Taking the Lead on Syria: One-on-One with Baroness Cox

Caroline Anne Cox, whose official title is The Baroness Cox, of Queensbury, is a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. She was appointed to the House of Lords in 1982 on the recommendation of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for her contributions to education, especially academic freedom in higher education. She served as a Deputy Speaker for a period of 20 years from 1985 to 2005. She also served as a Junior Minister for the UK government, which involved being a Baroness-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. She resigned from these positions in order to fulfil her priority commitments, which included accompanying trucks taking medical aid to Poland in the dark days of martial law.

Although she was previously a member of the Conservative Party, she no longer has any party affiliation and sits as an Independent (Crossbencher) in the House of Lords where she contributes to debates on peoples’ suffering from war, oppression and persecution in several countries, including Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria and Myanmar. She is also an ardent critic of Western interference in the Syrian War.

Baroness Cox is the Founder and CEO of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), a charity that works alongside indigenous partners in eight countries, including Syria, mainly in the spheres of education, the environment, health, human rights and women’s empowerment. In recognition of her achievements, she has been conferred several awards in a variety of countries. Her humanitarian aid work has taken her on many missions to conflict zones, including three recent visits to Syria where she has met President Bashar Al-Assad, Muslim and Christian faith leaders, representatives of diverse political parties, including opposition parties, internationally-renowned artists, musicians and intellectuals, internally displaced persons, and members of local communities in Damascus, Lattakia, Saidnaya, Homs, Maaloula and Aleppo.

The Syrian Law Journal wished to interview Baroness Cox to discuss her trips to Syria, the state of British-Syrian relations and the work undertaken by her charity HART in Syria. The interview was conducted before British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to resign her position.

You visited Syria in 2016, 2017 and 2018. How would you contrast your experiences in the country and what you observed with what you hear about Syria in the mainstream media in Britain?

The UK government and mainstream media regularly cite instances of “President Assad’s regime brutality”. I have always said it is impossible to condone any violations of human rights. However, responsibility for human suffering must predominantly be attributed to the insurgency of ISIS and other extremist groups who have perpetrated genocidal policies and atrocities on an immense scale, including abductions into sexual slavery, torture, burning civilians alive and beheadings.

Our media outlets consistently refrain from reporting the suffering of Syrians in government-controlled territories, who have faced the daily onslaught over several years of roadside and suicide bombings, as well as indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas. During the battle for Aleppo, for example, the Mufti of Aleppo told me that “the Western media only told one side of the story, not what happened in western Aleppo where a big price was paid: many people were killed; mosques, churches, homes and other buildings destroyed”. Members of the Syrian Doctor’s Syndicate said: “There is a media war against Syria, so you won’t hear what is happening in government-controlled areas”. Likewise, when I visited IDPs (internally displaced people) and local people in Damascus, Lattakia, Saidnaya, Homs, Maaloula and Aleppo, they all shared the same message: “people in the UK are told only one side of the truth”.

The UK government continues to endorse publicly “a transition away from the Assad regime”.1 Officials have been wedded for a long time to the mantra that “Assad must go”.2 Yet everyone I met in Syria said this would have a devastating impact on their country. They passionately believe that Syrians should have the right to determine their own future and to elect their own leadership, without foreign interference. As there is no remaining “moderate” armed opposition, they fear that forced regime change would create a chaotic situation similar to, or perhaps even worse than, those in Iraq or Libya.

A Muslim IDP from Lattakia summed up these concerns when she told me: “The media say that the majority of IDPs flee from the brutality of the Syrian government. But we had safety before. I don’t need the freedom that the jihadists are calling for. We already had freedom”.

Could you mention specific examples of any situations you witnessed in Syria that stand in stark distinction to how it is portrayed in the British press?

In May 2016, the renowned conductor Valery Gergiev led a concert in the historic ruins of Palmyra, which had been recaptured from ISIS a couple of months earlier. The concert was organized to commemorate soldiers who had been horrifically beaten by extremist militants, forced to kneel on the stage of the ancient theatre in front of hundreds of civilians, then shot in the head. I was told by local artists, musicians and academics that the commemorative concert was deeply moving. All those in attendance were struck by the resilience of the spirit of the Syrian people.

However, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the concert was “a tasteless attempt to distract attention from the continued suffering of millions of Syrians”. He said: “It shows that there are no depths to which the regime will not sink”.3

Have your colleagues in Parliament been receptive to your visits to Syria and your views on the conflict or have they been critical? How do you respond to fellow Peers and other parliamentarians, if any, who rebuke your efforts regarding Syria? How challenging is it to get your points across to colleagues and the British government in general in this respect? Have you ever felt ostracized because of your opinions and positions on the Syrian War?

The UK government tried to prevent me from visiting Syria through dire warnings of the dangers involved, with no UK consular representation. I replied by pointing out that earlier that year, I visited the people of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, forced by aerial bombardment from the government in Khartoum to flee to caves with deadly snakes. I said this is how I use my role in the House of Lords: to try to be a voice for those whose voices are not heard. They then tried to inhibit me by claiming that I “would ruin British foreign policy”. I argued that this was a pastoral visit, at the invitation of the faith leaders and I knew virtually nothing about the political situation in Syria. However, during that visit I became deeply aware of the concern of the Syrian people over UK foreign policy of forced regime change – as described above.

On my return, I raised a Question in the House of Lords and received a very angry, hostile rebuke from the Minister. However, in discussions with many other members of the House of Lords, I was assured that my perceptions and concerns were accurate; that they were grateful that I had raised them. I have subsequently raised issues in Parliament, trying to represent the voices of the people we hear when we visit Syria and I receive considerable support from many Peers. On leaving the Chamber after the last occasion, one Peer thanked me “for taking the lead on Syria”.

Many members of the House of Lords – as well as increasing numbers of the British public – share my concerns. They are suspicious of our government’s narrative. They agree that the people of Syria should be free to decide their own future. And they believe it is important to speak out on behalf of those suffering from oppression, exploitation and persecution.

Last summer, I wrote to the Prime Minister to highlight growing and widespread concerns about UK foreign policy, including their support for armed opposition groups, attempted regime change under the guise of “transition”, the legal basis for airstrikes, de facto foreign occupation of Syrian territory, and the disastrous impact of sanctions. The letter was also signed by Dr. Tim Anderson (University of Sydney), Lord Carey of Clifton (former Archbishop of Canterbury), Lord Cormack (Conservative), Peter Ford (British Ambassador to Syria, 2003-2006), Lord Gordon of Strathblane (Labour), Lord Green of Deddington (British Ambassador to Syria, 1991-1994), Lord Hylton (Crossbencher), Dr. Michael Langrish (former Bishop of Exeter), Lord Naseby (Conservative), Dr. Michael Nazir-Ali (former Bishop of Rochester), the Earl of Oxford and Asquith (Liberal Democrat), Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Independent Labour) and Lord Wright of Richmond (British Ambassador to Syria, 1979-1981).

At the start of the Syrian War in 2011, President Bashar Al-Assad warned that any attempts to destabilize Syria could have consequences and repercussions far beyond its borders because of the country’s geographic location at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. The international pressure piled on the Syrian government by Britain, European countries, the United States and others as well as the material and logistical support provided to anti-government forces led to a situation whereby the Syrian state’s authority began to recede in parts of the country and the resulting vacuum was filled by armed and terror groups who started to seize control of population centers. For instance, ISIS began to slowly gain territory in Syria in 2013 and eventually declared a caliphate in 2014 before instigating terror attacks in Europe in 2015, a number of which were reportedly planned from their bases in Syria. During that same year, a migrant crisis caused by the war in Syria and the imposition of international sanctions stifling job opportunities saw waves of Syrians arriving on European shores in boats. The following year in 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union by a mere two percent majority (51.89% for Leave to 48.11% for Remain to be exact). Given the importance placed on the issues of security, freedom of movement and immigration by British voters, there is a strong argument to be made that the Syrian migrant crisis, which was covered by major media outlets, coupled with concerns over the possible infiltration of ISIS members or sympathizers into Britain from continental Europe may have been contributing factors that determined the votes of many Britons when they cast their ballots. Moreover, the role played by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in garnering attention on the Syrian migrant crisis during the campaign and its potential effects on Britain cannot be underestimated. The underlying message was that ISIS fighters disguised as refugees could attempt to sneak into Europe and make their way into Britain at some point possibly after obtaining a European nationality as a direct result of the European Union’s freedom of movement principle. Therefore, it is not wholly unrealistic to suggest that the minuscule two percent majority that pushed the Vote Leave campaign in Britain to win the referendum may not have been achieved but for the Syrian migrant crisis and the perceived threat from ISIS. Over the course of the last three years, you have also seen the consequences of the Brexit vote on calls for a second Scottish independence referendum, the future of Northern Ireland, the divisive effects of Brexit on British politics and its ramifications for the territorial integrity of the European Union itself. To summarize, there could very well be a correlation between the events that have unfolded in Syria since 2011 when the United Kingdom and the European Union intervened in the internal dynamics of the Syrian War and the current state of affairs that these two parties find themselves in today. As asserted, the Brexit vote may have partly succeeded due to concerns associated with the migrant crisis and the terror threats emanating from Syria. Do you agree with these arguments concerning the potential effects of the Syrian War on the Brexit vote and its aftermath?

I cannot speak for other people who voted for Brexit. However, my reasons for voting for Brexit were not influenced by the Syrian refugee crisis but by a deep desire to regain our sovereignty – for example, to move away from a situation in which over 90% of our laws were being made in Brussels and had to be adopted without amendment.

One other issue is widespread concern over the UK’s policy with regards to migrants from Syria: initially, many Christian refugees were not eligible as they had to flee from camps as a result of intimidation and attacks by militants. Eventually, some were registered with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) but, to my knowledge, only a small handful of Christian refugees from Syria have been granted a visa to come to the UK.

You have met with President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus. He is a person with strong cultural links to Britain especially since his wife was born and raised in London. He advanced his studies in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London during the early 1990s. He encouraged the mission of the British Syrian Society (BSS) to foster relations between both countries through parliamentary visits, cultural exchanges and he even accepted the BSS’ support in promoting economic liberalization initiatives in Syria during the 2000s. He hosted former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Damascus in October 2001 and paid a state visit to London where he met with Queen Elizabeth II in December 2002. He approved security cooperation between Syria and Britain, which proved mutually beneficial to both countries. Moreover, President Bashar Al-Assad’s administration and that of successive British governments from Tony Blair to Theresa May share similar secular values. On this basis, many Syrians are baffled by British policy towards Syria and charge Britain and other Western countries with supporting anti-government groups such as the White Helmets and others.

The UK has provided considerable financial support to so-called “moderate” armed opposition forces. Yet, the vast majority of these forces are now dominated by jihadist militants with no intention of creating democracy in Syria. They would readily dismantle the broadly secular system in which most Syrians take pride.

Many armed opposition groups, although diverse, are not moderate. They adopt the same extremist ideology as Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS or other terrorist factions. For example, the Army of Islam, which controlled much of Eastern Ghouta prior to their eviction, paraded prisoners including women through the streets in cages.4

The UK contributed at least £199m (of taxpayers’ money) to opposition forces between 2015-2017, offering political support, infantry training, communications apparatus and logistics equipment.5 In December 2017, the UK government was forced to cease some of its funding to opposition groups following reports that money was “diverted to extremists” and that recipients were linked to groups which had committed atrocities such as death by stoning.6 Despite these concerns, the UK continues to support projects involving armed opposition groups. What is more, government ministers continue to refuse to disclose the names of opposition groups supported.

The British government has also been a leading voice for the imposition of sanctions against Syria.

I have raised the issues of sanctions in the House of Lords as UK-backed sanctions greatly harm civilians, for whom it is very difficult to obtain employment and adequate supplies of food, medicines and medical equipment. Pressure should be maintained for them to be sharply curtailed or dropped altogether.

The sanctions include a de facto prohibition of transactions denominated in US Dollars. This acts as a dampener on many aspects of the economy and forces much trade to proceed via the black market or legally through expensive intermediaries in Lebanon, Turkey or elsewhere.

According to the medical journal The Lancet, sanctions are among the biggest causes of suffering for the people of Syria and a major factor perpetuating the conflict:

“The economic losses of the country at the end of 2014 stood at US$143.8 billion, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty, of whom a third… were in abject poverty, unable to obtain even basic food items… Life expectancy has been reduced from 75.9 years in 2010 … to 55.7 years in 2014—a loss of 20 years… The cost of basic food items has risen six-fold since 2010, although it varies regionally. With the exception of drugs for cancer and diabetes, Syria was 95% self-sufficient in terms of drug production before the war. This has virtually collapsed as have many hospitals and primary health-care centres.” 7

As Church leaders in Syria told me, economic and financial sanctions “constitute a huge burden which deepens the suffering of the Syrian people. These sanctions represent another aspect of the crisis and result in more pressure on individuals, institutions, companies, and consequently on the entire people”.

I have also challenged the apparent asymmetry and double standards of UK policy whereby sanctions have been lifted from Sudan, where the former president has been indicted by the International Criminal Court and whose government is responsible for the deaths of 3 million people, including their genocidal policies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile – I have witnessed those myself – and the displacement of 5 million people, while still perpetrating gross violations of human rights in Sudan. Yet, the UK government will not even consider opening an embassy in Damascus.

Moreover, Britain engaged in a military attack against Syria in April 2018 in contravention of international law based on what many analysts have concluded was a false flag operation passed off as a chemical attack in the Damascus suburb of Douma at a time when the Syrian Arab Army had all but won the battle in order to provoke such a reaction from the British, American and French governments.

The legal justification for the UK, US and French joint airstrikes in April 2018 was significantly flawed. Neither the UN Charter nor international law permit military action on the basis of humanitarian intervention.

According to Dapo Akande, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Oxford, the legal justification for military action “was not in accordance with the United Nations Charter and international law” and was dependent on a “radical restructuring of the most fundamental rules of the international legal order”.8

Neither the UN nor the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigated the Douma attack before missiles were fired. The US-led Coalition did not have conclusive proof of the use of chemical weapons or, if such an attack had occurred, by whom.

In the UK, Theresa May did not seek parliamentary backing in advance of the bombing raids. Despite her defence of the “right to act quickly in the national interest”,9 the government exhibited a blatant disregard of the necessary checks and assessments on intelligence information.

What was your impression of President Bashar Al-Assad?

Our decision to meet with the President in 2016 received mixed media coverage in the UK, with some claiming it gave legitimacy to the Assad regime. This, clearly, is a misrepresentation of my position. I have never condoned violations of human rights by President Assad and his government.

Do you foresee a normalization of diplomatic relations between Britain and Syria in the foreseeable future under a Conservative Party-led government in London? Alternatively, would there be more chances of success in this respect under a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn? Could any independent initiatives be undertaken by the British Parliament for instance to revive British-Syrian relations?

Given the very recent EU elections with the collapse of the Conservative and Labour Parties and the dramatic rise of the new Brexit Party, it is very difficult to foresee the future! But there are a number of influential parliamentarians who are very supportive of the White Helmets and the vocal Syrian opposition diaspora.

Depending on how long she remains in office, if you could give British Prime Minister Theresa May or her successor some heartfelt advice with respect to their policy on Syria, what would it be?

  1. Let the people of Syria decide their own future;
  2. Work for diplomatic solutions;
  3. Lift sanctions; and
  4. Join international efforts at rebuilding Syria, including government-controlled areas.

We would like to conclude this interview by moving away from the subject of British-Syrian relations and focus rather on an initiative that is very dear to you. You are the Founder and CEO of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), a charity that works alongside indigenous partners in eight countries, mainly in the spheres of education, the environment, health, human rights and women’s empowerment. One of those countries is Syria where HART is involved in a programme that seeks to empower local women in Maaloula as they return to their town which was affected by the conflict. Could you please provide us with more details on this initiative and how HART plans to participate in Syria’s reconstruction process?

I founded HART to provide aid and advocacy for victims of oppression and persecution, usually in conflict or post-conflict locations, largely unreached by major aid organisations for political and/ or security reasons. One of our fundamental principles is to work with local partners: giving them the dignity of choice in determining their priorities for aid and providing as much support as we can (we wish we could be much larger and give more!). Our partners always humble and inspire us with their resourcefulness, resilience and amazing achievements, making transformational changes for their communities.

HART has established a relationship with the humanitarian aid organization St. Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee (EPDC) to initiate a programme helping women to develop entrepreneurial activities in the Christian town of Maaloula, which had been invaded by jihadists who perpetrated atrocities, including killing three men who refused conversion, desecrating holy places and destroying many peoples’ homes. The project will help these women, who had lost everything, to help to relieve the food shortages, to rebuild their homes and to support their families. We have been deeply impressed by the women’s commitment and professionalism as well as those of EPDC and we hope that they will receive additional funding from well-wishers in Syria.

Please see HART’s website for further information: www.hart-uk.org.

1 House of Lords Hansard, 9 May 2018, columns 153-155
2 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson MP, speaking to the Select Committee on International Relations, 26 January 2017
3 BBC News online, 5 May 2016, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36211449 as at 28 May 2019
4 Human Rights Watch, ‘Syria: Armed Groups Use Caged Hostages to Deter Attacks’, 2 November 2015
5 House of Lords Hansard, Answer to Written Question, 20 September 2017, HL1251; House of Commons Hansard, Answer to Written Question, 20 April 2018, C135396
6 House of Lords Hansard, 20 December 2017, column 2112; BBC Panorama, ‘Jihadis You Pay For’, 9 December 2017
7 The Lancet, 27 May 2015, see https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(15)00046-7/fulltext as at 28 May 2019
8 Akande, D, The Legality of the UK’s Air Strikes on the Assad Government in Syria, University of Oxford, 16 April 2018, pages 1 and 3
9 House of Commons Hansard, 16 April 2018, column 42