Situation in Syria: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

“That Dáil Éireann:

condemns:

— the continued imposition of economic sanctions against Syria by the European Union and the United States of America; and

— the kidnapping of 54 children from the towns of al-Fu’ah and Kafraya in Syria, who went missing following an attack on 15th April, 2017, on a convoy of buses transporting evacuees from those towns; and

calls on the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to:

— advocate at the EU Foreign Affairs Council for the lifting of the EU's economic sanctions against Syria;

— immediately make contact with the US Ambassador to Ireland, to raise the issue of lifting the US economic sanctions against Syria; and

— work with all relevant authorities for the return of the 54 missing children from al-Fu’ah and Kafraya.

I wish to share time with Deputy Mick Wallace.

The response to our motion is not acceptable in many ways. The motion we put before the House is not about the Syrian war or about blame. It is simply a humanitarian proposition dealing with the situation facing ordinary Syrian people at the moment. The response of the Government, Fianna Fáil and, indeed, some of the left parties to this shows the games that are being played around this issue, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael bending the knee to the US and EU establishments and those on the left thinking that a bomb or a bullet from Bashar al-Assad is somehow worse than one coming from ISIS. The only amendment we will be accepting is that from Sinn Féin, which encapsulates all of our issues, although, to be honest, we did not think it was necessary given our motion stood on its own.

This issue shows us the difficulty of interference from outside. This is about the people of Syria. They do not want our opinions; they want our help. I am conscious, when we talk about the impact of sanctions on the Syrian people, that at present there are 36 countries against whom the EU has sanctions in place. While we would certainly have a problem with many of those sanctions, there is a world of difference between sanctions imposed on a country outside a war and on a country in a war. We note, in particular, the devastation being meted out to people in Yemen at the moment and I think it is important not to diminish that situation. However, we want to state at the outset that to speak out against an injustice in one area does not make us silent with regard to other parts of the globe.

The reason we have tabled this motion and singled out Syria is because we had the honour and privilege to go there and experience it at first hand and to meet many people in that country over recent weeks. Of course, Syria is experiencing the biggest humanitarian emergency since the Second World War, with more than 400,000 people dead, the displacement of half of its population, 6 million people internally displaced and 5 million people driven outside of its borders, a country that has gone from self-sufficiency to dependency on aid in six years. This was a country that gave us the oldest inhabited city of Damascus, with seven UNESCO sites, and a country which made 14% of its GDP from tourism, employing hundreds of thousands of people. It is against this backdrop that we look at the impact of continued EU sanctions.

We went to a refugee camp outside Damascus at Sayyidah Zainab, where we had a meeting with the survivors of the Shia towns of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya. We met a doctor who made the point that Syria would be rebuilt. He said:

Hospitals have 100 times more people than they have resources. Here, in the cradle of civilisation, we are humans and love other humans. We hope this does not happen in your country.

We asked him what we could do, and he said: "Just see, and say what you see." That is what we are trying to do with this motion today. We think too many people are afraid of being cast on either side of the war but we want to report what we saw and to talk about that.

The theory is that sanctions are supposed to weaken the regime and put on pressure to undermine it. That is absolute rubbish. It was not the case in 1979 when sanctions were imposed and it certainly was not the case when they were massively escalated in 2011. The regime is not going to fall and the only thing being undermined by sanctions is the living standards of the population, who have already suffered severe hardship. Of course, we also know that sanctions are put forward with the idea that something is being done but we know since Iraq that sanctions have a terrible effect on people. Some 500,000 children died from the sanctions in Iraq. In fact, it was a crime against humanity. Denis Halliday, the head of the UN humanitarian programme in Iraq in 1997 and 1998, when he was resigning, made the following point:

I had been instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide: a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals ... We all know that the regime, Saddam Hussein, is not paying the price for economic sanctions; on the contrary, he has been strengthened by them. It is the little people who are losing their children or their parents for lack of untreated water.

It is exactly the same today as it was then. That is the situation we are also dealing with in Syria. Sanctions are a blunt instrument, with negative consequences for a sovereign state and often with unforeseen consequences for civilians. They seldom impact on the government and they are certainly not having an impact on the government of Bashar al-Assad. This policy, ironically, is actually serving to strengthen him. Deputy Wallace will make further points in this regard and I will also make further points when I sum up.

The war and sanctions have turned what was once an independent and self-sufficient country into one heavily dependent on international aid. The sanctions have had a disastrous impact even on the functioning of the aid programme itself. A report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, which analysed the humanitarian impact of the sanctions, describes the US and EU measures as some of the most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed. The licensing system is incredibly inefficient, with seemingly no co-ordination among EU governments as to what criteria should be applied when considering licence applications. EU sanctions and export controls prohibit the export into Syria of a range of dual-use items, so drilling equipment and pipes associated with water and sanitation projects are likely to require a specific EU licence. The related provisions of financing and brokering services in support of such exports are also prohibited by EU regulations.

Ireland has seen an increase in the value of licences for arms exports to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel from €23 million to €132 million in the last six months of 2016 and the first six months of 2017. Israel, when it is not busy carrying out the ritual of what is called "cutting the grass" and bombing women, children and other innocent civilians in Palestine, is busy arming and funding Syrian rebels and pouring more fuel on the fire of the Syrian war. Saudi Arabia, our special trade partner, not even when it openly and intentionally makes air strikes on civilians in Yemen at markets, weddings, funerals, schools, mosques and hospitals, cannot make this Government question our growing relationship with this massively destabilising force in the region. The Saudi-led coalition has launched more than 90,000 air strikes on Yemen in the last two years. Those who have not been killed by the US and UK-made bombs are now starting to die from starvation in what human rights organisations are predicting will be the worst humanitarian disaster we have seen in decades. Despite this, our Government has no problem trading with Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, UAE, which is also complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

The situation in regard to essential medicines in Syria is dire and the sanctions are making it worse, as a UN commission report highlights. Prior to the conflict, Syria was known for being relatively self-sufficient in domestically produced medicines. Today, the majority of pharmaceutical factories are reported as either non-operational or destroyed.

In the small number of instances where domestic production is still possible, major difficulties in procuring the raw materials required for local production of medicines have been reported. The resulting impact is a reliance on importing the necessary medical equipment, medicines and pharmaceutical products. That the US and EU would do so much in their power to block essential emergency assistance to dying people while the CIA, in its operation to train and arm rebels in Syria, has been directly shipping weapons to rebels at a cost of close to $1 billion per year will be a lasting scar on the history of the West and its laughable pretence that it has the moral authority to be the policeman of the world.

The official EU and US position is that the sanctions against Assad, his backers and the regime deprive these actors of resources that could be used to further the bloody campaign. Why is the US not held to the same standard? In July 2016, it carried out devastating air strikes on the city of Manbij, killing approximately 125 civilians in a single attack. It flattened the cities of Kobanî in Syria and Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, 140 civilians died of starvation in Fallujah while US-backed forces stopped aid from entering the city.

The simple fact of the matter is that the US Administration could not give a damn about how many women, children and innocents die for it to achieve its ends. The saddest aspect is that it could be argued that the never-ending war that has been waging for 16 years appears to be an end in itself. The US has sold $42 billion worth of arms to the rest of the world in 2017, up $10 billion on the previous year. Aerospace and defence industry shares have increased by more than 40% since 2016. More instability means more profits for a range of powerful actors connected to the arms trade. Whether it is the US threatening North Korea or the incendiary propaganda coming from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US about the dangers of Iran in the Middle East, every threat of further instability and warfare is potentially worth trillions of dollars to these warmongers. The US defence budget is more than $600 billion per year. It has 50 million people at risk of poverty. Where is the sense of it all? This is not even to talk about the worldwide destruction that the US is causing. A group of physicians against nuclear armaments in America estimates that up to 2.1 million civilians who had nothing to do with any war effort have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, yet we talk about others causing destruction. When are we ever going to cop on?

Assad will not voluntarily stand down at the wish of the foreign powers who want him gone. The people of Syria have to determine who rules Syria. Assad is not in any way an exemplary democratic leader, but foreign interventions will not help. Our call for the sanctions to be lifted is not an argument for the continued reign of Assad, but for the will of the people of Syria to be respected, for the end of foreign meddling and profiteering in the region and for desperately needed medicines, medical devices and equipment, food, fuel, money and basic equipment that is essential to public infrastructure to be allowed into the country in order to save and improve lives. Sanctions in this kind of situation only hurt people who are already hurting and only kill those who need our help. The EU and the US are being merciless in their treatment of the people of Syria.

In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration pressured the UN Security Council to impose one of the most brutal sanctions regimes in the history of Iraq, supposedly to punish the former US puppet, Saddam Hussein, for his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. A UN report found that, from 1991 to late 1995, more than 500,000 Iraqi children had died because of those harsh economic sanctions. In 1998, Mrs. Madeleine Albright, the then Secretary of State, was asked whether the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children had been worth it just to control the price of oil. She replied that, although it was a heavy price to pay, it was "worth it".

Deputy Clare Daly referred to Mr. Denis Halliday, who worked as a UN humanitarian co-ordinator for 34 years. He resigned in 1998 in protest at the sanctions, saying that they amounted to genocide in Iraq. He stated: "We are now in there responsible for killing people, destroying their families, their children, allowing their older parents to die for lack of basic medicines." The EU and US will be responsible for similar war crimes in Syria for as long as the current sanctions stay in place. It is not rocket science. We are doing an incredible injustice to many innocent people. The Government can think what it likes about Assad, but older people, women and children usually suffer the most. They are the ones who are being hit most by sanctions.

Going to Syria was an amazing experience. We were there for five days and I can safely say that I have never met such beautiful people in all my life. I hated leaving the place. It was an incredible feeling. We met Shias, Sunnis, Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds. We did our utmost to ensure that we were not identified as being from anywhere or part of any group. We travelled around and met as many people as we could in various areas - on the streets, in bars, in restaurants and all sorts of places. We wanted to talk to and listen to the people. We wanted to hear what they had to say. It would do anyone good to go there. I challenge Members to find a greater people anywhere. They are amazing.

We went to Homs and to two schools where 50 children had been killed by suicide bombers. Thirty were killed outside one school and 20 outside the other on the same day. A suicide bomber arrived at 3 p.m. when the children were about to leave school. Does the Minister of State know what the main problem the bombers had with these schools? It was that Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite and Druze children were attending them together. They were a mix of peoples living together and in school together. Their parents were not fighting when they were dropping their children off at school.

One of Syria's major problems is that it has been a mosaic of the various groups. They have had their differences and problems for years, but they actually live together. The main instigators of the current war in Syria have been Saudi Arabia and Israel, two sectarian states that do not like the fact that Syria was not a sectarian state. They played on the groups' differences.

There is talk of the Free Syrian Army but, as the Americans found out, it was not able to fight. Instead, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda did the fighting for them and were funded by them. These are the groups that Western forces ended up arming to do their fighting for them in Syria.

While we were in two sections of the suburbs of Damascus, mortar bombs dropped onto the city centre once every five minutes or so from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. and then again for a couple of hours in the evening. There are two opposition enclaves left. There is not a Syrian in either. They are Saudi and Chechen members of Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. This is not the Syrians fighting the Syrians. This is outsiders coming in and creating havoc to destroy a civilisation.

We were in the town of Maaloula, which is predominantly Christian, and we stayed in people's houses while we were there and listened to what they had to say to us.

What we are hearing in the media here and across Europe about what is happening in Syria is not the true picture. We are following the US diktat. When are we ever going to stop it using Shannon Airport to drop bombs on people and create refugees?

We are great at saying that we are brilliant at bringing aid to people. Why do we not try to help to stop people becoming refugees in the first place? How can we still allow the US military to use Shannon Airport as a military base to cause untold destruction in other regions? For the life of me, I cannot understand it. The world is losing the plot.

The Americans are spending more than $600 billion on their defence budget. The arms industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world. Were the Americans to stop bombing people, they would lose jobs at home. The four industries which helped to elect the President of America are the arms, oil, coal and pharmaceutical industries. One gets nothing for nothing. There has to be payback. The big payback is that the arms industry has to be kept going and increased. The world is going mad. I ask the Minister of State to have a rethink about Syria.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“condemns:

— the ongoing violence in Syria which has to date resulted in the deaths of an estimated half a million people, particularly the continued brutal attacks on civilians perpetrated by the Assad regime;

— the blatant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, as identified by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, including the continued use of sieges against civilians, forced displacement under the guise of truces or evacuation agreements, the diversion and denial of humanitarian aid, and the targeting of civilian infrastructure;

— the particularly abhorrent attacks on schools, hospitals and medical personnel which disproportionately affect children, the sick and injured; and

— the utterly barbaric use of chemical weapons against civilians;

and calls on the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to:

— continue to support the United Nations (UN) led Geneva talks process, based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which demands an end to violence, release of political prisoners, formation of a transitional governing body with executive powers and a constitutional reform process;

— continue to work, in European Union and UN frameworks, for an end to the conflict, including through the use of appropriate measures such as targeted sanctions, to put pressure on the Syrian regime to end the violent repression of civilians;

— continue to support efforts to ensure accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Syrian conflict including supporting the investigation and prosecution of the persons responsible;

— continue to press through the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for Syrian compliance with its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention; and

— to ensure that Ireland continues to provide appropriate humanitarian aid to relieve the suffering of the people of Syria.”

The situation in Syria is utterly horrifying. This conflict began with ordinary Syrians protesting police brutality against their children. Due to the unyielding and violent response of the regime, it has now continued for six and a half years and has taken an estimated half a million lives. A beautiful and historic country lies in ruins. Inside Syria, more than 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 3 million are living in besieged hard-to-reach areas. A further 5.5 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries and the wider region.

I take this opportunity to condemn unreservedly the abhorrent violence against civilians, through the use of siege tactics, withholding of humanitarian aid, forced displacement, including under the guise of truces or evacuation agreements, and the targeting of civilian infrastructure including schools, markets and hospitals. These actions are in contravention of international law, international humanitarian law and human rights law. I am particularly horrified that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons against its own people, as recently confirmed by the findings of the joint investigation by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW.

Those in need in Syria are often cut off from aid, due to shifting front lines, administrative hurdles and violence along access routes and against humanitarian workers. While a number of localised ceasefire initiatives have enabled some temporary aid, those in besieged and hard-to-reach areas are not receiving the regular assistance they desperately need. I call on all parties to lift barriers to humanitarian access, to allow relief to besieged areas and to let humanitarian actors cross conflict lines to deliver relief.

Clearly, a sustainable, peaceful resolution to the conflict is urgently needed and Ireland fully supports the UN-led Geneva process, based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué and UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which demands an end to violence, release of political prisoners, formation of a transitional governing body with executive powers and a constitutional reform process. I commend the efforts of UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The Geneva process is the only way of achieving an inclusive, sustainable and peaceful resolution to the crisis in Syria. I assure Members that Ireland remains wholly committed to efforts to achieving that outcome.

Sanctions are one tool the international community can use to put pressure on those who commit violence against their own people. The EU sanctions in respect of Syria include an oil embargo, restrictions on investments, a freeze of Syrian central bank assets and export restrictions on equipment and technology which might be used for internal repression or interception of Internet or telephone communications. There are no sanctions on food, medicines or most other civilian goods.

The EU’s basic principles on the use of restrictive measures state:

sanctions should be targeted in a way that has maximum impact on those whose behaviour we want to influence. Targeting should reduce to the maximum extent possible any adverse humanitarian effects or unintended consequences for persons not targeted.

Accordingly, the EU’s Syria sanctions include specific exemptions for essential civilian needs and humanitarian assistance. The EU keeps the impact of sanctions under constant review and will regularly consider options to mitigate any unintended consequences. EU sanctions are not a barrier to the delivery of aid or a cause of civilian suffering.

In addition to these measures, targeted EU sanctions are in place against over 250 people and almost 70 entities complicit in the violent repression of the civilian population in Syria. The first person on this list is Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Ireland has consistently supported EU sanctions targeting the Assad regime and its supporters, and will continue to do so as long as the situation on the ground justifies these measures. I have no wish to see members of the Syrian regime free to travel to the EU while Syrian children live in daily fear of barrel bombs, nor do I wish to see assets held in the EU being used to fuel the conflict. That is what lifting EU sanctions would allow. It would be a signal of indifference to or encouragement of the brutal attacks on civilians which have characterised this conflict. I would like to put on record the Government’s utter condemnation of the attack in April 2017 on a convoy of buses transporting evacuees from al-Fu'ah and Kafriya in north-west Syria. In a conflict characterised by despicable acts, this attack on fleeing civilians was striking in its callousness. It is extremely difficult to get reliable information on what has happened from contested zones in Syria and even harder to ensure accountability for the many appalling acts committed. Ireland takes all reports of violence against children extremely seriously, and I would invite anyone who may have any concrete information about reports of the kidnapping of 54 children from the scene of the al-Fu'ah and Kafriya attacks to share that information with my Department. Concrete, verifiable information from credible sources is essential if there is to be any follow-up, via those organisations that are mandated to act on missing persons cases.

This conflict will end one day and those who are guilty of crimes against their fellow Syrians must ultimately face justice. Ireland supports efforts on a number of different tracks to ensure full legal accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria. We have consistently called for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Ireland supports the independent international commission of inquiry established by the Human Rights Council to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria.

Last December, Ireland and a group of like-minded countries successfully pressed for the adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution to establish an international impartial and independent mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law in Syria. Ireland has contributed €100,000 to support the work of this mechanism this year.

Ireland is also a strong supporter of the fact-finding mission of the OPCW, which aims to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic. Ireland has provided nearly €1 million to support its work since 2014, and a further €200,000 to the OPCW-UN joint investigative mission to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria.

Ireland is also making a significant contribution to the international humanitarian response to the Syria crisis, contributing over €90 million since 2012. This is Irish Aid’s largest response to a single crisis in recent years. Through our annual EU contributions, Ireland also supports the EU’s humanitarian response to the Syria crisis. To date, the EU and its member states have mobilised more than €9.4 billion in assistance to Syrians in the country and to refugees in neighbouring countries. Ireland will continue to prioritise the protection of civilians, particularly the most vulnerable of these, including children, in our response to the Syria crisis. I call on the House to support this amendment.

I propose to share time with Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I commend Deputy Mick Wallace and his colleagues from the Independents 4 Change group on putting this very important motion before the House. It is to their credit that they bring to the floor of the Dáil a motion for debate on this awful and desperate crisis that has gone on for so many years. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party I will be moving an amendment that outlines our concerns and abhorrence of the current conflict in Syria and the ongoing humanitarian, security and political matters arising from the conflict of so many years. The amendment condemns in the strongest possible manner the terrible loss of life and tremendous human suffering caused by the conflict, as well as the systematic, widespread and gross violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties involved with the conflict.

Understandably, we have consistently supported the work of the United Nations, the UN special envoy and the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva. We also support the European Union strategy on Syria and we want to see an inclusive transition in Syria involving all segments of society. Over the past number of years we have consistently called on the European Union to continue to intensify and increase its efforts to support the people of Syria. The European Union and all its member states must make every effort to bring the perpetrators of war crimes, human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law to justice. They must ensure those found guilty of such crimes would face the full rigours of the law. Like everybody else in the House and any right-minded person, we want to ensure all the international organisations increase their efforts to find a lasting political solution to this conflict and crisis.

As a member of the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee for the past six years, I can say we have discussed this matter on many occasions. We have also ensured different advocacy groups and representative organisations have had the opportunity to come before the committee and outline to us in great detail the humanitarian crisis and its basic denial of people's human rights. They have told us about the unbelievable suffering being inflicted on so many people. We have listened to many groups outline in great detail the abuse and denial of basic civil rights. We have also had the opportunity to ensure non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and representatives of Irish Aid could come before the committee to outline the work being carried out in those awful circumstances by so many people, including doctors, nursing staff, support personnel and others who are trying to provide humanitarian assistance to those people most in need. Deputies Crowe and Maureen O'Sullivan, who was here earlier, are members of the committee. On every occasion that we had an opportunity, we ensured that groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and others could come before us, allowing doctors and nurses to speak to the committee and outline in great detail the desperate conditions they have dealt with on the ground in such awful circumstances.

The conflict in Syria is now in its seventh year, as the Minister of State indicated. Since the war began in 2011, in excess of 400,000 people have lost their lives, with 5 million people fleeing Syria, 6.5 million people internally displaced and 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Syria is one of the world's worst humanitarian crises of all times and it has been described as a living hell. It is incumbent, to say the least, on all of us to voice our vehement opposition to such heinous crimes. We must oppose flagrant violations of international law and seek a sustainable and lasting resolution to the conflict based on a political transition, a reconciliation process and the reconstruction of Syria.

The Fianna Fáil Party has consistently supported the EU's aim of meaningful and inclusive transition in Syria in line with the 2015 UN Security Council resolution 2254, which sets a roadmap for a peace process in Syria, as well as the 2012 Geneva communiqué through support for the strengthening of the political opposition. It is imperative and necessary for a more concerted effort to be made to bring a resolution to this conflict. After all, it is in its seventh year and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. There has been and continues to be unbelievable human suffering. The European Union and the international community must redouble efforts and ensure this war is brought to a peaceful conclusion as soon as possible.

As I stated, the Syrian conflict has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Half of the country's pre-war population - more than 11 million people - have been killed or forced to flee their homes. The United Nations estimates 6.3 million people are internally displaced. Approximately 5.2 million people have been forced to seek safety in neighbouring countries, with 3 million Syrians having fled across the border into Turkey. Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq are home to very substantial numbers of refugees.

Since the start of the conflict the European Union and its member states have collectively allocated approximately €9.4 billion in humanitarian and development assistance, as the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has noted. The EU's strategic objectives in Syria focus on six key areas. The first is an end to the war through a genuine political transition in line with United Nations Security Council resolution 2254, negotiated by the parties of the conflict under the auspices of the UN special envoy for Syria and with the support of key international regional actors. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2254 in December 2015 and reconfirmed its endorsement of the 30 June 2012 Geneva communiqué, also endorsing the Vienna statements in pursuit of the communiqué's implementation as the basis for a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned political transition to end the conflict. The European Union supports the work of the UN special envoy and the resumption of the talks in Geneva. Round eight of the intra-Syrian talks took place in Geneva on 28 November and the work plan for this round was framed by resolution 2254.

A second objective of the European Union is to promote a meaningful and inclusive transition in Syria in line with UN Security Council resolution 2254 and the Geneva communiqué through support for the strengthening of the political opposition. The political process must be fully inclusive to ensure all segments of Syrian society are involved with shaping Syria's future unity and reconciliation.

Another objective of the European Union is to save lives by addressing the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable Syrians across the country in a timely, effective, efficient and principled manner. The European Union must seek to improve humanitarian access for the UN and other humanitarian organisations. On many occasions when we had representatives of NGOs and Irish Aid before us, we discussed in detail the difficulty in getting humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable and needy persons. Another objective of the European Union strategy is to promote democracy, human rights and freedom of speech by strengthening Syrian civil society organisations. Civil society must play a prominent role in post-conflict Syria, particularly in helping the reconciliation process. The European Council agreed to increase EU efforts to promote free speech, including through supporting free and independent media.

Another objective of the Council is to promote accountability for war crimes with a view to facilitating a national reconciliation process and transitional justice. The European Union will continue to work to ensure accountability for war crimes and human rights violations.

The Council also condemns the use of chemical weapons. That phrase we all use when discussing these issues, "human rights violations", is not strong enough to describe the horrors that have been inflicted on innocent people in this conflict. Another objective of the Council is to support the resilience of the Syrian population and Syrian society. The EU must continue to provide resilience support through the provision of education, job creation and support for local civilian governance structures.

On 18 January 2012, the European Council adopted a package of measures aimed at addressing the continued brutal repression and violation of human rights by the Government of Syria. On 29 May this year, the Council extended EU restrictive measures against the Syrian regime until 1 June 2018. This decision is in line with EU strategy on Syria, which states that the EU will maintain its restrictive measures against the Syrian regime and its supporters as long as the repression of civilians continues. The sanctions in place against Syria include an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank within the EU, and export restrictions on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression, as well as on equipment and technology for monitoring or interception of Internet or telephone communications. While Fianna Fáil supports the EU's strategy on Syria, it is essential that such sanctions do not cause suffering to ordinary Syrian civilians and that the EU continues to monitor the impact of sanctions to ensure they do not have unintended consequences.

We unreservedly condemn the attack on a convoy of busses transporting evacuees from the besieged towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya in north-west Syria last April that left more than 100 people dead, many of them children. It is imperative that the international community continues to gather and preserve evidence that can be used to bring those responsible for committing heinous crimes during this conflict to justice. Such evidence is needed for eventual use in fair and independent criminal proceedings, which we hope will take place in the future. It is imperative that the international community demonstrates that there are repercussions and a price to pay for those who commit war crimes and blatantly flout international human rights law. In this conflict, we have seen the use of chemical weapons, as referred to by Deputy Wallace, including in the chemical attack in Idlib on 4 April 2017 in which dozens of people were killed, including children. Those who have committed such atrocities should be formally investigated and, where found guilty, treated accordingly under the law.

We welcome Ireland's notable contribution to the humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict. Since 2012, the State has contributed more than €90 million to the humanitarian effort. The Government must continue to support the Syrian people and advocate at EU and international level for a political resolution to this conflict. We must seek to ensure the humanitarian aid we contribute to is delivered in an effective and efficient manner and that it gets to the people most in need. It is imperative that Europe does more to assist refugees who have been forced to flee and to uphold the rights of refugees and the international law that underpins those rights. When it comes to Ireland's contribution, we must ensure our words are matched by actions. At this juncture, however, it seems unlikely we will meet our commitment of accepting 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017. It will require every effort on the part of the Government to meet that target without further delay.

Peaceful anti-Government demonstrations began in Syria in March 2011 and quickly escalated following the violent crackdown by the state. Before long, armed opposition groups had begun fighting back. Divisions between secular and religious fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict. It is a conflict that has embroiled global and regional powers, allowed Islamic State to grab huge tracts of territory and caused the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. The fighting is between soldiers who support the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, fighters known as rebels who do not want the President to be in power anymore, and the group calling itself Islamic State. Outside parties became involved in the conflict in 2015. In December 2016, fighting in Aleppo intensified as Government forces took control of most of Aleppo from rebel groups. Turkey and Russia then brokered a ceasefire for eastern Aleppo to allow civilians to be evacuated. On 22 December 2016, it was announced that Government forces had taken control of the city, thereby ending more than four years of rebel rule. During the fighting, Aleppo was described as a living hell.

Unfortunately, my time has run out and I must conclude.

I thank Deputy Brendan Smith for sharing time. We all remember the news bulletins and social media reports last year showing terrified men, women and children in Aleppo. We watched in horror as civilians were killed on the spot in their homes, as bombs rendered hospitals and schools out of service and thousands of people fled in search of safety. The fall of Aleppo demonstrated what happens when we fail to uphold international norms. All member states of the UN, including Russia and China, signed up to the responsibility to protect protocol in 2005, according to which individual states bear the primary responsibility to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes. If a state fails to uphold this responsibility, as the Syrian Government has repeatedly done, then the other states have a moral and legal obligation to act.

The international community has failed the people of Aleppo. Now, less than a year since Aleppo fell, there is a major risk of other areas of Syria suffering the same fate at the hands of their own Government. In Idlib, for example, 2 million civilians, including many who fled in terror from Aleppo, are facing another major and indiscriminate offensive from the Syrian Government and its backers. The Irish Government must do all it can to prevent another Aleppo. The conflict in Syria, now in its seventh year, represents the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Since the war began in 2011, more than 400,000 people have lost their lives, which is four times the population of my constituency of Kildare South. Approximately 5 million people have fled Syria, which is more than the total population of Ireland. In addition, 6.5 million are internally displaced and there are 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Conditions in the country have been referred to as a living hell.

It is incumbent on all of us to voice our vehement opposition to such heinous crimes, oppose flagrant violations of international law and seek a sustainable and lasting resolution to this conflict, based on a political transition, a reconciliation process and a reconstruction process. The UN must regain centrality in the peace negotiations, for which it will require strong support from member states. The Government must do more, both publicly and privately, to support the Geneva process. We must make clear that the prominent role Russia now has brings not only influence but also responsibility.

Putin must first enforce UN Security Council Resolution 2254 on which he shook hands at the United Nations almost two years ago to ensure a ceasefire and grant humanitarian aid.

I thank Deputies Wallace and Daly for bringing this motion forward. To our collective shame it is a long time since we had a debate on Syria in this Chamber and, unfortunately, the conflict has largely fallen off the international news agenda.

Sinn Féin has tabled an amendment to this motion not to score political points but because I did not feel the original motion went far enough to describe the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions and further issues surrounding the war. I tabled this Sinn Féin amendment to detail further the horrific and graphic nature of the Syrian conflict and to outline some concrete steps that need to be taken. Maybe I am being optimistic but I hope we can get cross-party support for our amendment and I urge Deputies to read our amendment. There is the genesis there of an idea or pathway to move away from conflict to a peaceful resolution.

Syria represents one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent times. We know that approximately 500,000 have been killed in the conflict and countless numbers have been injured. An estimated 8 million people are displaced inside Syria and there are 4.5 million refugees beyond Syrian borders. From the very outset of the war Sinn Féin condemned the brutal reaction of the Syrian Government to democratic protests, the descent into all-out war, and the foreign interference which has bankrolled armed groups and elongated the conflict. We have spoken out against Turkey and Saudi Arabia's funding, arming, training and support of extremist jihadist groups in Syria. We have spoken out against Russia and Iran's military support of the Syrian army, and called on them to instead use their influence to broker a ceasefire and support a peaceful resolution of the conflict. We have also strongly criticised the USA, Britain, Israel and France and their decision to intervene militarily, directly and indirectly, in that war. We have also echoed the UN's abhorrence at the complete lack of adherence to the norms of international law by all the warring parties in Syria. Such crimes include the targeting of schools and hospitals, crippling sieges of civilian areas, and the use of chemical weapons. All these war crimes must be condemned without reservation, but words of condemnation are empty without action. All allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity must be independently investigated and those accused brought before independent and neutral courts. Ireland should play a positive and more meaningful role in these investigations, bringing the suspected war criminals to the International Criminal Court.

Syrians, like people all over the world, have a right to live in peace, free from fear, attack and hunger, free to practice their faith, and free to live in their own land. They also have a right to democracy and the highest standards of human rights. There can be no military solution to this conflict. The only way to stop the conflict is through inclusive dialogue and round-table peace talks that have the potential and credibility to lead to a real and lasting peace process.

World leaders need to use their considerable clout in a diplomatic offensive to secure a ceasefire and bring all sides to the table for discussions on a peace process with credible outcomes. Meaningful dialogue involving all sections of Syrian society must be established to address all of the key issues facing the citizens of Syria. As part of these talks, representatives of the de facto autonomous region of Rojava should be given their own seat at the negotiating table. They are a distinct entity and their voice must be heard and listened to. The EU's strategy towards Syria has added to the conflict and been completely counterproductive. Sinn Féin opposed the lifting of the EU arms embargo on Syria at the end of May 2013. We opposed it because we felt that flooding the country with more weapons would encourage and facilitate more violence and bloodshed and not bring about the end of the conflict. Our political analysis then was, unfortunately, correct. Such a move has also put Irish soldiers serving on the UN peacekeeping mission to the Golan Heights in greater danger. I expressed my concern that, as soldiers from an EU member state, they might be targeted because of the EU's lifting of its weapons embargo. There should be a total and complete international arms embargo on Syria.

Another element of the EU's response has been sanctions on Syria. I have no problem with targeted sanctions against high-level individuals and decision-makers who have committed or been involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity. I am, however, concerned about broad sanctions that result in humanitarian problems and issues for innocent citizens. We saw how sanctions supposedly against Saddam Hussein caused a humanitarian crisis and massive hardship for innocent civilians in Iraq in the early 1990s. Last year, the United Nations' Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, ESCWA, published a report, entitled Syria at War: Five Years On, which has detailed the humanitarian consequences of sanctions that the USA and EU have placed on Syria. According to this report, the loss of civilian infrastructure due to the war, such as power stations, hospitals, water and fuel installations in Syria, has fuelled the need for the very types of investment and services, technology and dual use goods that are subject to such sanctions. The report also states that even though these sanctions provide exemptions for the export of humanitarian goods, the procedures involved can be opaque, unpredictable and time-consuming, and frequently require costly legal advice and action. This hinders the ability to respond fully to the humanitarian crisis. The sanctions are so broad that even where it is possible to deliver humanitarian aid on the ground, sending funds and goods to Syria without violating sanctions or the regulations of neighbouring countries can be fraught with difficulty. It is time consuming at a time when a speedy response is often needed. Therefore, US and EU sanctions that are unfit for purpose, harm civilians and hinder humanitarian aid need to be lifted immediately.

The original motion condemned the attack on the civilian convoy evacuating people from the besieged towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya. I too condemn this horrific attack which killed 126 innocent civilians, including 68 children. It was a war crime. They were mainly Shia Muslims and they were killed by Islamist and jihadi rebels. I understand Deputies Wallace and Daly have met some of the victims of this attack, including families whose children were kidnapped in the attack. I support their call for their release and the release of all others who have been kidnapped in the conflict.

I welcome the fact that the Irish Government has continued to send aid to Syria and to support humanitarian efforts there and in neighbouring countries. We must, however, increase the number of refugees whom we are relocating and resettling in Ireland. We should be a leader in the response to the refugee crisis and in assisting the humanitarian response in Syria and neighbouring countries, but we should be more responsive and welcoming to the vulnerable and desperate refugees who are fleeing Syria.

The ongoing conflict in Syria has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern times and Ireland, as a priority, must assist efforts to end the conflict, prosecute those suspected of committing war crimes, and tackle the huge humanitarian crisis that this brutal conflict continues to cause people in Syria.

I commend Deputies Daly and Wallace on using their scarce parliamentary time on this important issue. The conflict in Syria, as others have said, is the world's gravest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Millions of people have been displaced, both inside and beyond the borders of Syria, and more than half a million people are believed to have been killed since 2011, the vast majority by the Assad Government and its allies. The regime has also used chemical weapons against civilians.

It has prevented aid from reaching those affected on the ground. Syria has become a free-for-all. The belligerents have received political, military and operational support from Russia, Iran, North Korea, Algeria, Iraq, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others. It was reported last week that China will deploy troops to aid President al-Assad. We saw the Syrian Administration's barbaric treatment of its own population, the large-scale breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law and, in particular, we saw civilian populations exposed to indiscriminate attack, loss of life and the destruction of essential infrastructural services and basic medical care. We saw the great powers return to Cold War-style fuelling of proxy wars in third countries. These conflicts have resulted in or contributed to the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIL, the Yemeni civil war and the re-emergence of the Taliban.

Tensions between the United States and Russia have helped to stymie the efforts of the United Nations and others to broker a ceasefire. Both countries should have a vital role in resolving the Syrian conflict but they are at odds in their analysis and profoundly mistrust each other's motives and intentions. There can be no dialogue between them without a basic level of trust and understanding. The dispute between them predates the Syrian civil war. Russia believes that it has been treated unfairly since the 1990s and that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it alone was not welcomed into the new community of nations but remained instead the focus of western distrust. This incorporation into NATO of countries formerly of the eastern bloc has been a major cause of increased tensions between East and West since the 1990s. Arguably, subsequent Russian aggression against Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria was fuelled, at least in part, by ongoing resentment about the continuing NATO expression to the very borders of Russia, although Russia was left on the periphery of a post-Cold War Europe. It has literally fought its way back. It retreated from the world stage for a time but it is back with a vengeance now and is eager to restore itself as a global power.

The end of history brigade on both sides of the United States congressional aisle trumpeted the victory of western ideology and economics and, indeed, seems incapable of distinguishing between the two. They had a simplistic notion that all the West had to do was guide the aims and goals of the Arab Spring, directing it towards an inevitable western-style liberal democracy and that has proven to be disastrous. Look at Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Lebanon. The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups and civil wars in north Africa and the Middle East which began in December 2010 in Tunisia. Early hopes were that these popular movements would end corruption, increase political participation in populations and bring about economic quality. Only the uprising in Tunisia has resulted in a transition to constitutional, democratic governance. Various commentators, anticipating a major Arab movement towards democratisation, spoke of an "Arab street", of a young generation peacefully rising up against oppressive authoritarianism to secure a more democratic political system and a bright economic future for their countries. The real world is not that simple. On one hand, the Arab Spring caused the biggest transformation of the Middle East since the old colonial powers drew up the map of the region. At the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced out of power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. On the other hand, by 12 June 2012, the United Nations peacekeeping chief in Syria had declared that Syria had entered a period of civil war.

There was a wave of violence and instability in the aftermath of the Arab Spring that became known as the Arab winter. It has been characterised by extensive civil wars, general regional instability, economic and demographic decline of the Arab League, and increased sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. In Syria and Libya, the result of the Arab Spring protests has been a complete societal collapse. We must all use all diplomatic means and fora available to us to raise these important issues. We must incorporate into our views what is happening on the ground. We must co-operate with like-minded states in the European Union and United Nations. We must work towards a genuine cessation of violence and humanitarian aid access throughout each of the countries involved, particularly Syria. We must seek the withdrawal of personnel, support and other interference by all those states that are now active in Syria but which have no legitimate interest in what is going on in an independent state.

People Before Profit will support the motion calling for the lifting of sanctions on Syria. It is worth reminding ourselves that the last serious discussion we had on the question of sanctions was about the sanctions on Iraq. Within ten years, the sanctions on Iraq took the lives of 250,000 children, many dying due to the lack of simple medicines to cure things like diarrhoea and measles. As the Minister of State said, quoting the EU, sanctions should be targeted in a way that has the maximum impact on those whose behaviour we want to influence. History tells us that economic sanctions of this type do not target those we most want to influence. They target the most vulnerable, the poorest, the sickest and those like people described in a Reuters news agency report, which states:

In the cancer ward at Damascus Children’s Hospital, doctors are struggling with a critical shortage of specialist drugs to treat their young patients - and it’s not just due to the general chaos of the Syrian civil war.

Local and World Health Organization (WHO) officials also blame Western sanctions for severely restricting pharmaceutical imports, even though medical supplies are largely exempt from measures imposed by the United States and European Union.

The article continues: "Fewer than half of the country’s hospitals are fully functioning and the numbers of doctors have dived." The article quotes a World Health Organization spokesperson as saying: "The impact of economic sanctions imposed on Syria heavily affected the procurement of some specific medicine including anti-cancer medicines." History has shown us that it is not that we have to reinvent the wheel and look at how economic sanctions might put manners on a regime that we do not like, but to recognise that sanctions hurt the most vulnerable and the most exposed.

It is worth remembering and reminding ourselves that the first time that Syria was mentioned in an international context for a long time was by none other than George Bush, when he declared that he was about to pursue an "axis of evil". The first part of that axis of evil was Iraq, then Iran and Syria. I wondered at the time why he was so interested in that country, which is one of the most beautiful countries at the heart of the history of civilisation. Syria became a venue for the proxy war of the interests of the various imperialist powers. What we saw happen in Syria was not just a brutal reaction by a brutal regime to young boys painting a slogan on the wall that the people wanted the regime to go, the slogan of the Arab Spring in the city of Daraa, but what followed was a proxy war by the various interests of imperialism in the region to try to establish themselves as powerful influences, including France, Britain, Russia, to the European Union and the USA. All of them had their hands in some element of the conflict in Syria. Russia exported 10% of its total armaments to Syria during the war, making Syria the biggest recipient of Russian arms. The Americans, with the collusion of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, armed ISIS and al-Qaeda as so-called freedom fighters against the regime. There is another element to the Syrian conflict, which still exists, which is genuine resistance to the brutal regime of al-Assad, whose father was also a brutal dictator who killed 30,000 people in one week in the city of Homs in 1984. There is a history of brutal repression in this region by those dictators who do not wish any political opposition to emerge.

While we oppose the sanctions, we also have to say that there is a major hypocrisy on the part of the European Union, including us, in that we pay billions to countries such as Turkey and now Libya to hold onto refugees. We are witnessing an absolutely shocking repetition of history in Libya at the moment. Human beings are being sold. Strong boys are being bought in the slave trade. The regime is totally chaotic and using the resources the European Union is pumping into it to allow the brutal captivation of millions of ordinary people who are trying to flee war, destitution and famine. The hypocrisy of the EU imposing sanctions on Syria and pumping money into Libya is breathtaking. It is, therefore, crucial that we speak out against this and support the lifting of sanctions.

In our amendment, we propose to amend the motion by inserting the following after “evacuees from those towns; and”:

“— the slaughter of up to half a million of their own people by the brutal regime of President Bashar al Assad including the current bombing by Assad and Russian forces of Eastern Gouta, where up to 400,0000 civilians are trapped and according to the United Nations facing ‘catastrophe’;

— the imperialist interventions in Syria by both the US and Russia, neither of whom are serving the interests of the Syrian people;

— all other foreign intervention in Syria whether by the EU, Turkey, Iran, ISIS or Israel, as the grievous problems of Syria can and must be solved only by the Syrian people themselves”.

Our amendment also proposes to insert in the motion the following after “missing children from al-Fu’ah and Kafraya;”:

“— increase substantially its intake of refugees from this appalling humanitarian catastrophe and put pressure on the EU to assist a speedy, dignified resettlement of refugees currently trapped in appalling conditions in camps in Greece, Macedonia and various border crossings in Europe.”

We saw recently a disgusting attempt by this regime to start arguing against the resettlement of a lousy few hundred Syrian refugees. We promised many years ago to take in 4,000. We have taken in way fewer and now we are talking about stopping the programme because of the housing crisis. It is despicable that anyone would use the housing crisis to argue against offering assistance and relocation of families coming here from a crisis such as that in Syria.

It has been hinted at by many Ministers and it has been argued for. We have to stop it immediately and stamp it on the head.

Do not mislead the House. We are not changing our approach.

The Minister will get his chance to come back in.

Do not mislead the House, Deputy.

I do not wish and I do not think most people would want to see the assets of the EU being used to fuel this conflict. However, indirectly, that is what sanctions are doing and, quite directly, that is what EU funding of the Libya deal is doing. It is using human beings as shields against its own hypocrisy and the refusal to allow desperately needy people arrive on our shores. Then it uses the excuse of the crises which our system has created as an excuse not to further help them.

We will support the motion although we wish to amend it on the question of sanctions. We also seek to recognise that this has been a proxy war by imperialist forces on all sides and condemn all sides. Leave the Syrian people to sort out their own issues just as it needed to happen in this country. To a large degree, it still needs to happen in this country. This is a lesson that the world has learned. Imperialist intervention worsens the situation; it does not help it.

I, too, am delighted to speak to this motion tonight on behalf of the Rural Independent Group. I compliment Deputies Daly and Wallace on tabling this important motion for debate in the House. We have had little or no debate on this issue or the issue of genocide in the Middle East despite many requests. I also compliment the Deputies on going out and spending their time there and seeing it first hand. I intend to travel there myself. I did travel to Lebanon but I have never been to Syria.

The devastation and the carnage that has been inflicted on the Syrian people over the course of recent years has caused untold misery. The Syrian civil war is now in its sixth year. It has been reported that more than 400,000 people have died, with more than 11 million people displaced from their homes, including 5 million registered refugees. It is an appalling crisis by any standard. The news agency Catholic World Report has said that civilian witnesses have given testimony to the carnage. Hospitals bombed, chlorine gas bombs unleashed and starvation are only some of the atrocities that have been inflicted. Families and entire communities have been destroyed. It will be at least a generation before some hope of any renewal can take place within Syria, and that is provided the war is stopped.

Add to that the extremely complex geopolitical problems and one would easily be forgiven for thinking no resolution is possible. However, we must never despair. That is not a position we can or must adopt. We have seen in our country, although admittedly on a much smaller scale, how an internal conflict can scar a nation and fundamentally change it. We still see the baggage of it in our present situation regarding Brexit. When it comes to debating sanctions as a political option, the main problem is always the same: will the sanctions help to resolve the situation or will they hinder it. I note that in May of this year the United States House of Representatives passed a Bill that issues additional sanctions against supporters of Syria's Assad regime and those providing arms for the regime. An old saying I used to hear from my late mother and father was, "Those who live in glasshouses should not throw stones". We could apply this saying to our Yankee friends in this case.

The American House passed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2017, imposing additional sanctions on the Assad regime and its backers, especially human rights violators and those involved in the trade of weapons or weapons parts with the regime, which, as clearly outlined by other Members tonight, is a vast industry. As I understand it, those supporters include Russia and Iran - international allies of Assad. As is to be expected, Christian leaders in the area have denounced the trafficking of weapons into Syria as something which helps the conflict continue. Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the arms trade. In his September 2015 speech to the US Congress, Pope Francis emphasised that Christians must ask why deadly weapons are being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society. He stated:

Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.

Last July, in a video message promoting peace in Syria, he lamented that, while the people suffer, incredible quantities of money are being spent to supply weapons to fighters. He also noted that some of the arms suppliers are also among those that talk of peace.

The questions of sanctions is complex. I note that the Council on Foreign Relations states that Governments and multinational bodies impose economic sanctions to try to alter the strategic decisions of state and non-state actors which threaten their interests or violate international norms of behaviour. The council also notes that critics say sanctions are often poorly conceived and rarely successful in changing a target's conduct, while supporters contend that they have become more effective in recent years and remain an essential foreign policy tool. I have my serious doubts.

For example, sanctions have become the defining feature of the Western response to severe geopolitical challenges, including North Korea's nuclear programme and Russia's intervention in Ukraine. What must be uppermost in our minds, however, are the questions around who really suffers when it comes to sanctions. Again, the Council on Foreign Relations has observed that economic sanctions may be comprehensive by prohibiting commercial activity with regard to an entire country such as the long-standing US embargo of Cuba or they may be targeted by blocking transactions with particular business groups or individuals. Since 9/11 there has been what is termed a pronounced shift towards targeted or so-called smart sanctions which aim to minimise the suffering of innocent civilians. Perhaps if were to make more decisive interventions, however, the need for sanctions would have been eliminated or reduced.

When it comes to Syria, I want to conclude by noting the Christian Aid work of the Open Doors organisation. It has stated:

The overall situation in Syria is characterized by heavy persecution of all types of Christians in areas held by IS and other Islamic militants. Many Christians have already fled areas that are held by Islamic militants (including IS) or that were destroyed during the conflict.

Many Christians have already fled the areas held by Islamic militants, including ISIS, that were destroyed during the conflict. Deputies Wallace and Daly told us what is happening tonight. We know ourselves that an entire region has been wiped out. It is not only the Christians who are being persecuted. As Deputy Wallace alluded to, other sects are being persecuted also. Schools catering for multiple Islamic groups were targeted. Deputy Wallace listed the various Islamic tribes that have been targeted. Imagine targeting schoolchildren at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. A suicide bomber pulled up with a car and handed out sweets and crisps to hungry people. He lured them to the car and destroyed dozens of them, blowing them to pieces. Some 50 or 60 are still missing. No one knows where they are held in captivity. That is appalling.

We have had no debates here. It was interesting to learn tonight the position of the Government parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. With the new confidence and supply arrangement, the pipe has been mended and the water is flowing again. They two parties are together opposing this motion. We must question this and why we have had no debates here in this Chamber. I said this last week about the EU policy on our armies. We have had no debate. I have been seeking a debate on this matter for five or six years. Deputy Grealish, Senator Mullen and I visited Lebanon. Last Holy Thursday evening, thanks to the Ceann Comhairle, we had a double slot during the Topical Issue debate. That is the only way we could raise this. Tonight we would not be able to do so only that Deputies Wallace and Daly used their own time in which to table a motion. We must sit up and listen. Genocide is being carried out in Syria. We must not add our name to what is being done or have blood on our hands because of it.

It is hard to believe that the Syrian conflict continues. It is also very hard to believe that this horrible conflict grew out of a very peaceful, pro-democratic demonstration. Syria, which has had a very troubled history since the end of Ottoman rule in 1918, has now come to this. Today, we see the effect of the conflict. I refer to the devastation and staggering loss of life. Cities, infrastructure and livelihoods have been devastated and there has been an impact on education, health services and culture. I visited Damascus before the conflict. It was an amazing city both culturally and historically. It was a vibrant city and it was inclusive. There was great respect for diversity in what was the Syrian capital at that stage.

We see the effects of war on everybody. I wish to refer specifically to the children, as mentioned in the motion. I must also mention those with a disability because they suffer even more horrifically in these disasters and because of sanctions. Let me refer also to those who, for various reasons, decided to stay in Syria. I had the opportunity to meet refugees at the Turkey-Syria border. Their desire was to go back home. They were holding on to their culture, way of life, food and education because they desired to go back. I see from a recent article that, as a result of bureaucracy, some Syrians are finding it very difficult to return to their country.

The motion is very straightforward and to the point regarding the conflict. It refers to what is essentially a humanitarian disaster. Sanctions have been proven time and again to have a disproportionate effect on women, children and vulnerable groups, such as those with disabilities. What does it say about the people who impose and agree with sanctions if they know it is the most vulnerable who will be most affected? For too long the United Nations and the International Court of Justice have accepted the imposition of sanctions under international law. In my opinion, however, sanctions comprise a type of warfare that is criminal because they lead only to tremendous suffering in a country already devastated by war. Of course, the sanctions are affecting those people who had little or nothing to do with the political decisions that caused the conflict in the first instance. Sanctions should be illegal under international law. Not only do they defy the UN charter in so many ways, they also circumvent the most basic principle of international law, which is sovereignty.

The United States has a long track record of using sanctions to further its political goals and enact regime change in countries that do not suit it. That has been the case for Cuba for over 50 years. The sanctions there continue today and are still having an effect. We have seen the effects in Venezuela, Iraq and Iran. If one thing is clear from all of these cases, it is that the vulnerable suffer most severely.

A number of international relations academics used the sanctions imposed in Iraq after the Gulf War as a case study. It was clear from the study that it was through the imposition of sanctions that the overwhelming damage was done. I acknowledge the Minister has no involvement in US foreign policy but I urge him to make the case that we do not support the sanctions in question. They are immoral.

I, too, have reservations about the leadership of President Assad but believe that when we put our personal opinions aside and examine international law, we will realise, as we learned at a foreign affairs committee meeting some time ago, that the Russian intervention was in accordance with international law. Russia was invited into Syria by that country's Government. That is the reality, regardless of whether we like that Government. All the other interventions, however, are violations of international law.

One should think about the kidnapping of the 54 children. It was an absolute nightmare. It reminds me of the kidnapping by Boko Haram of the children in northern Nigeria. We know what happened to them. We know what is happening to Rohingya children and young girls today. They are being forced into prostitution. We also feel for those children in Yemen who are malnourished and suffering from cholera. It is a real indictment of international law that all of the relevant laws seem to be ineffective and totally disrespected.

Sanctions are another example of outsiders meddling and interfering, thereby worsening matters. All those interfering may claim to be altruistic but they are motivated out of self-interest. Libya is an absolute disaster. I know Irish people who have been living in Libya for over 40 years. Irrespective of whether one agreed with the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, one should recall that they had access to health care and education. The invasion came about with no vision or plan whatsoever and now the EU is funding Libya. There are grave concerns over this but sanctions are being imposed on Syria. Sanctions do not weaken regimes. In fact, they strengthen them. Cuba is a great example. Sanctions have certainly not weakened the will of the Cuban people. Owing to the sanctions, the Cuban people are totally committed and remain loyal to the principles of the revolution.

I hope that if we get a place on the UN Security Council, we will have a voice. There has to be a time when the veto is not exercised. This would have been a case. I refer to this humanitarian case.

I support this motion. I thank Deputies Wallace and Daly and the small number of others who accompanied them to Syria and saw for themselves the circumstances on the ground. Perhaps the Minister will listen to them. There is no propaganda here. It is following a visit to Syria and a tremendous amount of research that we stand here tonight to say we do not support the sanctions. It is absolutely nonsensical and hypocritical to stand over sanctions by the US and EU that are supposedly targeted when we know from a UN report and leaked memos that they are not. As Senator Maureen O'Sullivan said, it is the vulnerable who suffer.

Let us examine some of the comments that have been made. I refer the Minister to all of them, including those made by the World Health Organization to the effect that there are shortages of insulin, anaesthetics, specific antibiotics, blood products, vaccines and so on. Health agencies on the ground say the sanctions are making life absolutely impossible.

I am not here to tell lies, nor am I here to exaggerate. I am outlining what we have been reading, namely, that the sanctions are simply making circumstances on the ground much worse. Despite this, the Government persists with its thinking. Fianna Fáil also states that the sanctions are targeted, which is doubly shocking. The Government parties are persisting with the illusion that there can be a targeted programme when the reality on the ground is far from that.

I am not here to defend the Assad regime. I have read the Amnesty International reports. The most appalling war crimes have been carried out by the Syrian Government and ISIS but also by US-led forces. The latter have been cited by Amnesty in regard to the killing of hundreds of civilians. Ultimately, Bashar al-Assad is more firmly in place than he has ever been. We have trotted out the figures here tonight. Some 4.8 million people have fled. Some 6.6 million are internally displaced. Significantly, half of the 6.6 million are children. Some 300,000 are dead and millions have been injured and maimed. Despite these statistics, the Minister is sitting here tonight still standing over sanctions that are totally unjust and not achieving what they were intended to do. Moreover, they are making circumstances much worse.

I thank the Deputies who tabled the motion. I also thank Sinn Féin. I have read its amendment and have no difficulty supporting it.

Let me refer to the UN study that has been mentioned.

It is a very cautious and moderate report. More than a year ago the UN appealed for an immediate, strategic review of the sanctions by all the stakeholders because they were simply not doing what they were supposed to do. We know that the sanctions against Iraq resulted in the deaths of half a million people. That number has been quoted already. The very courageous Denis Halliday resigned in protest after a lifetime in the UN. That was a decision he did not take lightly. He equated what was happening to genocide.

Deputy Wallace has already quoted Madeleine Albright but I will repeat what he said because it is the most appalling statement, namely, that it was worth it. She said about the US sanctions, with half a million people dead, that the price was worth it. That self-damning confession came seven years after the sanctions were introduced. Seven years used to be the age of reason, where one would take stock when one grew up. Is that the type of leadership we want? The retired US general, Wesley Clark, revealed the Pentagon plans to overthrow seven governments in five years, including Syria. All that those plans achieved was an appalling loss of life and left in place and even more secure in his position the man for whom none of us have any respect. The people of Syria marched for democracy but they never asked for a war of the nature they got. This was a country that was almost self sufficient in 2011, which has cities that were the cradle of civilisation. The people of Syria never asked for this barbarism and they never asked for our hypocrisy.

I welcome the opportunity to address this House on the situation in Syria and I thank Members for their continued engagement on the issue. I thank Deputies Wallace and Clare Daly in particular for tabling the motion and giving us an opportunity to have this debate.

I share the revulsion expressed in this House at the continuing violence in Syria and its impact on the Syrian population, especially the most vulnerable, namely, children. The fighting has cost the lives of an estimated half a million people so far. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of this conflict, marked by unparalleled suffering, destruction and disregard for human life. More than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance, including close to 3 million in need trapped in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, where they are exposed to grave protection threats. More than half of the population has been forced from their homes, and many people have been displaced multiple times. Children and young people comprise more than half of the displaced, as well as half of those in need of humanitarian assistance. In fact, children are at the heart of this vicious conflict. The war in Syria began when the Assad regime brutally repressed a protest by parents demonstrating against the arrest and torture of their teenage children in southern Syria in early 2011. Since then, the Assad regime and its allies have repeatedly targeted civilians, including through use of "starve or surrender" techniques, forced displacement in the interest of demographic engineering, denial of humanitarian assistance and deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructure such as schools, markets and hospitals. The regime has even gone so far as to use chemical weapons on its people, as recently confirmed by the UN-Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, joint investigative mission.

We cannot stand idly by as the Assad regime inflicts such suffering on its people. Ireland has consistently supported EU sanctions targeting the regime and its supporters, and will continue to do so as long as the situation on the ground justifies those measures. As the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, has outlined, the sanctions target the Syrian regime. There are no sanctions on food, medicines or most other civilian goods and there are exemptions and derogations for essential civilian needs and for humanitarian assistance built into the measures. Furthermore, the EU keeps the impact of sanctions under constant review and regularly considers options to mitigate any unintended consequences. I hear what Deputy Connolly said, but I do not think anyone is suggesting that if sanctions were lifted in the morning, many of the concerns that have been raised in the House this evening would be resolved any time soon. There are numerous barriers to humanitarian access in Syria, but those are as a result of actions by the parties to the conflict, particularly the Assad regime. I am confident that EU sanctions are not a barrier to the delivery of core aid needs. To lift the sanctions would amount to tacit support for the Assad regime and would only serve to encourage further impunity and disregard for the peace process.

I have previously expressed in this House my utter condemnation of the attack in April 2017 on a convoy of buses transporting evacuees from al-Fu'ah and Kafriya in north-west Syria. My predecessor as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, also issued a statement condemning the attack at the time. Regarding the reported kidnapping, as the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, explained earlier, it is extremely difficult to get reliable information from contested zones in Syria and reliable evidence is essential for follow-up and accountability. I again invite anyone who may have any information about this incident to share that information with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in order that it can be passed on to the bodies that may be in a position to help. If Deputy Wallace has information I ask him to give it to me and I will act on it. For example, the Red Cross movement often plays a role with regard to missing persons but it would presumably need concrete information to allow it to pursue any case. I give the Deputy my personal assurance that if he gives me something which I can follow up, I will be more than happy to do it.

The recently published findings of the OPCW-UN joint investigative mechanism, JIM, show that the Syrian regime was responsible once again for a chemical weapons attack in April 2017 at Khan Sheikhoun for the release of sarin, and that ISIL was responsible for the use of sulphur mustard on two occasions in September 2016 at Um-Housh. Ireland has joined the international community in expressing its horror and condemnation of the confirmed use of chemical weapons in attacks on civilians in Syria. One of my most vivid memories of the region was when I visited Halabja and met family members who were directly affected and had seen their loved ones die following the chemical attack that happened there. It is a pretty gruesome experience to speak to people who have experienced the horrors of chemical weapons on civilians. We have repeatedly called upon Syria to honour the commitments and obligations it entered into on becoming a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. We urge Syria to engage in good faith with the OPCW in all aspects of its investigations.

The development and use of chemical weapons, including the use of any toxic chemicals as weapons, by anyone – state or non-state - anywhere, any time, and under any circumstances is absolutely unacceptable and must be rigorously condemned by the international community and punished to the full extent of international law. Ireland supports a broad range of efforts to ensure full legal accountability for all war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria as part of a sustainable peaceful resolution to the conflict. That includes war crimes committed by any party. We have consistently called for the referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court. Ireland supports the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic established by the Human Rights Council to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria. Last December Ireland and a group of like-minded countries successfully pressed for the adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly to establish an international, impartial and independent mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria.

Ireland has contributed €100,000 to support the work of this mechanism.

Ireland is also a strong and consistent supporter of the fact finding mission organisation for the prohibition of chemical weapons, which aims to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic. Ireland has provided nearly €1 million to support the work of this group since 2014 and a further €200,000 to the OPCW-UN joint investigative mission to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. The search for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict remains a top-----

(Interruptions).

When I said "Syria" my smartphone heard "Siri" and responded to me. Deputies with children will know what I am talking about.

The search for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict remains a top foreign policy priority for the EU. EU foreign ministers discussed the situation in Syria at the April Council, at which they adopted a new EU strategy for Syria that sets out the EU's main lines of action. There are four key actions. I imagine Deputies are familiar with them.

The EU provides direct assistance to the UN-brokered talks in Geneva, including the technical discussions. The EU has launched, in co-ordination with the UN, an initiative to develop political dialogue with key actors from the region to identify common ground. The EU Syria peace process support initiative aims to facilitate the peace process, build the capacity of opposition parties and contribute to dialogue with civil society in support of the efforts of the UN special envoy for Syria.

The EU and its member states have mobilised more than €9.4 billion for humanitarian and resilience assistance to support Syrians inside the country and in neighbouring countries. This makes the EU the largest single donor to the effort. At the Brussels conference in April 2017, which was co-hosted by the EU, a further €3.7 billion for 2017 was pledged by the EU and its member states, representing almost 67% of the pledges. The EU will host another donors' conference for Syria in 2018.

Ireland has supported calls for sanctions at UN level as well. We very much regret that a draft UN Security Council resolution, which would have established a sanctions regime, a committee, and an expert panel to hold accountable those using and producing chemical weapons in Syria, was not passed in February 2017 due to the vetoes of Russia and China. Ireland will continue to support all efforts to ensure a lasting peace and full accountability for war crimes in Syria in the context of bringing peace and stability to the region. My views in respect of the inappropriate use of the veto in the UN Security Council by more than one or two countries are well-known at this stage. The matter is one Ireland wants to pursue in the context of UN reform and changing the way in which that veto is abused at times.

The Minister said no one is suggesting that the lifting of sanctions is going to sort the situation out tomorrow. Indeed, no one is suggesting that. It seems the Minister is putting forward as a reason for not doing something the fact that we are not going to solve all of the problems. We would not get far were we to adopt that type of mentality.

We put forward this motion as a basic simple humanitarian proposition. To be honest, much of the discussion that has been before the House today has been misinformed and inaccurate.

In 1999, UNICEF released a report that showed a doubling of mortality rates for children under five years in Iraq as a result of sanctions. The USA continued to valiantly support that cause of action, which was a crime against humanity as far as I am concerned.

There is a sad irony in the contributions of the Minister and those of Fianna Fáil. These contributors support the UN-led Geneva plan but do not support the UN-commissioned research into this area, which shows the exact opposite of many of the statements that have been boldly placed before the House tonight. The Minister tells us there are no sanctions on food, medicines and most other civilian goods. He said the EU sanctions are not a barrier to the delivery of aid or a cause of civilian suffering. He said Ireland has consistently supported sanctions targeted at the Assad regime and its supporters. None of these assertions corresponds to reality.

The UN report commissioned last year highlighted some facts clearly. The report recognises the different ways the USA and EU sanctions framework make specific allowances to permit activities in the context of humanitarian work. However, it also finds that the practical application of navigating these permissions act as an impediment to the delivery of humanitarian aid. The 40 page report – it was leaked, incidentally - gives many examples. We know, for example, that sanctions on Syrian banks have made the transfer of funds into the country almost impossible. Even when it is legal, the chill factor of threat of violation fees makes many transactions difficult. This means that aid workers cannot get paid and so on. In fact, it has been stated by the centre for Syrian studies at the University of St Andrews that the sanctions have actually empowered the regime. This is because aid is now an essential part of the Syrian economy. Sanctions give regime cronies in Syria the ability to monopolise access to goods. It makes everyone reliant on the Syrian Government. This was the case in Iraq with the food-for-oil system. A report leaked by The Guardian last year stated that despite the sanctions targeted at the Assad regime, some $18 million was given to Assad companies and companies of his family members. We know that in 2012, for example, through access to the Assad family e-mails, that the sanctions did not stop him buying the Steve Jobs biography or a Harry Potter movie over the Internet. It did not stop his wife buying Ming vases or diamonds from Paris.

I guarantee the Minister that the facts prove other than what he has said. Sanctions are hurting the people. They are not targeting the regime, whose position has actually become strengthened out of the scenario. There is a cruel irony in this because those peddling the myth about sanctions were the same people who argued and supported the lifting of the arms embargo at the same time in rebel-held areas. Essentially, this allowed the areas to be awash with weaponry. This carried on the activities and the war far beyond what would have happened otherwise, amounting to every foreign power almost feasting on that area.

When we went to the primarily Christian village of Maaloula, we were given evidence of this. Previously, the village was two thirds Christian and one third Muslim. The day Barack Obama announced that the USA was going to take on and bomb Syria effectively gave the green light to the rebel forces surrounding the village. The people in the village had a chilling video recording of the suicide bomber who set off a bomb at the entrance to the village. That led to an attack and the takeover of the village. Hundreds of families who lived there were cleared out. Now, hundreds of them are beginning to come back and are trying to rebuild their lives. Those people want the resources to be able to do that.

The inability to rebuild some of these areas arises because of sanctions and because of the extraordinary structural demands that are required in that area. There was a sad irony for us when we had a meeting with the priest in the parish centre. He recognised clearly that in 2011 many people in Syria were enthused by the Arab spring. They saw an opportunity to deal with the Assad regime after many years. They decided to have a go at it. The priest said people now realise that they had security, a social life and an economic life prior to all of this. In many ways, while they hated Assad, they are now questioning whether they should have made a war given what they have been left with now. We met many people who are trying to rebuild their lives.

Simply put, some of the points made in the House are not true. Deputy O'Loughlin talked about Homs. Homs was supposed to be the cradle of the revolution against Assad. We were in Homs. It is being rebuilt. As Deputy Wallace said, the events in the school in Akrameh al-Makhzumi were utterly tragic. Almost 2,000 children were in those two multicultural schools, which stayed open all during the war. The schools were for children aged between six and 12 years. There were two suicide bombs. All the children from one family were wiped out in those two bombs. One of the schools has a shrine with the uniform of one of the little girls who was killed. The uniform still has blood on it.

They have used the devastation from the bombing to make nice things such as pictures and paintings and to teach people that the response to evil should be love and assistance and from destruction should come construction. That message was given to us many times over.

I am glad the Minister made points about al-Fu'ah and Kafriya because we met some friends of the victims of that bombing. The meeting was one of the most harrowing experiences we had on our visit. When the terrorists closed off the towns of al-Fu'ah and Kafriya, families were divided. Some have not seen family members for years. The area was famous for olive trees but the trees were cut down for fuel and people in the towns were starving. Eventually, a deal was negotiated to get people out, but after three days of waiting, a suicide bomber used crisps and sweets to entice children to a car in which a bomb was detonated. We met family members of the victims as well as the friend of a woman whose three injured children were taken, presumably to Turkey. One of her children was returned to her because a doctor in Turkey found her, but she has had no word of her other two children. We have taken up the Minister's offer and have begun a process to try to get as much information as possible on these cases. In articulating on behalf of these people in the House, we are not in any way ignorant of all the other missing and displaced in other areas. However, these were the people we met and we gave them a pledge to do what we could because the pain and trauma on their faces was hard to forget. One woman had lost seven members of her family. As she sat in the meeting with us, two old women sat in a corner praying with their beads. It is out of respect for them that we singled out this issue.

Much of Syrian territory has been retaken and is being rebuilt. What the Syrian people want is assistance to rebuild. The belief held by the Irish Government and others that the Syrian Government has a monopoly on atrocities is not factually accurate. The United States has been found guilty of using white phosphorous in Syria and Iraq and has also used depleted uranium, cluster bombs and so on. Singling out Assad as the only bully in the world does not hold traction. Appalling atrocities have been committed. They include people being burned alive in ovens by ISIS and people being murdered in their beds, their children kidnapped and their homes ransacked, looted and destroyed.

The Syrian war is not, as previous speakers stated, a conflict between Sunni and Shia. We met people of all religions, many of whom united to fight al-Qaeda and the Saudis in Syria. As one man told us, a brother could be a brother in religion or a brother in humanity. Syrian society before the war was a mosaic of different cultures.

The purpose of the motion is to try to achieve the maximum degree of consensus on this issue. The facts are that sanctions do not work but are instead harming women and children and denying people medicine and access to materials they need. They have served to strengthen the regime the Government seeks to undermine through the imposition of sanctions. This is not a solution and we appeal, even at this late hour, to the Government to accept this simple motion as a positive step from a neutral, independent country seeking to put forward a vision for a better world, rather than the conflict and feasting by all sides that has taken place in Syria.

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 7 December 2017.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 6 December 2017.