Situation In Syria: Discussion with Syrian Irish Humanitarian Aid

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade Debate

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Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen We have a quorum so the meeting can now begin in public session. I remind committee members and those in the public Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting, as they cause interference with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.

Today’s meeting is on the crisis in Syria. We have a presentation by representatives of the Syrian Irish Humanitarian Aid. The meeting will be fully devoted to a discussion on the escalating crisis in Syria. The committee shares with many others the great concern at the situation, in particular the serious escalation the level of violence that we have seen in recent weeks. The failure of all parties to abide by their obligations under the Annan six point plan is a serious disappointment, but it appears that the full implementation of the plan is the only realistic and available basis to solve the crisis in a peaceful and negotiated manner and to prevent further deterioration in this bitter sectarian conflict. The lack of progress in forging closer opposition unity and co-operation remains disappointing and problematic. An inclusive approach, bringing together both internal and external opposition, and an agreement on a common platform or a vision for a democratic post-Assad Syria is essential.

While the search for solutions is ongoing, the most appalling human rights violations are occurring on a daily basis in Syria. The killings and other abuses, especially the recent massacres in al-Houla and al-Kubair, have rightly been condemned by the Irish Government. The UN commission of inquiry reported in February that it suspected that Syrian state forces have committed widespread systematic and gross human rights violations, amounting to crimes against humanity, with the knowledge and consent of President Assad and senior members of his regime.

The human rights and legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people must always be to the fore when we are examining the situation. Three of our four witnesses today are Syrian nationals who are resident in Ireland. It is important that we listen to their views and experiences and through them, the views and experiences of their families in Syria who are feeling what is happening out there. Before I introduce our witnesses, I should say that we have considered it advisable that we only use their first names. I ask committee members to be conscious of that. I will introduce them as Dr. Hassan, Mr. Fadi and Mr. Ibroheem. Of course we all know Mr. Ronan Tynan.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I wonder if I could raise a technical point. Our esteemed guests may well be in danger, but I wonder if it is appropriate to ask the broadcasting unit not to broadcast their images either. They could be easily recognised.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen That arrangement has already been agreed with the broadcasting unit and with the witnesses themselves.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris Thank you. I was not aware of that.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I welcome you all and I thank you sincerely for coming along to brief committee members on the current situation in Syria. I know you are in daily contact with your families in Syria. Before I invite Dr. Hassan to make his presentation on behalf of the group, I would like to remind witnesses that you are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the utterances at this committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your remarks. You are directed that only comments and evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings are to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise nor make charges against any Member of either House of the Oireachtas, any person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I now invited Dr. Hassan to address the committee this afternoon.

Dr. Hassan: Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity for talking about the disastrous situation in Syria. I am Dr. Hassan and I am here in Ireland since 2003. I am a consultant in one of the hospitals in Dublin and I will be moving shortly to a permanent job in Drogheda. I enjoy working in Ireland. As Syrians, we are very happy here and we enjoy the Irish environment. I enjoy delivering medical services to Irish women. However, since March 2011 our lives have become miserable. The situation in Syria is heartbreaking. What is going on is unbelievable. The saddest thing for us is that the world is watching us being killed by our Government, by our security forces and by our Syrian army without doing anything about it. We unfortunately believe that the international community is helping Assad’s regime to continue doing what he is doing, by giving him more opportunities and more time to do what he is doing now.

I say this for a reason. We all remember UN Resolution 1973 against Libya in March 2011, when the UN Security Council voted for a military intervention after only 4,000 people were killed in that country. Everybody here knows that the death toll in Syria is now 15,000. We do not know the number of disappeared. The Syrian people genuinely believe that any disappeared person is dead until proven otherwise. We know that the Syrian Government will not hesitate in killing anyone. The security forces have a clear order to shoot to kill anybody they suspect, whether they are emotionally supporting the opposition or really supporting them.

I do not wish to talk about what I know, but I would like to quote the report of the UN extraordinary meeting against torture on 26 May. It stated that the Syrian Government is responsible for most of the human rights violations in Syria. The report went into detail on security forces breaking into houses and carrying out mass arrests, taking detainees to unknown places, torturing them, and putting them in stressful positions for a long time, such as days or even weeks. It also stated that they were arresting women as well and taking them into detention, and carrying out all kinds of human rights abuses, such as rape, brutalising them and even using cigarettes to burn their genitalia. I am sorry to have to repeat that, but it is in the report. It is disgusting. We cannot believe that what is happening to Syrian people is done by those who are supposed to protect them.

The UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict said that when her team left the country, they produced an horrific report. We understand children could be killed in a street fight, but we do not believe they should be taken away from their families to be used as human shields. We know that Syrian people have a right to defend themselves in any way they can, with whatever they have, although there is no comparison at all between the two forces. However, the Government, in order to prevent those defenders from attacking the people who are going there to kill them, is placing children on tanks and buses and trucks. They say the children are there just to prevent the security forces from being attacked. The latest statistics showed that around 1,500 children have died, but we do not know exactly how many children have been arrested or were in detention. What about the number of children being tortured and suffering all types of abuse, up to sexual abuse? She met some children who still had signs of torture on their bodies.

The other problem is the treatment of women. The Government makes no distinction between men and women, between defenders and fighters, or anything else. Too many women are being arrested and being taken into detention, and all types of human rights abuses are going on. There was a mass rape event in Syria. In my last interview with RTE1, on 22 May, I mentioned that we were receiving calls for emergency contraception from Syrian women who had been raped. In the last two weeks, there have been urgent calls from Syrian woman to Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia. As the committee members know, abortion is forbidden in our religion, as it is in Ireland. These women called to request urgent permission for termination. Thousands of women were made pregnant through rape. This is the situation, but in this context we are talking only about human rights abuses. There is also the question of cities. Unfortunately, none of our cities is safe. He sent trucks, tanks and helicopters with machine guns to blow up most of the cities - any city he suspected of harbouring opposition or militia. He kept bombing those cities without confirmation of whether his suspicions were correct. Perhaps 150 of our cities and villages have been demolished completely, and we do not know how long this problem will last.

How many thousands of people must be killed before we reach the threshold of action? How many women must be raped before action is taken? How many children will have to disappear? I could give a random number, but when one talks to Syrians, they will say they do not care. They are happy that a person died because they do not have to think about him. The problem is the people who survive torture, abuse and everything else. What will happen to them? What about the children who were abused or saw their parents being killed in front of them? What will happen to them, psychologically, in the future? At some stage Syria will wake up to its huge disaster and humanitarian crisis. I hope the committee members will think seriously about our situation. We badly need to protect our people. Our people are really suffering, and the government does not respect any resolutions, whether they are from the UN Security Council or any other organisation. It failed to commit to Kofi Annan’s plan; none of the six points has been adopted. Before that, it did not listen to the Arab League plan. It feels it is secure, and it has received a false message from the international community that it can continue to suppress the people. We feel that even the international community is acting with the Government.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I must be excused for ten minutes, as I need to speak in the Chamber. The Vice Chairman will take over.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan took the Chair.

Dr. Hassan: What we really need is a call for military intervention. This is very important, because there is no political negotiation with the regime. There is no way. It will not listen, because of all the crimes it has committed and the massacres in Houla, Al-Qubair and elsewhere. Even the UN observers were not safe from him. He will never listen to any type of diplomatic negotiation. I am begging you all - on behalf of thousands of people who have been killed in Syria, thousands of women who have been raped or widowed, thousands of children who have been orphaned, abused or raped, and thousands of honest people whose hearts are bleeding - to please take action. All of you who are watching this Government killing our people should do something. The one who watches the crime without intervening is partly responsible for that crime. I am begging the Irish Government, through the United Nations and the EU, to do something to protect our people.

Vice Chairman: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I thank Dr. Hassan. We all agree that we have been conscious of the situation in Syria for some time. Even though foreign media have been excluded, there has been extensive reporting. We are also conscious of the criticisms by Amnesty International and others of the UN Security Council and its failure to address the issues now emerging. Members will generally agree that this is a failure by the institutions of the UN to address a pressing and emerging issue, for various internal reasons which apparently affect the Security Council. Dr. Hassan is correct in stating that nothing can excuse the kinds of atrocities that have taken place. There is no excuse for that at all. Civilisation has a responsibility to deal with these issues, and those who have so far refused to accept their responsibilities on the Security Council in a humanitarian way should look again at the purpose for which the Security Council exists in the first place.

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn Are there more witnesses?

Vice Chairman: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan There is one presentation, and the witnesses will respond to questions raised by members.

Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I thank the Chairman for convening this meeting, because it gives us a valuable opportunity to hear directly from people whose families are affected by this awful tragedy. We had the occasion yesterday of a Topical Issue debate in the Dáil in which Deputy Ann Phelan and I raised this matter. We heard in the opening remarks of the Chairman the position the Government is adopting, and Dr. Hassan has set out a position that is somewhat in conflict with that, because the official response is that a diplomatic initiative must be continued with and that this monstrous regime must be brought to finality. Dr. Hassan is clearly disagreeing with that. Is it not the case, as our Vice Chairman has said, that were the Russian and Chinese authorities to react differently in terms of support for the Annan plan, it would have a greater prospect of success? Is it not right, notwithstanding the legitimate point made about Libya and the number of deaths? It is unusual for a Member of Parliament from rural Ireland to be lobbied about international issues but it occurs from time to time. There is widespread concern, however, throughout the country in urban and rural locations about what people are seeing on their television screens each evening and about the monstrous attacks by the Assad regime. Initially one would have thought of Bashar al-Assad as a monstrous leader. It would appear now that he is perhaps a puppet leader representing a monstrous family in government. Nonetheless, do we not have a responsibility to continue to advocate for a diplomatic response within a reasonable timeframe? Should those of us in Ireland and Europe not challenge the Russian and Chinese authorities to face up to their responsibilities? Will the delegation comment on the role, if any, the Iranian Government might have in what is transpiring and whether President Ahmadinejad is providing mercenaries or arms to the regime to enable it to continue? The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was quoted in The Financial Times and elsewhere yesterday as saying that the Russian Government is supplying attack helicopters. If this is the case every EU Government should at least be calling in their Russian ambassadors and expressing directly their abhorrence of any such initiative by the Russian Government. Will the delegation address some of these issues if possible?

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn I followed the comments by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in respect of Russia allegedly supplying attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. It is a regime not a democratic Government. The Assad regime must go. All the undemocratic regimes throughout the region must go. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of spending some days in Tunisia and of meeting the President and various senior Ministers. There is an exciting transition towards a real Arab democracy and I hope this will gather momentum throughout the region. The Tunisian dictator had to go, the dictator in Egypt had to go, the dictator in Libya had to go and the Assad regime must go. The issue is how we get to that point and how we manage the transition. The call from the delegation today is for us to support the referral of the Assad regime, including President al-Assad, to the International Criminal Court. I am the Sinn Féin spokesperson on foreign affairs. Our party has no difficulty with that call. There is no doubt that the regime has been given every opportunity within reason to meet its responsibilities.

The developments since Kofi Annan and others have moved in to try to agree a resolution have been devastating. The last two massacres we have heard reports of, especially the massacre of children and the mass rape and intimidation, are beyond the Pale - this is a phrase we use in Ireland. They are completely unacceptable. This is where it has come to. How do we manage the transition? That is the challenge. The French Foreign Minister has called for the Kofi Annan plan to be mandatory and for the UN Security Council to make it mandatory rather than optional. This is the position and this is as it must be. There is no more room for options or manoeuvre. If this is agreed, the logical extension is that if the Annan plan is not honoured then the United Nations must intervene and take action. We cannot stand by and watch a repeat of the massacres we have seen in recent times.

It has been a deeply frustrating time for the Syrian people. They are victims of international geopolitics. Russia and China maintain the reason they have not supported the UN Security Council with decisive action against this regime is because of what occurred in Libya but one cannot compare one crisis with another. One must make decisions on a case-by-case basis. It has reached the point in Syria where it must become mandatory. International will must be accepted and, if it is not, then there will probably have to be an intervention.

The opposition in Syria is splintered. I have read a good deal about it and carried out some analysis and I believe the issue is that if the United Nations were to make an intervention it would have to stay there for quite some time to manage a peaceful transition to real democracy. I am convinced the Syrian people will have democracy and freedom and this regime will be brought down as others have been. I thank the delegation for coming here today. I hope we can take more decisive action and do what is right by the people of Syria.

Deputy Pat Breen resumed the Chair

Deputy Eric Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne Zoom on Eric J. Byrne I apologise for being somewhat late but I have read the documentation provided to us. The delegation is more than welcome. I feel somewhat like the Dutch peacekeepers in Bosnia who may or may not have been able to prevent an event from occurring. Ireland and this committee are cornered by international politics and regional power plays. It has become clear to me in the recent past that horrendous crimes are being carried out in Syria. Ultimately, people must be brought before the International Criminal Court. That is a rather easy statement to make. The problem is who to go after and who will arrest and bring these people to trial. I acknowledge the comments made by the delegation about a military intervention. Like the delegation, I am mindful of the power play under way at the UN Security Council between China and Russia on one hand and other progressive governments on the other side. The Iranian and Saudi Arabian regional powers are playing out a role as well. I am speechless. It appears that the Assad regime uses heavy armoured machinery. Those involved bombard villages and towns and then the cut-throat merchants and the militia follow. They appear to be using tactics comparable to those used by the Israelis against the Palestinians in the infamous camps, the names of which I cannot remember. There were two camps that the Israelis used to soften up-----

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris Sabra and Shatila. To be fair, that was not the Israelis. They stood by-----

Deputy Eric Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne Zoom on Eric J. Byrne No. There was a softening-up process.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I am simply correcting a fact. They stood back and allowed----

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Through the Chair, if you do not mind.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris Yes, through the Chair.

Deputy Eric Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne Zoom on Eric J. Byrne After the softening-up process the powerfully armed militia moved in and wiped out the Palestinians.

We are all mindful of a spillover effect and we have almost seen it happen already in the Lebanon. We all want democracy but the struggle to achieve it is not something that we can arrive at by simply clicking one’s fingers. I seek guidance from the delegation on how best to influence our Government to do the right thing. Does the delegation believe the Government has been doing the right thing? We should consider the European Union and United Nations levels as well. There are various stepping stones involved in representing the cause of the delegation. I am making a contribution while fully conscious of the complexities of the region, of the ongoing slaughter and of the criminals at large who should and will, I hope, ultimately appear before the International Criminal Court. In the meantime, collectively we are agreed that our diplomacy at all three levels, namely, parliamentary, European and United Nations, will be representative of the views of the delegation.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I apologise, Chairman, for interrupting. I was attempting to be helpful. I, too, sometimes have difficulty remembering names, but I remember Sabra and Shatila very well. I visited them. The Israeli involvement in that episode was extraordinarily nasty and duplicitous. Under Ariel Sharon’s orders, the Israeli army stood back and allowed the Christian militias in. As a Christian, I feel ashamed that any group would call itself a Christian militia. It is a contradiction in terms. I am sometimes accused of being anti-Israeli. I believe in facts being correct. I will only accuse the Israelis when they are in the wrong, as they frequently are. In that case, there was a combined effort and Ariel Sharon’s part in it was very cynical.

I know the Middle East reasonably well. I have had a home there, on and off, for about 40 years. At present, I am in Cyprus which is fairly close. Last year, I planned to go to Latakia. I wanted to go to Damascus because I am interested in the wonderful cultural traditions of the Syrian people, especially the extraordinary craftsmanship in furniture. That is, obviously, not going to happen for some time.

This is a complex problem. The Chairman referred to the Kofi Annan plan and said we might be able to solve the problem in a peaceful manner. That is very optimistic. There is no peace there at present and no prospect whatever of peace. I say with great regret that I feel Deputy Mac Lochlainn is over-optimistic. We cannot be guaranteed peace or even a move towards peace, certainly not in the short term. The situation is extraordinarily complex.

The United States Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton, did point to the delivery of helicopters or to the fact that they are on the way. There is nothing new in that. The Syrian military has enough helicopters already and does not need more. Over 100 helicopter gunships have already been supplied by the Russians. That was simply a position taken by the Secretary of State in order to exert further diplomatic pressure, particularly on Russia, of which I strongly approve. President Putin is an interesting figure. He is, basically, a dictator himself. He also suffers from a kind of macho complex. Syria is caught up, not only in what is described as a civil war but also in a proxy war. We are going back towards cold war politics, with Russia on one side, allied with China. They are involved for strategic and economic reasons. They are also demonstrating their power and flexing their muscles. There is a danger that the conflict could spread quickly throughout the region and become uncontrollable.

My emotions tell me military support should be given at once, but one must do a hard-headed calculation as to where that will lead. At present, the strongest possible pressure must be put on Russia and China. We appear to have good diplomatic relations with those countries. Those avenues must be used. If it was possible to solve the problem militarily I would be completely in favour of that.

The situation also highlights the need for structural reform in the United Nations. It is not tolerable that five countries, who were allies in the Second World War, have the power of veto. That is totally undemocratic. The international body that represents the whole human race is fundamentally undemocratic because of its historical emergence. We must deal with the Russian and Chinese powers of veto if there is to be any kind of military intervention that will not cause huge problems.

The unusual degree of unanimity among Arab states is a positive sign. That is helpful and needs to be used as much as possible. Some of those states have good relations with Russia and China. It is not just the Irish. All the Arab states should be encouraged to put maximum pressure on those two players.

I am not regarded in this country as a particular friend of the Vatican. I am not anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic but I have serious problems with the Vatican’s diplomatic manoeuvrings here and there and I have not been shy in putting them forward. I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, although I am a Christian. We must consider what will be left behind and will happen in the aftermath. The invasion of Iraq was not only a colossal blunder, it left behind an even worse mess than Saddam had created. I think our witnesses would wish for something much better than the fragmented situation in Iraq which, since I was there, has been totally sectarianised. That is a problem people should look at.

On Irish radio recently we heard a nun saying, from her convent in Syria, that she and the other sisters felt under a great deal of threat, and not from the official Syrian army. I do not know if there was a political motivation behind the report. Could the witnesses comment on what might come afterwards and if it is possible to ensure that a fully democratic situation would exist after the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, when members of minorities, even of minorities that have behaved badly in the past, would be protected? The Christians behaved appallingly in Sabra and Shatila but that does not stop me being a Christian and wishing to protect the rights of individual Christians in villages in Lebanon. Can the witnesses comment on how minorities can be protected? The Alawites should also be protected. I am sure there are many talented, decent, good and peaceful Alawites who, even if they support the regime, do so because they are afraid.

I wish the witnesses well. Their people have great courage and I have great sympathy with them. What is happening has been appalling. The abuse of children and their use as shields on tanks and the rape of women as an instrument of war are all classified as war crimes. There is no doubt that war crimes have been committed. I agree with my colleagues that the regime will have to be held accountable. It is a question of what horrors the people of Syria must go through before that arises. The witnesses certainly have the unanimous support of the committee. If there is anything we can do, we will do it. However, we must be realistic.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: Information on Maureen O'Sullivan Zoom on Maureen O'Sullivan I will be brief because it is more important to hear what the witnesses have to say. It is obvious that we live in a very sad world. The use of children, rape, mass arrests, mass murder and human rights abuses are going on in other countries, apart from Syria. The perpetrators of any anti-humanitarian action in Syria must be held accountable. I hope that will happen at some point.

While military intervention seems necessary we do not have good examples of successful military interventions. We look at what people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are suffering now and what they suffered before, during and after military intervention. I have question marks about the use of military intervention, unless it can be seen not to be dominated by powers that have vested interests, as happened in other countries.

Syria’s position in the Middle East is unfortunate because the surrounding countries are affected by the problem and there are uneasy alliances and balances. It is people who get caught up in all of that. I have visited Damascus, which is an amazing city. Having met people in that city, I think of them now and of the suffering they are going through.

While his regime is autocratic and undemocratic, I thought President Bashar al-Assad had made some small attempts at reform before everything blew up. Am I being naive in thinking he could have continued along that line?

The militia groups in Syria are most frightening because they do not seem to be under anyone’s control and are being used in the pursuit of personal vendettas. I was at the Front Line Defenders ceremony on Friday morning. A Syrian woman who is a blogger is now in jail in Damascus and she won this year’s award. Once again we see the courage of the Syrian people.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I invite Deputy Durkan to say a few words before I call on Dr. Hassan.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Everyone accepts that the atrocities taking place in Syria are unacceptable. The difficulty and the tragedy of the situation is that every so often, the United Nations is confronted with a test situation. I refer, for example, to the war in Somalia, the war in Bosnia and now the situation in Syria. These are the specific tests that are relevant to Syria. Military intervention is a simple response but it did not work all that well in Iraq in the aftermath. At the time it seemed like a good idea and the right action to take because there were compelling reasons for intervention. However, it transpired in hindsight that it was not a good idea. The war in Somalia is another example. The UN failed in Somalia because of a reluctance and an unease to become involved in what was perceived in some quarters to be somebody else’s problem. This raises the question of who is “somebody else”. The atrocities in Somalia were appalling and they are documented. It seems to have numbered 500,000 people. The same is now happening in Syria.

The UN failed in Bosnia, allegedly because of insufficient fire power to counter the forces rampant in the field in Bosnia. This was not the real reason, of course, which was more associated with the historical issues and baggage affecting many of the people who were bystanders. At the time, I sat with others in the equivalent of this committee and we discussed those issues while at the same time, the people in that region were dying mercilessly on a daily basis.

Dr. Hassan and his colleagues know what is happening in Syria and it seems the international community is unable to come to its assistance. We do not seem to be able to cross that Rubicon. We know what is happening there and we know there are internal political issues. We know from the past experience of regime change in Iraq that the international community must be serious. However, the UN Security Council has obligations. If it is to be democratic and effective, it needs to be able to respond to situations such as the situation the delegation has portrayed and which is well known. If the UN Security Council is not able to do so, then the UN will become obsolete and it will be bypassed, just as the old League of Nations was bypassed. There is a challenge for the UN and the UN Security Council to do its duty by international standards and to protect human rights. This is not the challenge for democratic parliaments such as ours and the European Union collectively. However, it is a very great challenge for the UN and its function and efficacy.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I invite Dr. Hassan and the other members of the delegation to contribute if they wish. I met President Assad two and a half years ago in Damascus. I thought at the time that Syria would be of assistance in brokering some deal for the Palestinian problem but I am really horrified to learn what has happened over the past months in Syria. There has to be a change in the regime and people have to be brought to trial for what has happened. These are war crimes.

Dr. Hassan: We Syrians know the complexity of the situation. We know how politics works under the table, so to speak, and the great conflict between the East and the West about certain areas in the Middle East. We understand this very well. I refer to the joint campaign of China and Russia against what is happening in the USA. The international community has a commitment and a responsibility to protect humanity. We cannot just watch. Awareness without action does not have any value.

The situation in Syria is serious and mass killings are happening in front of the eyes of the United Nations observers and are being reported by them. It is happening for real every single minute and any time lost without action being taken means too many people are dying, too many people are suffering and women are being raped. We should do something and take action against this system.

We are very frustrated and we feel the United Nations has failed to condemn the system. If there is a failure to condemn what is happening I do not see how it can take military action. Politics has always found a way to deal with a problem and if the international community is really serious about protecting the Syrian people it will do so. Sometimes we begin to doubt whether we are regarded as human beings by people outside Syria. They seem to regard us as less than human. I ask every member of this committee to look at what is happening in Syria because the situation is very serious.

Since Kofi Annan’s plan was announced, a further 3,000 people have died in Syria. Every plan is giving the regime a false message. If a plan gives him six weeks to comply with certain conditions, he will take these six weeks to try to suppress the people, to go after them, to kill as many of them as possible. He thinks that by doing so he will suppress all opposition and remain in power. The people who took to the streets to say, “We are looking for our freedom” knew they were going to die and they do not care because this is the only way. Either we must survive with our full dignity or we will not go back home. He should understand that.

When another plan is mooted, people become frightened because they know this will mean more killings and everyone gets ready to die in the next two or three days. The more plans, the more killings, the more serious is the action taken against us. Talking about more diplomatic action plans will be interpreted incorrectly by the regime and he will take a false message. I am sure that politicians somewhere - I will not mention names - are passing messages by indirect means to him to say, “You have another two or three weeks to try to control things and if you do, they will support you remaining.”

The independent international commission report stated that Russia has provided Syria with a full air defence system. However, Russia has told the commission that Assad will not be able to use it against people on the streets. However, that is what he is doing. He is bombing all our cities and he is striking at protesters from the air rather than from street level. We do not expect the international community to send troops into Syria to invade our land. We have enough people to bring him down but we do not have any military support nor any weapons to defend ourselves. We are hoping the international community will provide what is called a safe zone. This would at least provide a safe place for soldiers in our national army who refuse to obey the order to kill people. Most of them flee because they know they will be killed if they are tracked down by the Government, as will anybody who hides them. Their families are often killed and their homes demolished. In my city, for example, 190 houses have been demolished in these circumstances. In many cases where a soldier flees in fear of his life, the Government forces will demolish his house straight away.

The question of how to manage the transition to democracy is a difficult one. What we need, above all, is to stop the killing - that is the top priority. In addition, urgent medical aid is required in Syria. I am appealing to the committee to help us in this situation. The latest reports show what is happening to doctors and medical staff who try to help people who have been wounded. Government forces go around checking all of the public hospitals and any wounded person will be shot dead or doctors will be ordered to amputate arms and legs immediately. People are scared to go to public hospitals because they know they will die there or be subject to horrific interrogation. A person could have anything done to him or her. There are mobile hospitals which try to help people but the doctors running them have contacted us to say they do not even have water to give to people who are dying. We need urgent medical aid, that is the most important thing. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, for agreeing to meet us later today. We hope he will able to arrange for the delivery of aid to the Syrian people.

We are hoping to present a file on Syria to the International Criminal Court, ICC, but first we hope to catch Assad in Syria and bring him for trial in our courts. Let him have his fair trial there. If the International Criminal Court were to put out a warrant for his arrest, it would at least be a step in the right direction and would put great pressure on him in the sense that he would know he is no longer safe. When there is not even a single resolution to condemn him, he feels he is all right. If we manage to make the case against him to the ICC, he will know he is not safe and that he will be brought to justice at some stage.

The international community has a responsibility to protect the Syrian people. There are three pillars of support, the first two of which have definitely failed in Syria. The United Nations knows the Government itself is guilty of criminal behaviour and the cause of all of the trouble in the country. On the first question, therefore, there is no need to ask whether protection is required for people in Syria. In regard to the second pillar, the United Nations has sent observers to the country and they could not do anything. The third pillar is intervention. When one talks about intervention, it does not necessarily mean military invasion. In Libya, for example, a safe zone was created and Gadaffi was subsequently ousted because the people no longer wanted him. In Syria we do not want Assad to rule us. Forty years of that dynasty is too long and we have had enough of it. In addition, if we talk about peacekeeping, we must talk about peace enforcement. Blue hats are not going to help us. We need people there who have a right to shoot anybody who is holding a gun against a civilian.

There has been concern expressed about the treatment of Christians in Syria. I am from a city whose neighbouring city is purely Christian. On 12 March Syrian troops invaded our city and there were several days of massive bombing. The entire population of some 50,000 fled and more than 5,000 of them are being hosted by Christian people in the neighbouring city. We live like one people, brother and sister, and have had a fantastic relationship over decades. We share the same emotions as our neighbours, we visit them at Christmas and they visit us on our holy days. The most vocal anti-Government activists in Syria are Christian, such as Michel Kilo, for instance. A Christian woman, Yara Chammas, who distributed medical aid and food during the attacks by Government forces in Baba Amr was jailed for 60 days. The Government is playing dirty propaganda tricks in order to give the impression in the West that Christians are under threat from their neighbours. The reality, however, is that Christians in our country are fully aware of the true situation. There was recent propaganda that an extreme Islamist had called for Christians to leave areas near Homs. The priest there has said this was absolutely not the truth. The message was for everybody to leave the city and remove themselves from danger, Christians and Muslims, in anticipation of a massive attack. The conflict with Christians is mainly a propaganda tactic of the Government, in the same way in which it is trying to pull us into a civil war in order to convince the world that it is only the Government itself that can restore peace to the country.

What will happen after Assad is gone is difficult to answer. For now, we must concentrate on stopping this horrific situation. Too many people are dying every single day. Once Assad is gone, wise people will sit down and find a solution that will create a fantastic environment for all of us, Sunnis, Alawis and Christians. We are all desperate to secure our freedom so that we can enjoy life like anybody else.

Mr. Fadi: I thank the committee for the invitation to attend the meeting. As soon as I knew I was coming here I began to try to prepare what I would say. In the end, however, I decided that if one talks from one’s heart the words will come straight away without any need for preparation. I will begin by talking about aid. I have been asked whether I can prove that medical aid will go to where it is needed. I replied that I could because there are doctors who will talk, via Skype, with any authority anywhere. People can see the injured people and the destruction that has been caused. We will show everything because we have nothing to hide.

Dr. Hassan has already talked about human rights issues. I have two stories to relate that point to what is happening. The first of these involves a woman whose husband had fled the Government forces and left her alone with a four day old baby. She was then arrested and taken to one of the intelligence facilities for questioning. There are 14 branches of intelligence in my own city of Damascus alone. Nobody knew where the woman was gone or when she would be back, so her child was sent to a member of her family. This person found a mark on the child’s body - we all know that a four day old baby’s skin is very thin - which was made by the boot of a soldier. I cannot call these people monsters because some monsters have mercy. I have nothing to say about this Government.

I wish to comment on what Syrian Irish Humanitarian Aid does. We try to do everything possible to supply medicines, even one or two boxes, to most areas. When my sister lived in Damascus, on the top floor of her building were two families of refugees from Homs. A daughter of one of the families - who was only two and a half years old - required an immediate heart operation or else she would have died. My sister contacted me about the matter and I stated that if the girl’s mother took her to hospital and if the people there were able to identify, on the basis of their accents, the fact that they were from Homs, they would both be taken. As a result, they had to go to a private hospital. I immediately contacted Dr. Hassan and Mr. Ibroheem and asked how much money they had because we were talking about friends here. Together, we came up with some money and we sent it to those involved.

I wish to comment on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Everyone is aware of Lebanon which is controlled from the outside by a Government but which, from the inside, is controlled by Hizbollah. The latter is controlled by Iran. What happens is that they have sent some people back to Syria. Everyone knows what this means for those who are sent back. We have videos of what happens. If the Syrian authorities say that they need particular people to be sent back, even if the individuals in question are lying injured in hospital, they will be taken hostage and returned to Syria. We are aware of the UNIFIL mission in Lebanon. People in Ireland are aware of the war between Syria and Israel but I am discussing Lebanon now. We know of the good relationship that exists between the latter and Ireland. If Ireland can exert some influence over Lebanon in the context of the authorities there respecting the human rights of refugees, that would be welcome.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen There is due to be a vote in the Dáil in approximately five minutes and perhaps we might try to conclude our deliberations before it is called. Does Mr. Ibroheem wish to comment?

Mr. Ibroheem: Yes. Dr. Hassan covered almost everything but I wish to comment on the rape of women. It is very difficult to see where this is taking place. I work with the Syrian media centre and, as a result, I have access to many videos. We cannot send this to other media outlets because no one here can see it. There is footage of a six year old girl being raped by five men. How did this happen? So many people either see or hear what is happening. Inside Syria, there are so many problems. Old women of 60 or 70 years of age are not respected and people pull their hair in the street. This is not the Syrian regime, it is the Syrian mafia, namely, Bashar al-Assad and his family. This is the mafia, it is not a regime.

There is one other matter about which I wish to speak. We sent medical aid from here to Lebanon on the first occasion and on the second we sent it to Jordan. I do not want to discuss who is acting in complicity with the Syrian mafia but at the airports in Jordan and Lebanon, some of the medicines we sent were stolen. Who is going to ask the Jordanian Government why it felt obliged to take 40% of the medicines being transported by us?

Mr. Ronan Tynan: On behalf of some of my fellow human rights campaigners who are present and who may be known to the committee, namely, Valerie Hughes, Peter Walsh and Michael McLoughlin, I wish to state that when our friends in Syria called for military action, it would not have been our first choice. However, Dr. Hassan presented a compelling argument today when he stated that awareness without action does not mean anything. The point I would take from what he said is that political initiatives at international level - where there is no will - have merely been a cover for further killing. In our support of Syrian Irish Humanitarian Aid, that is a matter we have been obliged to take on board. A compelling presentation has been made to the committee. I had some experience in Rwanda where thousands died when the UN hesitated. The point has also been made in respect of what occurred in Srebrenica. I humbly suggest that there will be military intervention in Syria. Unfortunately, this will come when the number of people killed reaches six figures. Given what Dr. Hassan and our other Syrian friends have said and when one considers the analysis and the fact that political initiatives are merely being used as a cover for massacres, the request that has been made is very reasonable. We certainly have no problem in supporting them in that. I thank them for the presentation they made to the committee.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Are we going to reconvene?

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen No, I do not believe we will have time to do so.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan I am of the view that we should reconvene for a short period.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen That is up to the members? Do they wish to reconvene?

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I am of the view that we should certainly raise this issue again at some stage. We should consider the issue of whether Irish Aid can help in the provision of medicines.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen We will suspend proceedings and reconvene in ten minutes. Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen The meeting is now in public session.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I thank the Chairman for resuming the meeting. I support what Deputy Durkan said but I add a formal proposal that we ask Irish Aid to be involved.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Anything Deputy Durkan said was not part of the meeting. We are now in public session.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan It can be deleted.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen If Deputy Durkan wishes to make a brief comment, he can do so.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Given the seriousness of the situation-----

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Before the Deputy comments on that, and I know Senator Norris also wants to contribute, I wish to point out that having listened to the witnesses and the members, we can see at first hand that everybody was very serious in their contributions and are very concerned about what is happening there. As a committee, we have an opportunity to challenge the positions taken by the key players and we will do so. The testimony given by Dr. Hassan and the other witnesses of the most gross abuse of human rights, including the abuse of young children and women, is chilling. It does not bear thinking about. As Chairman, I propose, with the agreement of the members, that we would write, as Deputy Durkan suggested, to the Chinese and Russian ambassadors and send them a transcript of today’s meeting. It is important they would get that transcript. It is clear that all parties do not abide by their obligations to the UN Security Council and we are left with no option but to compel compliance to it. We need to make that point to both ambassadors as part of our work. From what we have heard today it is important that the ambassadors representing their countries in this country are made aware of this committee’s deep concerns about what is happening in Syria at present. We will also write to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to ask him to express our concern and exert pressure on the key players, on the Lebanese Government, specifically concerning what Mr. Fadi said regarding the refugees, and the Jordanian Government, particularly regarding the confiscation of medical equipment. That is an issue we will raise with those ambassadors. Deputy Durkan may now proceed.

Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan The Chairman has outlined what we need to do at this stage but we need to move a little quicker. The urgency of the situation has been brought to bear upon us all by virtue of the presentation that has just been made. It affects the delegation much more personally than it does the rest of us. We are all aware that various atrocities are taking place all over the world which violate human rights on a regular and daily basis but this is a compelling issue and it needs a fairly instant response. If we cannot make instant responses of a diplomatic nature, it is highly unlikely anything else will happen that will result in there being an intervention in the situation. I suggest the Chairman should contact the Chinese Embassy by telephone this evening and acquaint it of the discussions that have taken place here and the response of the committee members, and make it aware that a meeting is being requested as a matter of urgency. I suggest that at that meeting there would be an opportunity to follow up on this issue. Other embassies could be brought in as well who have an influence in the area. That should be done as quickly as possible. The life and death issues here are the most compelling feature the committee will have before it now or at any time in the future.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I support what Deputy Durkan said about contacting the various embassies and what the Chairman said. I get the impression that the Chairman has a proposal to put to us which we would support. I would add that we should contact Irish Aid and see if it is possible through it or other agencies to assist the civilian population through the provision of medical supplies which are extremely urgently needed. Nobody could take offence at that. It would not be a military intervention so that argument could be put to one side, but we would at least be doing something that would assist the people who have suffered most.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Before I call Deputy Mac Lochlainn, I note that some of the witnesses have left to meet to the Minster of State, Deputy Costello, to seek support from Irish Aid for humanitarian aid for Syria.

Senator David Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris Our resolution might assist in that.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Irish Aid has a proud tradition of providing needs-based, non-political humanitarian aid. I hope within the framework Irish Aid would find a mechanism to be able to support the civilians who are most affected in Syria.

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn: Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn I support the Chairman’s proposal to send the transcript of today’s meeting to the Russian Embassy and the Chinese Embassy and to meet the ambassadors to discuss their approach to this situation. It appears that diplomacy has been tried. Fair play to Kofi Annan and others for what they have tried to do but it is clearly moving to a new phase where honouring the Annan plan will have to be made mandatory because advantage has been taken of people’s goodwill, good intentions and sincerity. To give people hope, there is a need for a strengthening of the position with a clear intent to intervene if necessary.

Deputy Eric Byrne: Information on Eric J. Byrne Zoom on Eric J. Byrne It would go some distance to speed matters up if the secretariat or the Chairman was to contact the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, who has been in the Dáil for a vote and will only now get to meet the delegation. It would be important to convey to him the collective decision of this group regarding policy, the bringing in of the Chinese and the Russian ambassadors and our enthusiastic support for Irish Aid to provide humanitarian assistance. We should contact the Minister of State before the delegation leaves.

Senator Michael Mullins: Information on Michael Mullins Zoom on Michael Mullins I strongly support what has been said and home in on what Deputy Durkan said about the appalling loss of life. We know the impact serious loss of life has had on our communities and people here over a long period. What we are seeing on our television screens on a daily basis is young people and children being used as human shields and pawns in this appalling situation. Urgent responses are needed, and contact with the ambassadors on a timely basis is appropriate. I support Senator Norris in his call for us to do whatever we can through Irish Aid to assist those people in need of aid as a matter of urgency.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Can I summarise-----

Deputy Gerald Nash: Information on Gerald Nash Zoom on Gerald Nash Chairman-----

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen Does Deputy Nash wish to speak?

Deputy Gerald Nash: Information on Gerald Nash Zoom on Gerald Nash No, other than to apologise to the witnesses for my inability to attend earlier. I am supportive of the situation and welcome the witnesses who have taken the time to discuss this most important of issues with us. I support my colleagues also in terms of the discussion that took place earlier and I am happy to support any motion that comes forward.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I will summarise what the committee has agreed. We have agreed to telephone both the Russian and the Chinese embassies this afternoon to express the committee’s concern about what is happening in Syria and how unhelpful both countries are in any resolution regarding Syria. As it will take a few days to get the transcript of today’s meeting I propose that we write to both ambassadors, through the secretariat, expressing our concerns and enclosing a copy of the transcript. If it is possible we will contact the office of the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, in regard to Irish Aid. As I stated, Irish Aid has always been helpful and I am sure it will do its best to ensure that aid gets to the people who deserve it.

The committee should keep Syria on the agenda for future meetings. It is easy to have meetings and then forget about what has happened but it is important that we keep it on the agenda and monitor the situation. We will write to the Tánaiste, as I proposed, to get him to exert pressure on Russia and China through his Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and at every level possible. It is important also that the committee contact the Jordanian and Lebanese ambassadors in London. We had the Jordanian ambassador here following the presentation of his credentials to President Higgins but it might be useful at some stage to ask the Lebanese and the Jordanian ambassadors to come here to meet the committee. Is the committee in broad agreement with those proposals? Agreed. Do our witnesses wish to make any final comments?

Dr. Hassan: I thank the members for inviting me to the meeting today. I understand that the situation is complex. We are very grateful to all the members for having us here and for listening to our problem in terms of what we are suffering. We were calling for military intervention, even limited, because we feel we are paralysed and something has to be done. I know how difficult that is and that there are United Nations regulations and other politics involved. I thank the committee. We hope the outcome will be fantastic for us and that Russia and China will understand now that we are not on our own and that everyone is with us.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I rushed Mr. Tynan earlier just before the vote. He might wish to make some concluding comments.

Mr. Ronan Tynan: This was an opportunity for our Syrian friends to speak. On behalf of my colleagues I have also met the Minister. I greatly appreciate the time and attention the committee has given to this issue, which is a reflection of the concern of the many Irish people with whom we have discussed it. We are aware of the committee’s position in terms of its response to the military intervention but it made a good point about keeping Syria on the agenda. An observation I would make, and the members are more experienced at this than we are, is that it is too easy for people to let an issue slip off the agenda and not get the attention it deserves. As we have seen, all the political initiatives so far have been used by Assad to engage in further killing. I thank the committee again.

Chairman: Information on Pat Breen Zoom on Pat Breen I thank Dr. Hassan, Mr. Ronan Tynan, Mr. Fadi and Mr. Ibroheem for their contributions and sharing their experience of and views on the crisis in Syria. It is better to hear it at first hand from them. We see so much on television, listen to so much on the radio and read so much in the newspapers but it is better to hear about the situation from the witnesses. They touched all the members of the committee with their comments. I assure them, on behalf of the committee, that we will continue to raise awareness and contribute in whatever way we can to getting a solution to this awful problem affecting the Middle East, particularly a beautiful country like Syria. I have been to Syria, as have Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan and others, and I have to say that Damascus is a beautiful city. The old city where the mosque is located is beautiful and it is a shame to see what is happening in that country.

The committee is adjourned until 11.30 a.m. next Tuesday, 19 June, when we will meet Ms Marie-Lucie Morin of the World Bank and representatives of the Debt and Development Coalition.

The joint committee adjourned at 4 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 19 June 2012.


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