Thursday, 1 December 2016

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence Debate

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The Joint Committee met at 09:00


Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett Deputy Seán Barrett, Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Senator Ivana Bacik,
Information on Seán Crowe Zoom on Seán Crowe Deputy Seán Crowe, Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly Senator Mark Daly,
Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish Deputy Noel Grealish, Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden Senator Gabrielle McFadden.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh+,  

+ In the absence of Deputy Seán Crowe for part of the meeting.

Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith DEPUTY BRENDAN SMITH IN THE CHAIR.

  The joint committee met in private session until 9.25 a.m.

Situation in Syria: Discussion

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We will hear presentations in two sessions today. For the first I welcome the delegation from Syria: His Beatitude Gregory III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch, East, Alexandria and Jerusalem; His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch; His Grace Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, Grand Mufti of Syria; Dr. Ahmad al Khaddour, cardiothoracic surgeon; and Dr. Bashir Mohammad, cardiac surgeon. Syria has become a shadow of itself in the past five years, with the killing and maiming of so many innocent people, the mass migration of its citizens to a very uncertain future and the wanton destruction of vital infrastructure, buildings and many artefacts of great historical importance. Against this background, the joint committee agreed to requests from various interest groups with first-hand experience of these shocking atrocities to make presentations to us. The format of the meeting is that we will hear opening statements and comments which will be followed by a question and answer session with the members of the committee.

Ignatius Aphrem II: I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for having us. We appreciate this opportunity to tell our story and will try to be brief. We are here to tell the story of what is happening in our country. We truly appreciate the Irish experience of forging peace. We are mindful of the Irish efforts to bring peace to this island. I lived in Ireland for two years between 1989 and 1991. I was here when the peace treaty in the North was brokered and we thank God for the peace that prevails here. We are here to raise awareness of what is happening in Syria and tell the committee about the suffering of the Syrian people.

I am encouraged by what I see on the screen, the quotation of the former director of Louvre Museum, "Every person has two homelands, his own and Syria."  Syria was a homeland for humanity and we say that civilisation started in northern Mesopotamia and Syria. The first alphabet was invented in Syria. We have lived together as Christians and Muslims for 15 centuries, not without certain difficulties but we came to know how to respect each other and how to accept each other. What is happening today has nothing to do with religion or religious wars although it is being waged in the name of religion. Those who are killing us are mainly Muslim fanatics who do not believe in co-existence or in accepting the other. We have heard from many people that there is nothing called a moderate opposition. Even President Obama has said this to us when we sat with him two years ago. He said that moderate opposition was a fantasy and that it does not exist. We are facing terrorism.

Of course, there was and always will be legitimate demand for reforms in Syria, which is part of the political process of every country and State. We support continuous review and reform of our political system where everyone should have the rights and obligations as a Syrian citizen. All of us should be treated equally in the eyes of the law. That is our hope for the new Syria to come. Changing regimes and bringing reforms, however, at such a high cost with the blood of so many Syrians should not be the case. We are here to ask Ireland to help us to bring peace back to Syria. Those who fight with us kill our people, and kidnap our bishops. Two archbishops of Aleppo have been kidnapped since April 2013 and we do not know anything about them. A prominent Muslim cleric, Dr. Mohammed al-Bouti was killed inside a mosque and many others have been hanged at the doors of the mosques. Churches and schools have been destroyed. These people are not the freedom fighters they claim to be. They want to force on Syrians, both Christian and Muslim, their way of life which is dangerous for all of us but also dangerous for Europe and the West.

These terrorists have sleeping dormant cells in Europe and they can be activated at any time. His Excellency, the Grand Mufti of Syria lost his son who was killed at the doors of Aleppo University because the terrorists wanted his father to change sides but he refused. They killed his son. The next day a delegation was visiting him from Lebanon and he told the delegation that he forgave my son's killers and that his son's murder should yield peace for Syria. He asked the killers to come forward, to sit and talk and to enter into a dialogue. They, however, sent him a text message the following day that said they were not interested in his forgiveness. This is the situation we are living in. The people are suffering on all sides. Civilians are being killed but millions are also going hungry today. The churches and the religious institutions are doing a great job in coming to the aid and fulfilling the needs of these people.

We are overwhelmed by these needs. Our plea to the great Irish people is to stand with us, to pray for us and to advocate on our behalf to have real serious Syrian dialogue, to encourage the national reconciliation movement currently happening in parts of Syria. As a result of this reconciliation movement many armed people are giving up their arms and coming back to society. This is what we would like to see. We do not want violence and we do not want anybody to be killed. We want real reconciliation and for peace to prevail in Syria. We feel that sometimes we are abandoned by the international community because all the talk is about the rebels and what the rebels are suffering, but nobody is talking about how much the real Syrian people living under Government control areas are suffering. One week or ten days ago a school in western Aleppo was targeted by the rebels and seven children and three adults were killed. On the same day the University of Aleppo was targeted by missiles.

There are also many atrocities being committed by pockets of rebels surrounding our cities in areas where the Government is in control. I live in old Damascus, the historic part, not far from the straight street where Saint Paul was led to be baptised. Occasionally bombs are dropped on us by rebels who live not too far from there, about 2 km, and who entered the Jobar district and other places. There is no safe place in Syria for anybody. All Syrians need peace and Syria should be a mother who brings back all her children again, especially those who are in third countries and those who are risking their lives to make it to Europe. We want them all to come back but to come back and live in peace the way Syrians have lived for many centuries. Nobody should accept killers among us who kill us in the name of freedom and human rights. It is unfortunate that the Western media is taking most of its stories from a one-man show in London called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Nobody knows who is paying this man and who is supplying him with stories. There are so many stories our friends in the West do not hear. We are here to tell some of these stories. I appreciate the opportunity and I thank the committee.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank Mr. Aphrem. In case there is interference with the broadcasting system I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting. Mobile phones can cause interference with the recording and broadcast equipment even when on silent mode. Today's meeting is being broadcast live on Oireachtas TV. There should also be no photography. I must emphasise this clearly. Anyone who has a phone must have it turned off completely. I remind members who may not have been at the earlier session of the meeting of the longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body 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, the witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are about to give to the committee. If they are directed to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are only entitled thereafter to qualified privilege in respect of the evidence they give. They are directed that only evidence concerned with today's proceedings is to be given to the committee and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against an entity or a person either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Dr. Ahmad al Khaddour: I thank the Chairman and members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence for the invitation here. We are honoured and are privileged to be with the committee today. I am a cardiothoracic surgeon. After I lived and trained in the UK for 17 years I qualified from the four Royal Colleges of Surgeons in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dublin. I did my last exam in Cork in 2013. I was honoured to get this qualification. Having lived in England for 17 years, two years ago I moved to Damascus to work in one of the main hospitals in Damascus as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

I have come to the committee today to speak about the situation we are suffering on a daily basis, with a focus on the medical aspect. Syria has been transformed during this crisis from a country that exported medicine to more than 80 countries to being a country that is getting bits and pieces of medicine from here and there. EU sanctions have affected our medical system very badly. We have a shortage of supply on a daily basis. Children are dying because there is no medicine.  Children are affected by the weather because there is no fuel to heat. The situation is very bad and the European sanctions have had very bad effects.

We came here to pass on a message that Syria needs help from Ireland and similar countries. Irish people should come to Damascus to see the situation for themselves, rather than believing the propaganda. I take this opportunity to thank two people from the Irish Parliament, namely, Deputy Clare Daly and Senator David Norris, for their help in trying to reunite Syrian Palestinian, Mrs. Hajar Saleh, one of my nurses in Damascus, with her grandson, Gafar Azouz, who was the only survivor when his entire family was gunned down on the Turkish border. I thank the joint committee again for its help and for extending this invitation to me. I am privileged and honoured to be here today.

Gregory III Laham: Good morning dear friends and thank you for allowing us to appear before the committee today. Today, I feel we are part of the committee. Our concerns are your concerns and having us here today means we belong to one family. Dear friends, I have not come here to tell you about Syria. We are here as ambassadors for peace who are asking for peace in Syria. A short time ago, in mid-September, we gathered 1.04 million signatures of children in 6,000 schools throughout Syria and we brought these to the European Union to tell them that the children are ambassadors for Syria.

  King Solomon said there is a time for peace and a time for war. We have had enough war. We can have war forever but now is the time for peace. Enough speaking about the cross of Syria. The committee knows about that. We are not seeking to find out who is guilty because in war, everybody is guilty in one way or another. War is war. It is not human and not the call of God. The Holy Bible speaks of the mystery of evil - mysterium iniquitatis. We are now living this mystery of evil in this world. This is what we have to fight, not just in Syria, Iraq or wherever.

  We are here to work for peace and to ask the committee to create a lobby for peace. The Holy Father Franciscus will visit Ireland next year and we are happy for Ireland. He has made two pleas for peace in the Middle East. One of his pleas is for a consensual alliance among all powers of the world to fight something which is not part of the world or Islamic. Not one Muslim state will accept to be under the title, Islamic State. While it was in power in Raqqa, it is nothing today. The spirit of Islam is felt today. It is not the time to speak about Islamic or this or that. We must now change minds and the key to doing this is to have an alliance. We can overcome ISIS in a very short time if the two superpowers, Russia and the United States, come together. What is ISIS? It is nothing. The Holy Father says one can speak about peace and deliver money, valuable weapons and warriors to Syria. It is shameful that the superpowers are not able to deliver peace in Syria. Every little boy says, "Look, they are fighting each other, not ISIS". It is clear that there is a very shameful policy today. We can make peace by coming together.

  The second plea made by the Holy Father was for justice for Palestine. If we, as Jews, Christians and Muslims, sort out the conflict in the Holy Land, we can do a great deal for peace in the Middle East and the world. Therefore, we are appealing to Ireland, the land of peace, to start an initiative among states that pursue independent policies and are outside the system of alliances. This lobby for peace could include non-governmental organisations and states to make a worldwide lobby for peace. As Patriarch, I ask that the bishops conferences of Europe gather together to raise their voices for peace. Why not have a common paper of all patients because we know Islam better than others. We are like an ambassador for Islam to European Christians who are telling Europe and Christians worldwide to come together and produce a paper to show that we are peacemakers.

  Our appeal is to act on the basis of justice, love, forgiveness and dialogue, which are preferable to the concept of war. We are living with the ideology of "war, war, war". Let us have something else. As the Assyrian Patriarch, I am making this call with my colleague, his beatitude, and the Grand Mufti who is also our Mufti. It is absolute imperative that we change our outlook and ways of dealing with disputes. This cannot be done by means of arms and weapons. We must change the world today. Our message is that we must change the outlook of the world. The real power of our faith - Christians, Muslims and Jews alike - is that faith is part of the solution to problems. We are seeking something else and faith can help us to make peace in the world.

  Dear brothers and sisters, Christians and Muslims have a shared history going back 1,435 years. My slogan is that we should stay together to build a new world, we can stay together to build a new world and we want to stay together to build a new world. That is our mission. I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to appear before it and hear the view of some Christians.

Dr. Bashir Mohammad: Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be in this Parliament to talk about the suffering of my country. The gentlemen who have spoken are angels of peace coming from the heart of Syria. They represent the Syrian people and Syrian suffering and they are Syrian made, representing all colours and diversity of Syria. I am sure members know about the history of Syrian and the country's diversity, beauty and dignity.  The question arises as to why we came here. We love Ireland. We feel Ireland is the land of peace. It never occupied or colonised any country. Its missions and Army are always helping to maintain peace all over the world. We love this. We have close relations and we have a similar society and way of living.

Regarding the difficulties and atrocities in my country, it is a long story and there is too much to say, but I will try to condense it as much as possible. A few days after the events started, the hospital in Homs, the third largest city in the country, was attacked by militia carrying guns and shouting slogans against the Government. Everything was burned and stolen. After a few days, when circumstances improved, we discovered a nurse who was left hanged in the hospital. We realised at that time that we were facing difficult days. Hospitals in Syria were always safe, places where people could be given reassurance, satisfaction, help and support. Unfortunately, in my country, hospitals became soft targets. They became places for fighting and for attacks against all aspects of safety, security and reassurance. We can say for sure - I do not want to go through the presentation now - that 50% of our hospitals and medical centres have been destroyed, damaged, looted and attacked. Our staff have been kidnapped, tortured and slaughtered. Our ambulances have been stolen, damaged and burned, and sometimes used to kill people with explosions.

After the difficult relations with Europe began, we depended on ourselves for the manufacture of medication. Using the help and advice of friends and other countries, ours became a country that was able to export medication to different countries. My colleague mentioned a figure of approximately 80 countries. I definitely recall 54 countries to which we used to send medicinal products. Our medication met 80% to 95% of our needs. However, our factories were destroyed, damaged and looted and we became reliant on medication from the black market, purchased despite the weak purchasing power of our currency because of the siege. We became unable to buy medication for the poor people. In the time before 2011, our medications were well known to be of good quality and cheap.

The national health service in Syria was free for people. We used to pay only a little for very specialised surgeries, such as heart surgery. There were ambitious plans by the Syrian Government in 2011 to build 25 more hospitals. I refer to specialist hospitals, including university medical colleges. The objective was to create prosperity and peace for all the country. I do not know what happened but I would like to make one point clearly. Of course, we love peace. We are looking for peace. This is from the heart of the Syrian people. The sanctions applied to our country destroyed, damaged, killed and depleted our capacity to manufacture medication and treat our patients. It affected us in a very devastating way. The sanctions killed more than ISIS did.

I am proud to be a member of the royal college of this green country that we love. We would love the sanctions to be lifted now. We would love a good initiative to be launched from this highly dignified Parliament, and by the Irish people who are very close to our hearts. We would love the help, support, advice and experience of Ireland so we could rebuild the hospitals and meet our medical needs. We seek advice and for specialist hospitals to be built in the name of Ireland. We need our doctors to come to Ireland. Doctors from our medical college in Damascus specialise to a high level all over the world, including in every hospital in Ireland, England, Germany, eastern Europe and Latin America. We are proud of our universities and of our capacity to rebuild. We need the sanctions to be lifted and to be given an opportunity. We need support and advice. Ireland is a friend of Syria and we love it. We are looking forward to rebuilding good relations with this country as soon as possible. The airlines should be allowed easy access so help can be provided easily. The relationship with this country should be allowed to develop. I hope Ireland will be first in a process of opening relations with other countries, in medicine and other parts of life.

I assure the members that we are able, with the help of our angels of peace, to rebuild Syria much better, create peace and defeat terrorism. Stability will be the cornerstone of stability throughout the world, specifically in Europe. I cannot tell whether there will be trouble everywhere if Syria does not succeed. One can see with one's eyes what is happening now. We are, in our way, willing to create peace in this country with the help the Syrian people, Syrian leaders and representatives.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: In the name of God, I wish I could talk to the members in English but my language is that of the Bible, gospel, Old Testament and the Koran.  Perhaps the only target in this meeting is the Grand Mufti of Syria. I was following up what happened in the media during the past 48 hours and what is surprising is that many who speak in the media know me personally but do not want the truth to be shown or my voice, the voice of peace and security, to be known. I thank the committee especially as it has gone beyond these lies, did not believe them and wanted to hear from us. I thank the Irish citizen, Dr. Declan Hayes, who visited us in Syria. He visited my house and wrote a book about that. He swore that he would let my voice be heard. I thank Declan for that. I thank the Irish people, who have not colonised any country at all or attacked anybody. Therefore, I would like the committee to hear my story first.

In 2008 I was invited to the European Parliament to speak about the Islamic world. Some members may have listened to that speech. Before I reached the European Parliament and after me the Pope was coming, as well as the Dalai Lama. Two Arab countries asked the President of the European Parliament how a secular mufti was allowed to speak about Islam, arguing that only Saudi Arabia and Egypt can speak about Islam. Syria is a secular country and the mufti is a secular mufti. I reached the European Parliament after the vote and Syria had received high votes.

I spoke in calling for peace. I greeted the Parliament by saying As-Salumu Alaikum and good morning in all languages. The media criticised me because I said good morning and Shalom. For three years they criticised me. They said the Grand Mufti of Syria is greeting the Israelites. That is what they said. They quoted one part of my speech. They reported that if we destroy all the churches and the mosques in the world, it is much easier than killing one small child because man is the construction of God. We have built the mosques and churches. Back then they attacked me because I said such things. When the events started in 2011 in Syria, an Arab emir called me. He invited me to leave Syria and he told me he had a castle for me and my family. I told him I had to stay in Syria to be the bridge of peace between the opposition and the regime. I represent neither the opposition nor the regime but rather the Syrian people. When the regime is against the people, I will be with the people against the regime.

The response to my answer in this phone call was the assassination of my son five days later when he was at the door of the university. He had never held a gun or weapon. Before burying my child, I stood before everyone and said I had forgiven everyone on condition they lay down their weapons. The answer was they did not need forgiveness. This has caused me much pain but what is more painful is that a year after burying my child, the revolutionaries came to the place where he was buried. They took him out of the grave and I do not know where they put him. This is the revolution in Syria.

If this was a revolution to reform the regime, I would have been with it but it is a revolution to kill men. I made statements and that is what is being talked about in the media. The Islamic centre in Dublin is talking about this. Its representatives have said I will send terrorists to Europe to kill themselves. I do not know why they lie in their translations. I said not to bombard Syria or Lebanon and that if fire is burning in Syria and Lebanon, there are dormant cells in the world that will awake. I feared for Europe that terrorism would reach it. The same words were uttered by King Salman one or two years ago. They clapped for him.  A week ago, the President of Turkey said that this terrorism would reach Europe if Turkey was not allowed to join the European Union. Why do they lie about me? I have never spoken about an Islamic state, a Christian state or a Jewish state. The state is secular and civil. Christ did not build a state. Mohammed did not build a state. We build states and we call them what we want. Therefore, I came from Syria to Ireland to tell you "Please do not listen to the media". Come to Syria to see what they have done to us.

I have met some of those from London, Australia, Belgium, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who were arrested. I met them in prison and asked them why they came to Syria. They said the Islamic centres in Europe called them to come and install an Islamic state in Syria. They said they gathered money and trained them to fight in Turkey. I asked them what was their number. They said they were a group of 100 fighters. I asked them where their friends were. They said most of them had been killed. I asked them who killed them. They said that some were killed fighting the Syrian army. Some of them discovered the lie and wanted to return to their countries, so they were killed by the terrorist groups. Therefore, Syria needs you today so that fire does not spread to the whole world. Politically, let them open the doors and listen to the other side. I am ready tomorrow to go to the Islamic centre in Dublin and say to them: "Ask me what you want. I am ready to answer." However, I refuse to hear one side and just stick to one side.

A year ago, I was awarded the Ducci Foundation Peace Prize in Italy. I asked permission to go there to receive the prize but I was refused a visa. I, therefore, asked Bishop Kabugi to receive this prize for me. The newspapers reported that for the first time in history a Mufti from the Arab countries asked a bishop to receive the prize. They do not know Syria. In Syria, there are 23 million Christians, 23 million Arabs, 23 million Kurds and 23 million Muslims. We are one people. Only God will ask me whether I am Muslim, Christian, Sunni, Kurdish or Arab. What is preventing the Prime Minister of Syria from being Christian or atheist if he is just? This is Syria, which has paid a high price for 300,000 fighters who came from Europe and the Arab countries.

I thank the committee once more. I thank the Irish people. I ask you to send us food and medicine, to open your doors and help us find peace. I greet you in the name of the Syrian people in all their denominations. Thank you and God bless you.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank you for your contribution. I will now call on members of the joint committee to ask questions. They have all indicated that they wish to pose questions. Our guests all referred to Ireland as a land of peace. We know from our own peace process and the difficulties we had over the years that a number of essential ingredients are required in order to achieve peace. These include a cessation of violence, a meaningful dialogue between opposing sides, and respect for diversity. They are some of the essential ingredients needed to achieve peace. We want peace to be achieved in Syria and in many other trouble spots in the world as well.

I now call on Deputy Grealish, who will be followed by Senator Mark Daly.

Deputy Noel Grealish: Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish I welcome Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. I had the opportunity to meet His Holiness in Foscari with the Holy Father, Pope Francis. I have already heard his case concerning what is happening to our Christian brethren not just in Syria but also in the Middle East generally. Two years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the refugee camps in Lebanon with Cardinal Schönborn. We met Christian families that were forcibly removed from Syria by ISIS. We heard their harrowing stories and learned how they felt abandoned and forgotten. They do not want to move to other countries to live in refugee camps; they want to return home to their native country.

There is an onus on the international community, including all governments, to work together to find a solution to the problems in the Middle East. The latter should not be a pawn between the two major superpowers. I do not agree with the comments of Donald Trump about Muslims and Mexicans during the US presidential election campaign. Those comments only inciting more hatred. I hope President-elect Trump will retract his words and work to find a peaceful solution not just in Syria but also in the Middle East generally.

Ireland will be a friend and will work with the witnesses, but ours is a small nation. We have to punch above our weight both at the United Nations and within the European Union. I have asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to arrange a debate in Parliament, hopefully before Christmas, to get the support of the Government and the Oireachtas for a worldwide movement to bring peace to the Middle East. Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun is correct that sanctions do not work because they adversely affect ordinary people. I have read that 49% of Syria's hospitals have been destroyed, while 23% of hospitals are inaccessible, as are medical supplies that are desperately needed. I plead for these sanctions to be lifted in order to provide much-needed supplies in Syria.

Perhaps Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun could elaborate on the national reconciliation movement and how we can work with it. As the Chairman said, in order to achieve peace, one has to lay down arms and talk. If that does not happen, then peace cannot be achieved.  Perhaps we could work with the national reconciliation movement as a small nation to give example of what we have achieved in Northern Ireland. That took decades but I hope it will not be the case in the Middle East.

There are other speakers and I could go on all day. Perhaps one or two of the witnesses will outline their view on the Russian involvement in Aleppo. We heard from the archbishop of Aleppo when he was smuggled out in a steel container under a truck to speak to us in Frascati. He also spoke on the occasion we met Pope Francis. We know the harrowing situation and what is happening in Aleppo. Perhaps the witnesses will give us their views on the Russian involvement. I am delighted to meet the witnesses again and perhaps we will have a chat after the session. As I said, Ireland will be a friend and will work with the witnesses.

Senator Mark Daly: Information on Mark Daly Zoom on Mark Daly I thank the Chairman and thank the delegation for coming. I thank the Grand Mufti for telling his story and the tragic story of the loss of his son. I sympathise with him on the tragic murder of his son. He described himself as a bridge between the opposition and the government. In the past here, members of all faiths have acted as bridges in Northern Ireland, including Fr. Faul, Fr. Reid, and others from other denominations have acted as bridges when there was nobody else to act. It is very important that people of many faiths come together when politicians fail to talk to each other. It is important that people talk to each other.

The issue of sanctions is one we have been asked to address. As my colleague has pointed out, sanctions only hurt children and the elderly. The regime and those fighting the regime can get around sanctions but, unfortunately, civilians cannot. I agree with my colleagues that it is ineffective. It is worse than ineffective; it is killing innocent people. We saw that tragically in Iraq when the UN sanctions damaged the supply of simple medicines. That is the sad reality of it and yet now it is being repeated. Hospitals are without basic medicines and people are dying from the lack of proper medical supplies.

What is the delegation's views on what is happening in Aleppo? It is the one issue featuring on all our media at this time. There are many different areas of conflict within Syria. There is huge slaughter of innocent people of all faiths and religions. It is a tragedy of monumental proportions which, unfortunately, has its origins 100 years ago in the middle of the First World War when the fate of the Middle East was decided by powers in Europe that had washed their hands of their actions. The consequences are now being played out throughout the Middle East and they continue to fail the people of the Middle East by their actions and inaction. What are the witnesses' views on Aleppo, Russian and American involvement, what Europe is doing, what Europe is failing to do and what should happen? I agree with my colleagues about trying to get the medicine in and the issue of sanctions. I apologise as I have to go to another meeting.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I am concerned that we did not hear from any of the witnesses any condemnation of the brutal regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has briefed us on the fact that Assad has sought to undermine every effort at reaching a negotiated resolution to the conflict since 2011. While we may acknowledge the effect of sanctions on civilian populations, there is a reason sanctions have been imposed against the Syrian Government, and that is the recognition of the brutality of the Assad regime. We will hear later from Robin Yassin-Kassab about his experience and writing on Syria.

I would like to put to the witnesses some of the issues in which the Assad regime, together with its Russian Government allies, has been engaged. We put these issues to the Russian ambassador when he was before the committee recently. More than 900,000 Syrian civilians are under siege and hundreds of thousands are in eastern Aleppo which is being bombarded by Syrian Government forces, that is, by Assad's forces backed by Russian allies. We know from Médecins sans Frontières, the humanitarian charity, that it has 45 tonnes of medical supplies this week waiting to enter eastern Aleppo but it cannot reach the desperate civilian population there. I have spoken to people who have family in eastern Aleppo and we have eye witness accounts from Médecins sans Frontières of the suffering of the population there. We see and hear about the suffering, the civilian deaths and the deaths of children. We have seen attacks on hospitals. Physicians for Human Rights says that between March 2011 and May 2016, there were 373 attacks on health facilities in Syria. The doctors have spoken of this but the vast majority of these attacks were carried out by Syrian Government, the Assad regime and its allies. On 19 September 2016, there was an aerial attack on a United Nations aid convoy which is the subject of an international investigation. It was a humanitarian convoy targeted by the regime and its allies. On 10 August there were accounts of chlorine gas attacks by the regime.

I am concerned that we have not heard from the witnesses an attack or any sort of critique of the Assad regime. I am very concerned that the first speaker made the comment that there is no moderate opposition in Syria. Even the Russian ambassador acknowledged to us that the Russian Government is seeking to conduct local peace agreements and has conducted several with moderate opposition groups through Syria. All of us utterly condemn ISIS or Daesh and its appalling and brutal attacks on civilian populations. I absolutely agree with colleagues on that. We are very conscious of the Yazidi population. We are absolutely clear on that. We condemn ISIS outright because it has brutalised the civilian population. We also need to be clear about the attacks by the Syrian Government on civilians and about the fact the Syrian Government has resisted peace negotiations too.

I have a question for the Grand Mufti. We have heard condemnation from the Irish Syria Solidarity Movement of the Grand Mufti's speech in 2011. I watched the video of his speech on Syrian television on 9 October 2011 in which he says, "I say to all of Europe and to the US: We will prepare martyrdom seekers who are already among you." That was relating to the bombing of Syria and Lebanon. The Grand Mufti has spoken about that. He has had invitations withdrawn by other foundations following that speech. I am very concerned that it is the sort of speech that can inflame situations. It did not sound to me like a peaceful speech.

All of us here want to see peace in Syria. We would all support any genuine efforts to bring about peace in Syria. We have put that to the Russian ambassador and we will put it to anyone who comes before us. We want to see an end to the suffering of the civilian population in Syria, given that 13.5 million Syrian people are now in need of humanitarian assistance. It is devastating to see what was a developed, secular and diverse country falling into this horrible chaos. We also need to acknowledge the responsibility and where that lies. It lies very clearly with the Syrian regime.

Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Information on Aengus Ó Snodaigh Zoom on Aengus Ó Snodaigh I am substituting for my colleague, Deputy Seán Crowe today. I dtús báire ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh na toscairí atá anseo. I wish the delegation well on its journey. It has been a long journey by the look of it considering where Syria is today and where it was many years ago when it was an example to many in the world. I am from a party that was censored for many years and which had propaganda spewed against it. It continues to this day to a degree so I understand the need to have the truth and to see the truth for myself. I apologise that I have not been to Syria in recent years but the next best thing is to hear from these and other witnesses exactly what is happening on the ground. There will be versions of the truth and the job of the committee is to plough our way as much as we can to figure out where we can help and what we can do to help to create a greater understanding of the horrors of war in Syria.  The conflict has been simplistically described as involving Daesh and the rebels on one side, the Russians and the Syrian Government on another and the US and the rebels on yet another side. The truth is a lot more complex, as is the case with any war.

The witnesses mentioned the desire for peace and that is the one of the main points I will take away from today's meeting. Sometimes it is very difficult to see, in the depths of a war, that peace is a lot closer than it seems. The delegation here today is reaching out and calling for peace, as are many within Syria itself. I wish the witnesses well in that.

I ask the witnesses to outline what they can see ahead, beyond the destruction. The horror of the war sometimes clouds our vision. What is the vision, given what has happened? We cannot go back to the situation that pertained five or six years ago, so what is the new vision? What can be salvaged?

Have the witnesses' churches and faith followers been targeted in the same way as the Yazidis? We have all heard about the Yazidis, about the destruction of their homes and the fact that they have been specifically targeted during this war. Have there been similar sectarian attacks against the followers of the witnesses' churches?

Since the relief of parts of Aleppo, have the witnesses been in touch with people who have come out of that siege? How has that siege affected the people? Can they see any hope of peace? Mention was made of the tentative peace moves of late. Is it just the Russians who are involved in such moves or are there other negotiations taking place?

Mention was also made of the attacks on medical facilities. Do the witnesses condemn such attacks, regardless of who the perpetrators are or who is running such medical facilities, that is, whether they are controlled by the regime or the rebels?

Finally, I wish the witnesses well. In my lifetime I have never seen this type of horror rained down on a population. International wars and disputes are being fought out on the witnesses' lands, which should never have happened. International might is trying to decide the future of Syria rather than the Syrian people themselves.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Thank you, Deputy Ó Snodaigh. We have eight minutes to conclude this session so I would ask for concise answers to the questions posed. Who is going to take the questions?

Ignatius Aphrem II: I will because there were a couple of questions addressed directly to me. First, I do not agree that Ireland is a small country that cannot do much. It can do a lot. There is a saying related to Gaelic football, that it is important to get the points and not to worry about the goals, that the goals can come later. We can start, little by little, which is very important.

I agree with the points made about the cessation of war and the need for dialogue and respect for difference. That is also our mission and our demand. We want a new Syria, a Syria for all Syrians that respects diversity and gives a chance to all Syrians to serve their country. However, we do not think that having an opposition that is armed will help Syria. No country in the world would accept an opposition, moderate or otherwise, that is armed and killing people. I said there should be no more use of the word "opposition" because, as President Obama said, it is a fantasy. That said, President Obama and the US Government trained thousands of people and spent $500 million on the so-called "moderate" opposition but they all joined Daesh and al-Nusra, except for five or six individuals. I say this on the basis of US reports and information. It is not my information but comes from the US administration.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik What about the Russian ambassador's point that his Government is trying to negotiate with moderate groups and has negotiated peace agreements?

Ignatius Aphrem II: The Russians have also said that they have been asking the Americans for months to identify the moderate opposition but the Americans are unable to do so because there is none. That said, there are people who want reform and we welcome any opposition that is unarmed and political in nature. One of the opposition leaders in Syria right now heads a reconciliation movement. There are moderate people who are willing to sit down and negotiate. They are willing to give up their arms and return to society. There are thousands of such people. We have not been able to go through the suburb of alTel, north of Damascus, to get to our monastery because the rebels were in charge. Last week, however, the rebels came to an agreement with the Government, gave up their arms and created a local security apparatus to take care of the place and to make sure nobody would be hurt. This is what we are calling for - negotiation and dialogue among Syrians to find ways to live together. We do not want anyone else to be killed, even members of Daesh and other groups. We do not want them to be killed as long as they leave us alone and leave us in peace.

The atrocities of ISIS have been recognised as acts of genocide by the US Congress, the British Parliament, the European Union Parliament and the Australian Parliament. Perhaps it would be possible for the Irish Parliament to recognise the atrocities of ISIS and other fanatical groups against Christians, Yazidis and others as acts of genocide. Hopefully after that action will be taken on foot of such recognition that will bring those who are committing these atrocities to justice.

A question was asked about attacks on Christians and people of other faiths. We have been targeted as Syrians who are not willing to take sides. As Christians, we do not take sides. The Government wanted us to arm young people to guard our churches but we refused to do that at the beginning. However, our people found that they were going to be killed and crushed by the so-called opposition unless they defended themselves. Hence, some young Christians came together, took up arms and defended their neighbourhoods. I personally was the target of a suicide attack last June. I was in my home town and 35 m from where I was standing, at a gathering of people commemorating the 100th anniversary of genocide against our people during the time of the Ottoman Empire, a suicide bomber set himself off and two people were killed. I was only 35 m away from him. Two of our archbishops were kidnapped and we know nothing of their whereabouts. Many priests have been killed and many churches have been destroyed. Mosques have also been destroyed and Islamic religious scholars have also been killed. All the people are being targeted. Daesh and other groups act in the name of Islam but they do not represent the Islam that we lived with. We do not believe they represent the real Islam that existed in Syria for 1,500 years.

I will stop now because I want to give others the opportunity to speak.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Time is very much against us. We have only four minutes remaining.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I am very happy with the answers I have heard so far.

I am a son of Aleppo but I have been forbidden by the opposition to enter Aleppo for the last five years. Why has no one mentioned Bashar al-Assad? Two years ago his holiness and his beatitude met with Bashar al-Assad. He asked us to go to the opposition to start the process of reconciliation. He reminded us to take a bouquet of red flowers as a gift to the opposition so that they would come back with us.  I went to the places where the opposition were and I was able to bring back 2,000 opponents and they returned to their jobs. They were given an amnesty. A few days later the Qatari, Saudi and Turkish opposition made a move and threatened to kill all those who accepted the reconciliation.

The Senator said she heard my speech. I am 60 years old and I have never called on anyone to kill someone. I would like the committee to watch what was on television when, at 6 a.m. on Christmas Eve 2014, the opposition in Aleppo bombed the Christian areas. If committee members had seen how Christian children wearing their Christmas clothes were killed by the opposition's bombs. I will give the names of 4,000 people, half of whom were children and women, who were killed by the opposition's bombs in Aleppo. Give me the names of the civilians killed by the Syrian army. On that Christmas Day I went on television and asked the Syrian army to kill immediately any opponent who bombed civilians. The media stated the Grand Mufti of Syria pronounced a fatwa to destroy Aleppo but they did not see the churches and children being killed. I invite Senator Bacik and committee members to visit Syria if they want peace, and to meet Bashar al Assad, after which they can judge him and we will accept the judgment. Ireland is a small country but it is a peacemaking country. Qatar is even smaller, but it is responsible for four wars. Do not say Ireland is a small country, the peacemaker is big. I would like committee members to see it for themselves and not through the media.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I presume Dr. Badreddin Hassoun would have no problem with the legal accountability for war crimes in Syria or international investigations against the Assad regime as well as against ISIS for the genocide of the Yazidi people, and that international investigations for war crimes would also be conducted and started against the Syrian regime.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I am totally in favour of investigations on the condition they are unbiased, but this is not the case according to something the general secretary of the United Nations said. One morning he stated Saudi Arabia is killing in Yemen but that afternoon he withdrew the comment. I urge the committee to ask Kofi Annan, who was sent to Syria by the United Nations. I met him. He told me they could not make peace, but they made great war in Syria in which Russia and Iran are involved and Syria is their the playground. This was in 2013. I want an international committee, but it should have members such as this committee has and not a commission bought by money which will state there are chemical weapons.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik The Irish Government has a core objective in Syria and we have contributed €62 million in humanitarian aid to Syria. We are very supportive of peace efforts. We support the renewal of the UN-led efforts to renew political negotiations to end the conflict, based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and UN Security Council resolution 2254. Does Dr. Badreddin Hassoun support these efforts?

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I thank Senator Bacik but I would like her to come and see the truth herself.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik My question is whether Dr. Badreddin Hassoun supports the Irish Government's objective?

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We must finish because we are beyond our scheduled time.

Deputy Noel Grealish: Information on Noel Grealish Zoom on Noel Grealish We did not get an answer on Russian involvement. Can we extend the time for a few minutes?

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith No, we cannot, we are caught. One sentence on Russian involvement.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I visited Russia and Iran. After 80 countries were involved in the destruction of Syria the Iranians helped us with petrol. After the children of Syria died because of the cold and when the weapons came intensively from Turkey and fighters came from Turkey and other countries, we asked Iran and Russia so they would not state it is a religious country. Iran is Shiite as is Syria. When Russia came it stated it is an orthodox country, but Syria is a secular country. Russia-----

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Is there any Russian complicity in war crimes against civilian populations in Syria?

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: Russia and Iran did not kill any civilians. They came to defend the Syrian people.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith What about the bombardment of civilians?

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik What about eastern Aleppo?

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I am a son of Aleppo. I have two hospitals, which are benevolent institutions and charities, in east Aleppo.  When the opposition entered them, they looted them and sent the equipment to Turkey. I do not say this only in front of the committee; I say it in front of God. That is why I invite the members of the committee to come to Aleppo.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Dr. Badreddin Hassoun does not seem to acknowledge Russian or Syrian Government complicity in the bombardment of civilians in eastern Aleppo. That is not the reality we see.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: Between 2000 and 2010 this regime built 28 hospitals, three universities, more than seven churches and 100 mosques in Aleppo. Why would it destroy it?

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik To destroy the opposition to the regime. That is what it has been doing.

Dr. Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun: I swear to the Senator that the opposition is destroying it, not the regime.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Is Dr. Badreddin Hassoun saying the international community and the United Nations are wrong?

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We will conclude because we are not getting answers.

Gregory III Laham: I would like to say a little word.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith As I explained, we are beyond time. We have given the delegates more time than originally planned. I thank them for their contributions. They have heard very clearly from every member of the committee that the Irish people are only interested in seeing an end to one of the most horrific conflicts of our time. The carnage involving so many innocent people is deplorable. Committee members have reflected the concerns of the Irish people about this terrible conflict that has been ongoing for five years. We listen to groups and sincerely hope progress can be made. The questions and animation reflect the concerns of the Irish people. As their representatives, we have a duty to represent their concerns. I again thank the delegates for their contributions.

  Sitting suspended at 10.55 a.m. and resumed at 11.15 a.m.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I welcome Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab. As I stated earlier, the world is shocked daily by the level of atrocities occurring in Syria. The committee has asked Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab to appear before it to give a first-hand account of the situation in Syria and his proposals for alleviating the suffering of so many people there. The format of the meeting is that we will hear an opening statement which will be followed by comments and questions from members of the committee.

  Before the presentation, 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 with the recording and broadcasting equipment in this chamber, even in silent mode. 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 committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

  I now call Mr. Yassin-Kassab to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Usually I just speak, but I had to write this out as a presentation so I will read it. I hope it is not too stilted.

Liberated Aleppo is falling. The suburbs of Damascus are falling, or have already fallen, and are being cleansed of their recalcitrant population. The families of foreign militiamen are moving into these areas that have been cleansed. Silence is returning to a devastated and demographically changed Syria. This presentation is therefore more a lament for the defeated Syrian revolution, and for our failure to help it, than a policy recommendation. However, there are recommendations at the end.

Here is a summary of what I think has happened. From spring 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, millions from all backgrounds protested peacefully against torture, crony capitalism, corruption and poverty, and for freedom, dignity and social justice. They called for the unity of all sects and ethnicities.

The Assad regime responded with extreme repression, shooting protestors dead, torturing many, including children, to death, and prosecuting a mass rape campaign. By summer 2012 it had provoked an armed uprising of military defectors and civilian volunteers grouped under the umbrella term "Free Syrian Army". Of course, the Free Syrian Army was never one thing. It comprises about 1,000 militias under this umbrella. They are all widely different. Most of them are locally based and so on.

The regime deliberately started a war because it knew a serious reform process would end in its demise. It calculated, correctly, that in a war situation it could count on strong foreign allies, unlike its opponents. It was following the blueprint laid out by Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez. In the late 1970s he had met a widely based challenge, including communists, leftists, liberals, democrats, nationalists as well as Islamists, with severe repression. This provoked a desperate armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982. The regime responded by razing the city centre, killing tens of thousands. The memory of this destruction kept Syrians silent for the next three decades. This is the model for what is happening now. They have done it before and it has worked before.

Once it had started a war, the regime deliberately sectarianised the war, for divide-and-rule purposes, and actively encouraged the rise of Sunni jihadism to present itself internationally as the lesser evil. The notion that we have on the one hand a secular regime and on the other mad jihadists is wrong in all kinds of ways. The way in which it is most wrong is that it fails to recognise how the regime itself has been working very deliberately and very hard to build a jihadist opposition.

In 2011, while the regime was detaining and torturing tens of thousands of non-violent protestors, it released 1,500 Salafi jihadists from its prisons. These are the people it had helped to go to Iraq to fight the American occupation and, more to the point, to fight the Shia population during the American occupation of Iraq. When these people came back to Syria, they were all put in prison and kept there until the regime needed them again in 2011. These people include Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Zahran Alloush, the founder of Jaysh al-Islam, and Hassan Abboud, the founder of Ahrar al-Sham, as well as many senior people in ISIS-Daesh. These people were in prison in 2011 and were then released.

In 2012, the regime organised a string of sectarian massacres on the plain between Homs and Hama where Sunnis and Alawis live side by side. In each, the army shelled a rebellious Sunni village, then irregular Alawi young men moved in to cut the throats of women and children. The aim - it was successful - was to stir an anti-Alawi backlash among the Sunni majority, which in turn would scare Alawis into loyalty to the regime. Out of fear rather than conviction, most but not all Alawi have remained loyal. Assad and a large majority of his security chiefs are from the Alawi minority.

The regime practised a scorched earth policy on the areas it could not control, burning the civilian infrastructure and driving millions out. This provided the vacuum in which transnational jihadist groups could thrive.

The Assad regime has old links with Daesh-ISIS, having helped set up its previous incarnation, the Islamic State, in Iraq. For more than a year after it set up in Raqqa, Daesh and Assad did not fight each other. Even today, when the Free Syrian Army is fighting Daesh, the regime bombs the Free Syrian Army. An arsonist dressed up as a fireman, Assad has used Daesh, an enemy of the Syrian revolution, to present himself as the "lesser evil" although he is responsible for far more killing. Russia used Daesh as an excuse for its bombing, but over 80% of Russian bombs have fallen on the revolutionary areas, not on Daesh territory.

Even in these conditions, the Syrian revolution survived. Still today half of rebel fighters fall under the loose Free Syrian Army umbrella.  This means they are non-ideological in the sense that they are fighting only to defend their communities, to bring down the regime and to allow the people to decide what comes next. In other words, they are not fighting to impose a particular vision of, for example, an Islamic state on the people.

The revolution is represented by civilians more than by its fighting man, and this is what one hardly ever hears about in the media. At the heart of what is happening in Syria is what civilians are doing. It is the civilians who started the revolution; the fighters came afterwards in response to Assad's repression.

In areas liberated of Assad and Daesh, Syrians have set up hundreds of local and provincial councils, half of which are directly elected by the men and women of the area and the other half of which are quasi-democratic, practising various forms of internal and community voting and consensus. Let us not hear anything about the Arabs needing a strong man because they are not capable of doing democracy as in the most difficult of circumstances, when they are under attack by everybody, they are actually practising democracy.

Women's centres, educational health projects and independent trade unions have been established. In a country once called a kingdom of silence, there are more than 60 free newspapers and dozens of free radio and television stations. This is what is being destroyed today. East Aleppo now has the largest concentration of civil society organisations, democratic councils and everything from educational projects to theatre groups, and these people are being slaughtered as we speak.

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey provided arms to some sections of the opposition, but in an inefficient, disorganised and insufficient manner, and for the wrong reasons. For example, the Saudis and the Qataris are primarily concerned with their geopolitical conflict with Iran rather than the good of the Syrian people.

Far from this being a western regime change plot, as many here choose to believe, President Obama's most significant act was to veto the Qataris, Saudis and Turks from delivering the defensive anti-aircraft weapons the opposition so desperately needed. I have never called for weapons to be given to the opposition so it could invade Assad's home village or his palace in Damascus. The people need anti-aircraft weapons not to conquer new areas but to defend themselves from the scorched earth policy. President Obama vetoed that.

President Obama prioritised his deal lifting sanctions on Iran in return for nuclear compliance and implicitly recognised what he called Iranian assets in Syria. After the 2013 sarin gas attack, President Obama's red line vanished and the US took to treating Syria as an extension of the so-called war on terror which, of course, vastly increased the appeal of terrorist groups in the Middle East. Donald Trump seems set to continue on this course, but probably with less rhetoric and dressing.

Iran and Russia have intervened on a massive scale. Some 80% of the pro-Assad ground troops attacking liberated Aleppo are foreign Shia jihadists, organised and commanded by Iran. They come from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Assad controlled less than a fifth of the national territory before Russia's savage imperialist assault. Assad's army has not won a battle by itself for years. By now, its most effective units answer to local warlords rather than a central hierarchy. Again, the idea of stabilising the country by giving it back to the central Syrian state is an absurdity, because there is no central Syrian state left.

In the west in general we failed to understand the revolution, offer solidarity or even see through propaganda. It is quite shameful that earlier today propagandists from the regime sat where I am now. It has been noted in the Arab and Muslim worlds and will not be forgotten. It is one thing to invite a group of civilians who are pro-Assad, are worried about the revolution and think that it is the best idea to stick with Assad to appear before the committee. Those people need to be heard and talked to. However, having the representative of a genocide speaking here when the genocide is at its height, a man who has called for an army of suicide bombers to hit Europe and a man who has repeatedly called for the civilians in Aleppo to be murdered because they are all terrorists is shocking. I have gone off course, but those comments were shocking and have been noted.

In the west we failed to offer solidarity or even to see through propaganda. The right saw the revolution and counter-revolution in outmoded security terms, and so did much of the left, wasting time with conspiracy theories, Orientalist myths about eternal sectarian conflicts and the rest of it, and inaccurate common territories on proxy war chests such as this being a re-run of Iraq. It is ridiculous. We will live with the consequences of this. Walter Benjamin wrote that behind every fascism is a failed revolution. New forms of fascism are rising in the east and west, including here in Europe, as a result of our collective failure.

What should Ireland's Government do? In many ways, it is now far too late to do anything. It should not be inviting propagandists for genocide to speak to it. Civilian protection should be an urgent and immediate priority. At least 500,000 people have been killed in Syria, over 90% at the hands of the regime and its backers. The figure of 94% comes from the Syrian network for human rights, which is considered to be very reliable because it does not write down only the name of the person killed, but also details including the place, date and so on, and all of the information is verified. Some 94% of civilian, not military, casualties were caused by the Assad regime and its backers.

This is the lesser evil. Some 12 million people, or more than half of the population, have been displaced. Humanitarian assistance is absolutely essential but insufficient. Ireland should call strongly for a ceasefire, safe zones, prisoner releases - hundreds of thousands of people have disappeared into the Assad gulag - and for sieges to end. Currently, 1 million people are under starvation siege in Syria. As much diplomatic and economic pressure as possible should be brought to bear on Russia and Iran to deter their assaults. Russia should, for instance, be excluded from the SWIFT banking system for its repeated war crimes, employing incendiary and cluster bombs and bunker busters on civilian areas and targeting schools, hospitals and aid convoys, including the United Nations aid convoy.

Iran's Shia occupation forces in Sunni majority Syria are one direct cause of the rise of Sunni jihadism. Ireland had a sectarian problem that was linked to imperialism. It can surely understand that if one uses Catholics to police Protestants and Protestants to police Catholics, and then brings foreign Protestants to police Catholics, one may well have an angry Catholic backlash. It is human nature. Shia forces are not just policing people; they are murdering them.

Irish investment in Iran which, I hear, is speeding up, should be suspended until Iran removes these forces from Syria. This is in the interests of the security of Europe. If one does not care about people in Syria, surely one should care about people in Europe. Giving Sunni jihadists and identity groups an excuse for their narrative is not a good idea from a European point of view.

War criminals should be prosecuted. Even if it is not happening today, people believe that eventually war criminals should be prosecuted. Maybe that would deter them a little.

Ireland should settle many more refugees and work with other states to address the plight of permanently exiled refugees. We have a problem, in that the mood in the west in general, and in Europe in particular, is dramatically anti-refugee and anti-immigrant. People are scared of refugees, in particular those from the Arab and Muslim world. However, if we are now looking at an Assad or Iranian and Russian victory in Syria this means that millions of people will never return. That is the reality with which we have to start dealing.

For example, most of the city of Homs, which was conquered and pacified by the regime in 2012, is still entirely depopulated and its residents are in camps in Lebanon and Turkey. That is a model for the future of Syria because these people know that if they return their sons will be arrested and tortured, their houses will never be rebuilt and so on.

In the medium term, Ireland needs to work out how to deal with what is, in effect, a foreign occupation in Syria. The armed rebellion will continue as a long-term moral insurgency. I do not know what will happen, but it is possible now that the revolution has been driven out of the cities we can discuss the end of the revolution. There will no longer be democratic councils, newspapers and so on. It may well be the case that Syria will be increasingly dominated by jihadists.  Groups such as Nusra and Hara al-Sham will increasingly dominate the insurgency, as it will become. The war is not ending. The revolution, it looks like, is now in its last days. This will, in Syria, be framed as a national liberation struggle.

Ireland and others will have to be prepared for the jihadism and sectarian conflict unleashed by the tragedy. Symbolically, Syria is an immensely important part of the Muslim world and of the Arab world and the fact that it is occupied by foreign Shia jihadists and Russian imperialists is a development which will have major ramifications in the coming decades. Jihadists will be immeasurably strengthened by the defeat of the revolution in the urban areas, to the same extent that democratic revolutionaries will be weakened. This moment – the fall of Syria's Sunni-majority cities to Russian bombers and an international Shia alliance, facilitated by the West – will mark a new stage in the development of jihadism.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab. There are one or two items of correction. The Government does not decide who comes before the committee. The committee itself decides. We facilitate groups which request an opportunity to make a presentation to the committee. We give groups opportunities to come and make a presentation and to question them. The presence of any group or individual does not mean that the committee concurs with the views of those making the presentations.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I understand that absolutely. I wonder if the committee has invited anyone from ISIS to speak.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Just one second now, I am chairing this and I will speak.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Sure.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Mr. Yassin-Kassab will be given an opportunity to speak later when he will be asked questions.

Mr. Yassin-Kassab commented that if one does not care about people in Syria, then one should care about people in Europe. We do care about people in Syria.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Okay.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Mr. Yassin-Kassab might just accept that quickly. Those who proposed that Mr. Yassin-Kassab make a presentation to this committee - we are glad to be able to afford him that opportunity and to listen to his important contribution - would be well able to tell him that over the past five years the work of this committee and its predecessor was devoted more to dealing with the issue of Syria and listening to different groups make presentations about the awful conflict that is taking place in that country over such a period of time. We represent strongly the views here of the Irish people in their utter outrage at the carnage that has been inflicted on so many innocent people in Syria over the past five years and every member of this committee, a full Member of Parliament, shares that particular strong view and concern.

We will take a number of questions and then Mr. Yassin-Kassab will have an opportunity to respond. I call Senator Bacik, and then Senator McFadden.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I thank Mr. Yassin-Kassab for the presentation. He is very welcome.

Mr. Yassin-Kassab offers a bleak outlook. We would all share his distress at seeing what has happened in Syria and as the Chair has said, particularly at seeing the carnage inflicted on the civilian population.

I do not know whether Mr. Yassin-Kassab had the opportunity to hear the exchanges earlier where some of us challenged what we were hearing from the group that was in with us at that point. I will ask him to comment on some of what they said. Perhaps I will repeat what they said and ask Mr. Yassin-Kassab to comment. First, one of them mounted an attack on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and described it as a one-man operation. Could Mr. Yassin-Kassab comment on that?

Second, they asked about the lifting of sanctions. I, among others, pointed out to them that sanctions had been imposed on the Syrian regime, and, indeed, on Russia also, because of international condemnation of the attacks of the Syrian regime and its Russian allies on civilians, and we had an exchange about that. I wonder whether Mr. Yassin-Kassab could comment on what he sees as the effectiveness of sanctions. Mr. Yassin-Kassab spoke, in particular, on the need to expand sanctions against Russia, in terms of the banking system and exclusion from the SWIFT banking system, and maybe he could say a little more about that.

Could Mr. Yassin-Kassab also say something in response to the comments made by one of the speakers earlier that there is no moderate opposition in Syria? Mr. Yassin-Kassab has already countered that. Indeed, when I was challenging them on that, I put to them that we would be hearing from Mr. Yassin-Kassab and that Mr. Yassin-Kassab had a clear view, which is widely shared in the international community, that there was a clear moderate non-violent opposition as part of the Arab Spring originally, in 2011, that it was the start of the anti-Assad revolution but, unfortunately, as Mr. Yassin-Kassab said, it has been attacked from so many sides since, but notably by the regime, that it is now in disarray.

I pointed out to the speakers earlier that when we had the Russian ambassador in with us a number of weeks ago, he had spoken of local peace agreements being conducted by Russia with moderate Opposition groups around Syria which had led to peace in certain areas. Can Mr. Yassin-Kassab comment on that, and on whether that offers any prospect for any sort of peace to be more widespread?

Finally, many of us have been utterly condemnatory of the Syrian regime's brutality over many years and well before the 2011 revolution, and of the complicity of Russia and of Iran in supporting the Syrian regime. Does Mr. Yassin-Kassab see any prospect for the renewal of the United Nations-led effort to renew political negotiations to end the conflict based on the 2012 Geneva Communiqué and the UN Security Council Resolution 2254? That is one of Ireland's key objectives in Syria.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been clear that Ireland has been seeking to ensure protection of the civilian population. Indeed, we have contributed €62 million in humanitarian assistance in the past four years. We have been demanding legal accountability for war crimes. In particular, we are seeking to see that peace process restarted and we have been clear that a large obstacle to the restarting of that has been that Assad's regime has sought to undermine every effort to reach a negotiated resolution to the conflict since 2011. As I am a member of the Labour Party, I do not speak for the Irish Government. Ireland has made a clear position that Assad's regime has undermined efforts to achieve a negotiated peace. We put that to the delegation this morning and refuted the delegation's suggestion inherent in much of what it stated that the regime wants peace.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank Senator Bacik. We have a number of questioners.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am sorry that was a long set of questions.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We will take a number of questions together and Mr. Yassin-Kassab will come back to all of the questions then. I call Deputy McFadden.

Deputy Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden Senator, unfortunately-----

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Senator, sorry.

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden -----or fortunately, as the case may be. Actually, fortunately.

I thank Mr. Yassin-Kassab for his presentation. I will not repeat everything that Senator Bacik has said. She has represented the Government very well there and I thank her.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik I am not representing the Government.

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden I accept the Senator is not, but I support completely everything she has said. I was a little taken aback by Mr. Yassin-Kassab's comment that we do not care.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I will come back to this.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Mr. Yassin-Kassab can respond later.

Senator Gabrielle McFadden: Information on Gabrielle McFadden Zoom on Gabrielle McFadden As Senator Bacik stated, we care to the tune of €62 million, which is approximately €15.5 million a year over four years at a time when we ourselves are suffering. We had terrible austerity and a lot of homelessness, and we do care.

I would also like, as Senator Bacik has asked, Mr. Yassin-Kassab's thoughts on sanctions, how they work or do not work, and the effects they are having, given what we heard previously this morning.

I did not agree with much of what I heard this morning and Mr. Yassin-Kassab must not think that we should not have done what we did this morning. When one is looking for peace, there has to be dialogue and people have to hear both sides. Propaganda comes from both sides and it is important for us to hear both sides. It does not necessarily mean that we support what we heard this morning - I do not support what I heard this morning.

There is one comment Mr. Yassin-Kassab made in his presentation that worries me slightly. He stated, "It has been noted" that we heard this morning from the other side. I would like Mr. Yassin-Kassab to clarify exactly what that means. What does "It has been noted" mean precisely?

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I call Deputy Seán Barrett.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I want to hear the replies to those questions first.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I will start with the last. It was unfortunate because I honestly was not referring to the members of this committee. It should have been better phased as "if one believes". My point was not a dig at the committee. I was simply saying even if we forget about Syria, we need to consider these matters because they are in the interests of the people here in Europe.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We are representative. The Irish people, not only the members of the committee, care.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Okay.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith The full Irish people do.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I will not make a large statement about whether or not the Irish people care because that is too complex, but I am not accusing the members of the committee of not caring.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith That is fair enough.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I am saying that even if one does not care about Syria, this is urgent for Europeans. We cannot separate foreign policy from security policy, domestic policy and European policy in this issue. That is what I am saying.

I still think it was unfortunate. It was not the committee that invited them but it is unfortunate that they came in.  However, I think it is good that everybody hears from all kinds of groups in Syria, including people who do not like the revolution and people still loyal to Assad, but not from official propagandists. This is a state-organised thing and this specific person has threatened things that would get most Muslims banned from ever arriving in Europe.

I was asked what "It has been noted" means. It was not a threat. It simply means that it has been noted. I know that, yesterday, Asharq Al-Awsatnewspaper, maybe the biggest pan-Arab newspaper, and Al-Quds Al-Arabinewspaper were reporting on it. I know of those two reports, and I have heard from people saying they are shocked and disgusted by this - that is all. It is not just this committee, it is also Trinity College, and I think this person has gone off to sign some declaration against extremism today, which is a sad joke. That is what "It has been noted" means. It just means that Arabs and Muslims know about this and some of them are very upset about it.

In response to the issues the committee went over with the delegation this morning, in particular the issue of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, I do not have a problem with what they said. I agree that it is not terribly reliable. The one I quoted earlier was the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which I believe is very reliable. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is very often quoted on the BBC and by all kinds of people. It is based in Manchester, I think, or London, and it is really a one-man affair. Sometimes its information seems good and sometimes it seems very strange. I do not think it has the people on the ground to be absolutely sure of the information it comes up with. I do not know whose side it is on but I do not disagree with what the delegation said in that respect, namely, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is not terribly reliable.

On sanctions, I did not see the session this morning or the transcript of proceedings, but I gather that what they came to say was that sanctions are hurting poor people in Syria so they should be stopped. The sanctions on Syria are not like the sanctions on Iraq in the old days. The sanctions on Iraq were total blanket sanctions which hurt everybody. One could not have a pencil in a classroom in Iraq because the graphite might be dual use and could be used in weapons production. The sanctions on Syria are nothing like that in that they are very targeted. What is hurting the poor in Syria is Assad's war and, specifically, starvation sieges. There are also Assad's checkpoints which charge bribes and so on. If a bag of tea goes through a checkpoint, then the price dramatically increases on the other side because the man in charge of that checkpoint takes his big cut on it, and that happens several times, so prices are inflated. It is because of checkpoints and because of the regime's behaviour and corruption. The sanctions are not hurting the poor; the Syrian regime is hurting the poor. I think the sanctions should be expanded.

While I do not want to go off-topic, I believe Russia needs to be sanctioned much more than it is at the moment, again, in the interests of Europe, not just for the sake of Syria. I know Ukraine is a complicated issue and there is all kinds of blame to go around, but, nevertheless, having Putin annex part of the country unilaterally without any negotiations and promoting a hot war in another third of the country, in the heart of Europe, is something very dramatic which we should be taking more seriously.

Putin is attacking the European Union through Syria by deliberately creating tens of thousands of new refugees and, at the same time, having very good relations with and, in some cases, funding right-wing anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe. This is designed to make the EU break up. That is his policy; it is not a mistake that he is doing these things at the same time. Therefore, I believe sanctions should be expanded. I do not want a war with Russia. I also do not want a war with Iran, which is why I wish that economic and diplomatic means would be used much more than they are being used at present. Certainly, the idea of opening new business with countries like Iran when it is directly threatening the stability of the Middle East and, therefore, of Europe does not seem sensible to me.

In the context of there being no moderate opposition left, obviously I disagree. It is true there is less moderate opposition now than there was a year ago, and a year ago there was less than two years ago, and so on. Every day there is a bit less moderate opposition because people are being driven out of the country. In many cases, it is the better educated, more able people who leave as they have more money or skills, such as language skills, and they are better able to get out. The people stuck in Syria very often are the poorest of the poor, because one needs money to get out of the country. Even to get to a refugee camp in Jordan or Turkey, a person needs a couple of hundred dollars to pay a smuggler to get them through checkpoints and over a border. Many people do not have that money.

A few years ago there were over 700 local councils in Syria. That then went down to 400, which is the latest figure I have. After the latest advances of Assad and his friends, it is probably less than that, at something like 350. These, by definition, are moderate and non-ideological. There is a huge range of different kinds of councils. Some of them simply have the heads of families or tribal leaders in a neighbourhood nominate somebody from their family, and that person will be on the council. In other areas it is a straightforward democratic election, such as we recognise. In other areas it is even more complicated than that, in that all the farmers, or shopkeepers, or students vote among themselves for one representative, so there are representatives from different trade and social backgrounds, and so on. The members of these councils might be communists, Islamists or democrats. In a way, it is irrelevant because the reason they have been chosen for the position is usually that they are known to be a reliable person and have a specific skill, or know something about, say, fixing the electricity or getting the water back on after it has been bombed, or about education, so they can organise underground schools away from the bombs. These are non-ideological organisations and they are working in a democratic way. They are self-organised communities, working on practical things. They are not working on the ultimate aim of spreading Islam all over the globe; they are working on getting the electricity back on, educating the children and getting the health service working in difficult circumstances.

What more than that does one want? There are still tens of newspapers, television stations and radio stations in a country which Riad al-Turk called a "kingdom of silence", where six years ago there were no independent newspapers, radio stations or television stations, and if one published anything that was not official, one would be in a hell of a lot of trouble. The moderate opposition does exist. It exists inside the country, under fire, it exists in refugee camps and in cities like Gaziantep and Istanbul in Turkey, and nowadays it exists in Berlin and places around Europe as well.

Very many of those people want to go home. The overwhelmingly vast majority of Syrians want to go home. Not only that, if they have to be outside their own country, they would rather be in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey than in Europe in most cases. The reason they are risking the journey across the sea is that they do not have any opportunities in those places. In the camps there is no education for their children, no work and no future. They can put up with that situation for a year or two, if they think they are going to go home in the end. However, when it goes on for five or six years, and it looks like they are never going to go home, then people think, "What can I do? I am going to risk everything to try for a future in which I can at least work and educate my children."  These people want to go home and build again but it is not safe for them. It looks like it will not be for a long time.

I do not like Russia's definition of moderate opposition and local peace agreements. Its definition of moderate opposition is somebody who will do business with it. Anybody who will not do business with Russia or wants it or Assad out is by its definition a terrorist. That includes the democrats who I have been talking about. I do think Russia is the wrong person to be going about the idea of local peace agreements. There is a difference between peace and pacification. What we are getting at the moment is pacification. There will be some kind of peace, to an extent, in certain areas because one can do that. One can bomb the hell out of an area, make 90% of the people leave and then force the 10% left to sign some deal whereby they will be quiet, hand over their weapons and bow their heads. That is not long-term peace, however. It does not stop the long-term insurgency, which will continue, the jihadism or anything else.

Local peace agreements, however, would be part of the real solution. I am not looking for a total victory of the revolution. Even a year ago that would have been unrealistic to expect. For example, the Alawi towns near the coast, which are around the president's home village, are completely loyal to the regime. There is no point trying to take over those villages as it would be an imposition on those people. If those people want to stick with the system they have, then they should be allowed to stick with it. If Assad had been driven out of Damascus and went back to his home village, one would imagine that he and his generals would have taken weapons with them to defend their villages. Then one would have had local agreements whereby over ten years every group would have kept their weapons but stopped shooting at each other. Then, maybe after a certain point, they could start travelling into each other's areas and do business with each other. Local peace agreements would have been an important part of a solution if we were looking at a real solution.

Decentralisation would also have been an important part of a real solution. That would have meant more power to the local councils which had begun to build up. Even in the areas which are still with the regime, the people there may want to build their own councils. Syria has polarised communities and areas because of what has happened. If there was more decentralisation, in a conservative place, like Deir ez-Zor or Hama, one could have a local government which could decide to ban alcohol, while in another town with a larger Christian-Alawi mixed community, a more liberal, modern, urban community, its council may decide to allow alcohol and have nightclubs. The two communities could still be living together under the Syrian umbrella. It would help Kurds and Arabs live together because many people in the Rojava areas under the PYD, Democratic Union Party, want some form of autonomy. I think they should be able to have that.

Is there any chance of going back to United Nations-led process? Eventually, if there was going to be a real solution to this, of course, there have to be negotiations and the United Nations would be involved. United Nations negotiations over recent years have not gone anywhere. People keep saying there is no military solution in Syria. Unfortunately, Assad, Russia and Iran do not agree with that. They believe there is a military solution and they are prosecuting it. One is not going to get serious negotiations until the military balance is changed. That is not the same as saying there is a military solution and the outside world should get rid of Assad by bombing him. Instead, there needs to be pressure to make it more expensive for Russia and Iran, not for Assad because he has already lost. Their occupation of Syria has to be made much more expensive diplomatically and mainly economically. This is where Russia is weak. Its economy is not in a strong state. If people in the West wanted to, they could put a lot more strain on the Russian economy. If the military or economic equation was really changed, then they would feel they should negotiate and then there could be a serious negotiation, which would be good for everybody concerned.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith The inability to get humanitarian aid and medical supplies to the people most in need was referred to earlier. Is that situation deteriorating or is there any sign of any improvement whatsoever?

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: As far as I know, there is no sign whatsoever of any improvement. The main reason for that is, again, the Syrian regime. Aid in general which has gone in through the United Nations, the Red Cross and other organisations has often been stolen by the Assad regime. We see photographs of Syrian regime soldiers living in United Nations tents. We see pictures of military stores captured by the opposition which are full of United Nations food aid. As far as I am aware, that has not changed.

There are 1 million people under siege, which is the issue. The aid has never reached them. Most aid which goes into Syria is distributed in regime-controlled areas. There are communities in regime-controlled areas which need it. However, the communities in the opposition-controlled areas need it much more. Even in regime-controlled areas, the people who really need it are refugees from opposition-controlled areas who fled from regime bombing. They have come into regime territory because it is not being bombed. Those people are not by any means at the top the list for receiving aid. It is usually loyal communities which will receive the aid.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik The point I raised earlier was from a briefing we received from Médecins sans Frontières, MSF, earlier this week. It had 45 tonnes of medical supplies in a convoy waiting to enter east Aleppo. However, it had been unable to gain access this week.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: The Russians actually bombed an aid convoy some months ago. Again, that sums it up. It is important and essential to send aid, spend money on it and give humanitarian assistance. However, it is not going to reach the people inside who really need it unless it is backed up by much stronger political action, whether that is military or economic, against the people who are blocking the aid.

It is important that it is not just money and food boxes going into refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but aid in creating opportunities. That is one way which could stop the appeal of travelling across the Mediterranean Sea for those stuck in those places. In Jordan, they speak the same language as Syrians. For a Syrian, culturally it is not difficult and is easier to get around Jordan. They would rather be there. The problem is they are stuck in a camp where there is no economy, no work, and no proper schools. Accordingly, they have no future for their children. For generations, Syrians have admired education, and if they have an opportunity, they really take it up. For them, it is the idea that not only is their life ruined, but their kids are going to grow up illiterate and not have a skill. All Syrians will say they wanted their son to be a doctor but now he cannot even read properly.  Building schools in the camps and investing money in such a way that it will create jobs in these places would be helpful. There will have to be a great deal of discussion about the long-term future of these camps and about the provision of a great deal of help for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Lebanon and Jordan are small countries that are quite unstable already. Lebanon is quite remarkable in that it has not collapsed into civil war as a result of what is happening in Syria. We need to think about that. Zaatari camp is now the third biggest city in Jordan. It seems this guy is staying in Syria and therefore in 20 years time it looks like that camp may well be the third biggest city in Jordan. It will be like the Palestinian camps. In 1950 to 1952 the camps there comprised tents and it seemed the people would return home in a few years but in the place of those tents there are now multistorey concrete buildings in densely packed urban areas. That

may well be what will happen with these camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and they may spread along the borders just inside Syria. I have been just inside Syria on its border with Turkey and every few kilometres along it one sees another camp settlement. It will be interesting to see what will happen there. They may become permanent and perhaps Turkey will get the job of protecting them. I do not know if Turkey will deter Assad's planes from coming and bombing those camps. I am not sure what will happen.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett What is Mr. Yassin-Kassab's view on the future governance of Syria? We have identified all the problems. I have spoken out against Russia's involvement. Do people have proposals about Syria's future governance? We cannot let it go on. Regardless of whether I like it, Assad is still in place and he obviously has support. We keep talking about tragedies and I, like Mr. Yassin-Kassab, deplore them, but we are in the business of trying to find solutions to problems. I cannot see any attempt to find solutions. Everybody is upset and complaining about the current situation and about Russia. We had the Russian ambassador appear before the committee recently and I told him to his face that I thought it was wrong that the Russia was interfering in Syria just as it is doing in Ukraine. What I am interested in is solutions to problems. I am not interested in going back over everything. I do not agree with what happened but we are where we are. There is no attempt to have this crisis addressed at the United Nations or to have discussions. The is the one aspect of this that I find very frustrating. I am not qualified enough about the local scene to give an opinion but this is a Syrian problem for the Syrian people and that is why I do not like the likes of Russia interfering. Assad is still there. We do not seem to have any positive proposals, to which we could latch on, to support genuine attempts to put a new regime in place. That is the frustrating aspect about this. Unless we can get this crisis dealt with at the United Nations or can get people around a table discussing it, I do not know where this is going. There are so many different elements to the problem. I have been to Syria, admittedly it was 20 years ago. It is terrible to see a country like that being devastated. We are politicians and our job is try to find solutions and to support practical proposals that could bring about peace. I have yet to hear any proposal to which we could latch on. I do not agree with the Russians being in Syria bombing its people. They are doing the same in Ukraine. They walked into Crimea and the rest of the world stood back and let them do that.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: And they will do more.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett Yes, they will do more. I agree with all of that, but what are we doing about it? How can we go about doing something? How can a small country like Ireland play its part? I do not agree with certain elements but I like to listen to people, make up my own mind and form an opinion. Does Mr. Yassin-Kassab have a proposal we could consider and perhaps progress discussions or whatever. Somebody has to start somewhere. We can give out about Assad for as long as we want but, effectively, he is still in power. This is a problem that must also be solved by the Syrian people.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith Further to Deputy Barrett's point, could the Geneva communiqué of 2012 and the UN resolution Security Council Resolution 2254, if they are renewed, be the basis of trying to make the progress Deputy Barrett spoke of and that we all want to see? Does Mr. Yassin-Kassab believe they could be the architecture to try to bring an end to this horrendous conflict?

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: The Geneva I communiqué came to the conclusion that a transition should be negotiated. I absolutely believe that. That is the basis of any serious solution. There needs to be a transition and all the different voices, communities and perspectives in Syria and people who are scared of different people need to be involved in that. I am not talking about political actors but every community has genuine concerns. For example, in the case of the Alawis who are loyal to the regime, a small minority of them are loyal because they are paid up believers, but most of them are loyal because they are scared the Sunni majority will have a revenge on them in general, a generalised revenge. They are scared of groups like the Islamic State and of Jabhat al-Nusra for good reason. These people need to have guarantees that their community will not be attacked so that they feel safe to go forward with a transition. There needs to be a transitional government, a movement towards some kind of power-sharing or eventually elections in which people choose what will come next. Assad is in power, the Russians and the Iranians have kept him in power and I wish I could say and here is a new proposal: why does Assad not stay in power but give people X, Y and Z? I am afraid I cannot give the members a nice happy answer. As somebody of Syrian origin who has family members and many friends there and who is attached to the place, I wish I could but I cannot see any happy end to this. My analysis of the situation is that this is not going to end and it will continue for a very long time. It may well be that now that the revolution has been kicked out of the cities it really will become Jihadist insurgency almost entirely that will hurt us here too.

With respect to the sectarianism in the Middle East, I think we have not seen anything yet. We have now got a chain of wars with sectarian aspects to them in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, although it is quiet, and it is spreading all over the place. The change in the power balance between Iran and other countries in the region is affecting this. I am afraid I cannot give the Chairman a happy answer. I would love to be able to but I cannot. I have said what I believe should be part of the solution, namely, decentralisation, a bigger role for local government, local ceasefires and a United Nations-led negotiation aiming for a transition but without something changing the military or economic balance against Assad and primarily Russia and Iran we are not going to get there.  It seems to me that Russia and Iran are happy with a kind of permanent managed war in the Middle East, but it is not good for us. It is not good for the Middle East, it is not good for Europe and it is not good for the world.

I disagree with Deputy Barrett's comments on Assad. The Deputy is correct in saying Assad has some Syrian support. He has support for a range of reasons, whether fear or love. However, he does not have enough support to get people to fight for him. As I said, 80% of the ground troops surrounding Aleppo are not Syrian. I ask the committee to consider that. The most effective fighting groups in the Syrian army now are groups such as the Desert Hawks, for example, which is loyal to a man called Suheil al-Hassan, who is a warlord from the Hama area. His fighting men are loyal to him, not to Bashar al-Assad or to the Syrian state. Yes, there are people who still want to stick with Assad, but supposedly loyal people are trying to leave the country rather than fight for him. He cannot find fighting men any more. Two months or two and a half months ago, when the rebels briefly broke the siege on Aleppo, if the committee remembers that - I have forgotten what I was going to say. Sorry.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett In case I am misunderstood, the point I am trying to make is that, whether I or Mr. Yassin-Kassab or anybody else likes it or not, Assad is in place. Therefore, does Mr. Yassin-Kassab not agree - or does he disagree - that Assad must be involved in any attempt to start negotiations?

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Of course he must be involved.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett That is all I wanted-----

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: Absolutely, he must be involved, but the negotiations will go nowhere unless the equation changes. That is all I am saying.

Deputy Seán Barrett: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I am trying to find a way forward and to learn from people such as Mr. Yassin-Kassab and others. He knows more about the local scene than I do, to be frank and honest with him. It is a matter of trying to get to a point at which somebody must say or try to do something to commence some sort of negotiations, whether with the United Nations or any other body. As Mr. Yassin-Kassab said, this thing could go on for years. None of the big powers, such as the United States, seems to be showing any great interest in it. The situation is drifting. It is a little like Lebanon. We in Ireland know a little about Lebanon because we have had troops there for 30 years on a peacekeeping mission. It is a matter of trying to find some way, whatever small input we might have, to commence some actions that might bring about the beginning of talks aimed at a resolution.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I thank Mr. Yassin-Kassab for his presentation and its detail and for his deep knowledge, passion and commitment in trying to find a resolution to this awful conflict. It must be the most horrific conflict of our time. At our earlier meeting I said that from our experience in this country, a number of key ingredients are essential for peace: the cessation of violence, meaningful dialogue between opposing sides and respect for diversity. We sincerely hope some progress can be made. It is terrible to watch every day the bombardment of people and families fleeing. According to the most recent figures I saw, around 50,000 people have fled or been forced from their homes in Aleppo, and the conflict constitutes the biggest massacre of civilians since the Second World War. It is a really frightening picture. There is a very serious obligation on the international community and international organisations to work as best they can to bring about a much needed peace and an end to this horrendous conflict. I thank Mr. Yassin-Kassab very sincerely for his presentation.

Mr. Robin Yassin-Kassab: I thank the committee for having me.

  The witnesses withdrew.

Recent Actions of Government of Turkey: Motion

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith We have another item of business. We have received correspondence from the Italian Senate regarding the arrest of Members of Parliament in Turkey. We have also received a briefing note on the matter from the Department. A motion on the matter has been submitted by Deputy Seán Crowe.

Deputy Seán Crowe: Information on Seán Crowe Zoom on Seán Crowe I move:

That the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence:
- is extremely concerned about the Turkish Government's intensified crackdown against the political opposition, Kurdish civilians, the media, educators and civil society;

- believes that the Turkish Government is disregarding the rule of law and democratic processes;

- condemns the arrest and detention of 11 democratically elected Members of the Turkish Parliament, from the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third biggest party in the Parliament, on 3 November 2016;

- is aware that other HDP MPs have had their passports revoked and arrest warrants have been issued for their arrest;

- calls on the Turkish authorities to immediately release these 11 MPs and to drop the spurious charges against them;

- requests that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, raises the issue with his Turkish counterpart;

- and further requests that the Chairperson of this Committee forwards this motion to the Chairperson of the Turkish Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The motion concerns the arrests of the 11 members of the Halklarn Demokratik Partisi, HDP. We have had a number of discussions on the matter. We have invited journalists in from Turkey who gave a background of what is happening to them. I was to meet last week with one member of the HDP whose passport was blocked by the Turkish Government. He is in limbo in Brussels. This follows a whole pattern of arrests not only of MPs, but also of mayors and other elected representatives within Turkey. The motion speaks for itself. I seek support for it from the committee.

Senator Ivana Bacik: Information on Ivana Bacik Zoom on Ivana Bacik Like Deputy Crowe, I met with the adviser to the MP who had been prevented from travelling. I support the motion and have countersigned it. I think Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Darragh O'Brien have also done so. We ask that it be forwarded to the chairperson of the Turkish Parliament committee on foreign affairs.

Question put and agreed to.

Chairman: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I propose that we also forward a copy of the motion agreed by our committee to the Italian Senate.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.15 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Thursday, 15 December 2016.

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