order that it can maintain control but if the government is permitted to have full control of aid by taking away the cross-border authority, it will not have to do anything.
Some of the sanctions were offset by the financial support of Russia, China and Iran. It is an interesting question. The US designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1978 and it cut off aid. The EU tried hard to use financial incentives and access to the European market. By the time the war happened, the Union was Syria’s most important trading partner. Economic sanctions had no impact on curbing Assad’s atrocities. He got through the first couple of years with the aid and support of Iran, China and Russia and then the massive multi-billion infusion of UN aid money was incredibly important. As well as the legitimacy it gave to a dictator surrounded by war criminals, it converted them into a state and a government. The fact that the UN has imposed no sanctions because of the Russian veto means the Syrian Government uses the UN to bypass all the sanctions. Countries or agencies will still work with the government such as ABET in America or companies that partnered with Russia recently. It is a form of economic prostitution. Politically, we can still call them out. These are war crimes committed by war criminals and the UN has agreed a special prosecutor to investigate war crimes. That was established in December 2016. Clearly it is a slow effort but the precedent for this is Kosovo where criminals were, ultimately, brought to justice with international endorsement, which we all believe in. We must still find ways to make the UN stronger. By endorsing and working with Assad, it brings the level of acceptable behaviour down to the lowest common denominator.
Ireland is an important state, which has good governance, is democratic and believes in basic human rights. The debate this committee is having now is important. The influence it has to talk about the conflict still is incredibly important. The country can get behind innovations. For example, even if the healthcare system is rebuilt, including all the hospitals and clinics, there is no one left to staff it. More than 15,000 doctors have left Syria with 1,000 killed and hundreds more incarcerated or disappeared. None of them will return and there are no resources for the system. Ireland can support an innovative and a pragmatic policy such as the accreditation of healthcare workers because the Syrian Government will not accredit anyone working as a doctor. There are medical students there who are the equivalent of vascular surgeons because of the experience they have gained but they cannot ever be recognised or paid. The only way to bring professionals back to Syria is to recognise them, give them status and allow them to be paid as such. That will require innovative but pragmatic tools. This also applies to teachers, architects and engineers who are required for the water systems. Medicine, in particular, is always controlled by the government.
The WHO has the authority, as a body, to get behind that and every country in the world has medical schools. Last night I was at the Royal College of Surgeons to support a curriculum and an accreditation system that allow people to return.
There are some positive things that can be done. In a world of pandemics and the threat of infectious disease, germs are frequent flyers and do not respect sovereignty. The only way we can provide care to people, especially children, and alleviate their misery by controlling their disease, is with resources. No one has access to health unless they have a doctor. This is why the weaponisation of healthcare works – no man stays where there is no doctor to safely deliver his wife’s baby or no place to educate children.
A radical but effective sanction would be targeted sanctions against the sons and daughters of the regime so that they cannot access the desirable colleges across Europe and Great Britain. Bashar Jaafari’s daughter applied to Columbia University in New York. People say we do not want to punish the children of the regime but Assad is British educated and his wife is British born, and also highly educated. They would respond much more quickly to a ban on their children attending prestigious Ivy League colleges. They would stop their war crimes, bombing schools and hospitals more quickly if we said they had to educate their children in their own country. It is a controversial suggestion but students at Columbia lobbied hard and said they did not agree with this.
Harnessing the power of solidarity and finding things we all agree on are important. Health and education are massively important in this and there are partners in Lebanon who provide health and education to Syrians using Syrian teachers. There are enough teachers in the refugee population to teach the Syrian curriculum, which cannot be done in Lebanon because it wants to teach its own curriculum. One cannot teach Syrian kids science through French because they do not know the language.
There are many things that can be done but the cross-border resolution allows aid to be provided and for NGOs to be put in directly and to establish innovative programmes like accreditation, which will bring people back as everyone wants. It also allows the surveillance of infectious disease which is an issue of global governance. The advent of blockchain can ensure a much greater level of accountability and donors will get the chance to direct their funding with clear knowledge of where their money is going, which will help the UN accommodate these things. There are pragmatic, political and financial tools we can still use.
We are under time constraints because we have another session at 11 a.m. Do members have any issue they wish to raise briefly?
Senator Ivana Bacik
I thank those in the Irish Syria solidarity movement, a number of whom are in the Gallery, for their work in continuing to highlight this issue. It is a war that has gone on so long that media attention in the West has slipped.
I see Valerie Hughes and others in the Gallery. They have been great advocates since 2011 in regard to these atrocities. I assure Dr. Sparrow that we will bring her evidence to the attention of the Minister, Department officials and any other relevant Government officials. We will bring to their attention the proposals she has put forward and we will ask the Minister if he can pursue these important issues with the European Council of Foreign Ministers and officials at the United Nations, in the different fora in which we participate. I sincerely thank her for her presentation and her ongoing work in advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable in the world.
Dr. Annie Sparrow
Thank you. It is wonderful that Ireland is so engaged and can combat Syria fatigue after seven years. I am really happy to see it.
Read the full transcript at oireachtas.ie