Humanitarian Work of the Syria Civil Defence: Discussion

We are delighted to have Mr. Farouq Al Habib with us this morning. He has come, at very short notice, to update the committee on the humanitarian work of Syria Civil Defence. He is very welcome. This presentation will provide the committee with an opportunity to receive, at first hand, an account of the situation on the ground which is very important for us as parliamentarians because there are so many atrocities happening in Syria. I thank Ms Valerie Hughes, who is the Gallery, for her efforts to ensure that Mr. Habib could attend today's meeting and the Irish embassy in Ankara for ensuring that a travel visa was issued to enable Mr. Habib to get here in time.

We look forward to the presentation, which includes a short video. The committee has taken a very keen interest in Syria and has had numerous meetings with many non-governmental organisations, NGOs, about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in recent months. We are very concerned about it. The media moves from story to story and what is happening in Syria is often left unreported and we only know what continues to happen there, at the expense of women, children and families because of people like Mr. Habib and the NGOs working in the country. We are delighted to have Mr. Habib here today. I will invite him to make a short presentation and then committee members will ask questions.

Before we begin today's proceedings, I remind members and those in the public Gallery to ensure that their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference even in silent mode with the recording equipment in the committee rooms.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

Chairman, members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, ladies and gentlemen, allow me first to thank you for giving me this opportunity to testify about the ongoing tragedy that the Syrian people are living through and about the work Syria Civil Defence, SCD, also known as the White Helmets, is doing to ease that suffering. I would like also to thank the Irish people for their generosity in hosting Syrian refugees. We, as Syrians, have huge respect for the people of Ireland, who historically supported the rights of oppressed people in the Middle East.

My name is Farouq Habib. When the Syrian revolution began, I was working as a banker in a private Syrian bank. My belief that my people have the right to live with dignity and freedom obliged me to join the peaceful movement to defend human rights in Syria. Currently, I am working for Mayday Rescue Foundation, managing the training and equipment programme for SCD rescue teams in Syria and acting as a political adviser to their leadership. The White Helmets is an organisation of more than 2,700 volunteers operating from 111 centres across eight provinces in Syria from the south to the north, founded on the values of impartiality and humanity. It is currently the largest grassroots organisation inside Syria established for, and working on, a response to indiscriminate attacks on civilians, especially from barrel bombs. It does this by conducting search and rescue operations, fire fighting and emergency evacuation, and carries out these tasks daily. To this day, the teams have rescued more than 30,000 civilians from under the rubble. Please see this video as a short testimony of our work. It was made by one of my colleagues.

The joint committee viewed an audio-visual presentation.

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

What my friend Qassem described in the video is an example of the life of terror we live because of the indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria using barrel bombs, which are the main killer of civilians in Syria. Many of the committee members have probably heard about this horrific weapon, which is specifically designed to impose mass punishment on civilian communities out of the regime's control. These crude bombs, which are simply explosive-filled fuel barrels that eject nails, scrap metal and other random cheap but deadly shrapnel, take dozens of innocent lives every day. These primitive, cheap and indiscriminate weapons have become a source of constant panic among Syrian civilians, especially when the regime fills them with chlorine gas.

While responding to these attacks, the search and rescue teams face twice the danger because as Qassem explained in the video, the Syrian Air Force has adopted a technique in carrying out its attacks, referred to as the "double tap", where the aircraft returns again to bomb the same location minutes later to kill rescue workers and first responders.

Now the Russians are using the same illegal tactics to kill first responders, in contravention of international humanitarian law. The White Helmets, as a humanitarian organisation, demand that all parties to the conflict stop targeting civilians, although when we say "all parties to the conflict," we do not imply that the violations are committed equally by all of them. The world knows who started the killing and who owns the planes, rockets, chemical weapons and security apparatus that have been responsible for tens of thousands of assassinations, detentions and cases of torture.

All the world heard about the terrorist actions of ISIS against the Syrian people; however, some people forgot about the mass killing perpetrated by Assad’s dictatorial government. While ISIS is theatrically barbaric, it has killed only a few thousand Syrian civilians. By contrast, of the 250,000 to 300,000 people estimated to have been killed in the war, approximately 180,000 were civilians killed by the regime. Let me say that again: the regime has murdered more than 180,000 civilians, mostly through indiscriminate aerial bombardment.

In the past two years, 109 White Helmet volunteers were killed in the line of duty; 105 of them were killed by the Assad regime and its allies, mostly due to the double-tap tactic that is deliberately used and that aims to hit the largest number of civilians and volunteers who gather to rescue and provide help after an attack. Other than that, many health facilities, civil defence centres, ambulances and fire engines are being deliberately targeted and partly or entirely destroyed. Just yesterday, Abdulrazzak Aboud, a colleague and rescue worker, was killed by what is believed to be a double-tap Russian attack on Sarmin village in Idleb.

Ladies and gentlemen, when the Syrian people started the revolution for freedom and dignity, they believed all the free world would support them based on our joint values and dreams of peace and justice. This is what we expect from you and from all of our friends: to advocate for the legitimate rights of the Syrian people, by recognising our right to live under a civilised and democratic regime, with no dictatorship and no extremism; to put pressure on the UN Security Council to ensure the protection of civilians and create safe zones for them to enable the Syrian people to build an alternative; and to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people in Syria, who are in a living hell in the areas out of the control of the regime - the regime which controls only 14% of the Syrian territories and receives most of the UN aid.

I thank Mr. Al Habib for a presentation that was precise and to the point. The video and the presentation put the situation into perspective for us. We are all aware that the situation is complex and that there are no easy answers. However, as a Syrian and as someone on the ground, what does Mr. Al Habib believe needs to happen for the conflict to be resolved for the long term? There are no short-term solutions. Does he think international involvement is a help or a hindrance?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

I believe that in order to have a solution in the long term, people need to have hope and to believe they can get their rights without the need to use violence. This is our main demand. Because of the continuous killing in Syria and because of the lack of a political vision, people from all sides use violence to achieve what they believe are their rights. We believe democracy can offer a platform and create a path for the Syrian people to live in peace, get their rights and get rid of dictatorship and extremism in Syria.

On whether international intervention can help achieve that, based on our bloody experience of the past years, it has not helped. There was international intervention, even if all of the world has claimed it has not interfered in Syria. Of course, there was intervention. The war in Syria has tended gradually towards being a proxy war between many regional and international players, and we as Syrians pay the price for that. Now the crisis is spilling over, and I admit that we as Syrians are not able to end this catastrophe alone. We need support from the international community, based on values and not only on the interests of states. We need to stop all foreign fighters from being able to come to Syria. When we say "all," I do not mean only Sunni fighters who come from Libya or Tunisia. We also mean the jet fighters that come from Iran, the Hezbollah and Afghanistan. When we call for a stop to the shipment of arms, we mean arms for all parties. Until now, there has been no international pressure to do this. All we have seen are resolutions from the Security Council and meetings and speeches. The Security Council itself does not respect the resolutions it makes.

I welcome Mr. Al Habib. We all share his belief that the Syrian people have the right to live in dignity and freedom. I have just a few questions. How many volunteers do the White Helmets have overall and how many teams have been created? Mr. Al Habib stated in his presentation that they operate in 111 centres and eight provinces. What opposition groups are in control in those areas? Do the White Helmets operate in areas where ISIL or al-Nusra operate, or are they in Kurdish areas? Can Mr. Al Habib give us some sense of the extent of the areas they operate in? What outside and international support have the White Helmets received, have they received training from other civil defence organisations or where do they get support from?

Mr. Al Habib spoke about the Russian bombing and the double-tap tactic. We would all agree that the deliberate targeting of civilians is a war crime. Is evidence being collated in regard to those war crimes, particularly in regard to Russia? What does Mr. Al Habib see as the next step for the international community in regard to this? I know Mr. Al Habib recently visited the United Nations and spoke there. What message did he give and what demands did he make of the international community?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

The Syria Civil Defence or the White Helmets, was established as a neutral and impartial organisation. Its main aim is to provide assistance and rescue people, regardless of background. The teams extend their activities to wherever they are allowed to operate. At present, they exist in the eight regions from Dara'a to Aleppo. This includes areas under the control of the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, and those under the control of al-Nusra. There is one station in al-Baab, which is under the control of ISIS, and a station in Afrin, which is under the control of the Kurdish forces. Therefore, we work in areas under the control of all of the non-Assad groups. Most of the areas accept the work of the rescue teams because they are neutral and do not represent a political threat to them. They just provide assistance, regardless of the background of the casualty.

The White Helmets do not exist in the regime areas because, from the first day of the revolution, the regime intended to prevent any attempt by civil society to build any alternative type of institution - not only search and rescue teams but also local councils, electricity stations or anything that would allow people to live sustainably.

We currently receive international support from the UK and Denmark governments in training and equipment. We receive support from the United States through RTI to provide vehicles, ambulances and fire engines. We also received support from the government of Japan. Of course, we co-operate with other civil defence teams. When we started, we did not have the experience, and we realised later that sometimes rescue teams can cause more damage to the injured people if they are not well trained in how to rescue and transport them. We received training first from AKUT, the search and rescue organisation in Turkey. We co-operated with the fire brigade in London, which sent us some of its used equipment. Just last week we received an offer of co-operation with the chairman of the civil defence and we are always happy to co-operate with rescue teams worldwide that can help us. We dream of the day when we will be able to provide assistance for other people in other countries.

The double-tap tactic is documented in so many videos. I can send a web link to the committee, as just a week ago this happened during a live broadcast on al-Jazeera television at noon. After the first attack, an al-Jazeera reporter was filming live how the rescue workers were trying to search for the injured people under rubble. While they were broadcasting, another air strike bombed the same place and one rescue worker was killed. His name was Issam al-Saleh. I can provide the video and pictures, and there are many other related videos.

I thank our guest for giving us the benefit of his time and experience to provide an updated report. We are all distressed and we have discussed this issue in various formats on many occasions over the past year or more. I have a number of questions. I do not know what we can do to intervene at this stage to influence people who might be in a position to do something about this issue. I do not know if we can do anything about it. Initially, the Americans, the UK and various others offered practical support but it does not seem to be making any impact on the overall and ongoing struggle, strife and war that is taking place.

Some lessons have been learned from the past, as we know, particularly with regard to the Americans in Iraq. The exit strategy did not exist, but when they left the country, it was left in a worse state than before. There is a reluctance to repeat that. Similarly, in other countries such as Libya, where there was an intervention on the side of the angels or the righteous, unfortunately it brought about tragedy as well. There were more refugees, more strife and more loss of life. Those events are ongoing.

Will the witnesses, who work on the ground, tell us what might make the most practical impact at this stage? Who can intervene to bring about a ceasefire? For example, we all support the objective of a democratic resolution. Unfortunately, ISIS is not known for democracy, and that is another part of the problem. Is there one particular issue to which we can lend ourselves that would be of help in bringing about a ceasefire? Nothing will happen unless this happens first. Will the regime capitulate, or is that likely? I do not believe so on the information we have. Does the international community have sufficient influence to bring about a cessation of violence on both sides?

This is a tragic issue and I do not know the answer. It is appalling and it is going on before our eyes. Arising from that is the refugee issue, and the free world has not covered itself in glory in that respect either. The European Union and the UN must address that issue in a much more serious way than they have done so far. We have discussed the matter here on many occasions. I am depressed by the inability of the international community to make a meaningful contribution that would alleviate the problems described by the witness.

In addition to Deputy Durkan's question about moving forward, would Mr. Al Habib support transitional arrangements for Assad for a short period, or must he go in order to facilitate any peaceful settlement?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

As an individual, I am happy to accept any compromise that stops the killing in Syria. Will accepting Assad, even for a transitional period, help to stop the killing in Syria? I believe it will not help anyway because there are already tens of thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of armed men in Syria, and every one of them has a personal revenge to exact on the Assad family. Assad became a symbol of killing. I know, of course, that the leaders in the security departments in the middle levels might be more responsible for killing as they gave orders on a daily basis and tortured detainees. Most of them are not known to the public and their names are not known. Assad is a symbol now and as long as this symbol is in Damascus, nobody could convince thousands of armed men to lay down their arms, stop the fight and respect the transition. Nobody would believe in it.

We have an example from when Ali Abdullah Saleh stayed in Yemen after what they called the transition. He was able to blow everything and destroy the process because these family governments ruling the Middle East control the security departments that control the state. Our states in the Middle East are not controlled by the Ministers that one sees in meetings. In Syria, we know from experience that a security officer is much more influential than a Minister responsible for defence or the interior. Those security officers are linked to the family that has ruled Syria for 50 years. As long as they are there, they will be able to destroy the transitional process.

We receive support from the US, the UK and other governments, but what kind is it? As rescue workers, we receive support to retrieve the dead and injured from under rubble after an attack, but we ask for help in stopping these attacks. Before I go on a trip to attend a meeting, I ask my colleagues what kind of assistance we must seek to be able to conduct more operations. They tell me they do not want to conduct more operations; rather, they want to stop. Stopping the killing will not come with this type of assistance.

The Americans are not successful in interventions. We have our experience in the Middle East. There is already intervention in Syria and boots on the ground from Iran, jihadis and, recently, Russia.

While the free world stays silent and says it is against intervention, other countries which support dictatorship and are against human rights interfere anyway. As the UK foreign minister declared three days ago, 85% of the Russian attacks until now targeted areas that are not controlled by ISIS. What will be the end of this? What will happen if the free world does not intervene and the others intervene and target the moderate opposition? This crisis will not end if our friends leave us alone. It will explode and continue to spill over. The refugee crisis and extremism in Syria are symptoms of the original disease, which is dictatorship, atrocities and a lack of political hope. As long as Syrian civilians do not have a safe place in Syria and civil society does not create an environment in which to build an alternative, extremism and the refugee crisis will continue.

Mr. Al Habib was talking about the regime controlling 14% of the territory and receiving most of the UN aid. How much UN aid is being given to the regime and how is the UN doing this? That is one of the key elements. I was talking to Robert Fisk, who would probably be the pre-eminent authority in media circles on the situation in Syria and the Middle East. He has been an observer there for more than four decades. When I asked him what the solution was, he said he did not know. I asked him what would happen next and he said he did not know because the situation is the worst he had ever seen. It is now more unstable than it has been at any time over the past 50 years. There are too many actors and too many foreign interests with competing outcomes they wish to see. There is nobody with any moral authority left because those who should have acted earlier have not done so and they continue to fail to act. Could Mr. Al Habib clarify how UN aid is being given to the regime?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

Until February or March of this year when the Security Council amplified the cross-border operation, almost all of the UN aid went to areas under the control of the regime. This allowed the UN to channel assistance without the permission of the Syrian Government. Until now, the cross-border operations represented a small percentage of the total UN aid. I do not have the precise figures but we know that a big portion of UN aid goes to refugees outside Syria. Of course, we want our bodies and people who escape to have access to assistance but we know the most vulnerable people those who are still inside Syria under siege and are suffering indiscriminate bombardment. The second part goes to the areas under the control of the regime. We witnessed this ourselves. Most UN employees prefer to sit in hotels and offices in safer places than those where massacres take place or in Lattakia because in those areas, there is electricity and clean water and no airstrikes. Nobody would shell them. For this reason, most of the projects implemented by the UN inside Syria are in areas under the control of the regime because it is a safe environment in which to implement projects. Of course, it is easier but are the people who live there the most vulnerable people? Of course, they are not. The northern countryside of Homs, which is under siege from the regime and ISIS, has been under siege for more than two years. As a result of this shelling, people escape from one village to another within the same circle of the siege. They do not see the UN convoys for six or seven months. They see them only twice or a maximum of three times a year because it is complicated, bureaucratic and too difficult.

On the other side, Syrian civil society organisations merged in the areas beyond the control of the regime. They try to build an alternative and establish NGOs or associations. It is too difficult for them to get access to international aid because they cannot be registered, have bank accounts or meet the bureaucratic requirements of the big UN organisations. This is the real situation. We hear about huge funds in Syrian Civil Defence meetings but only a small percentage reaches the most vulnerable people inside Syria.

I welcome Mr. Al Habib. It is an opportunity for him to keep us all focused on this very serious international crisis. I welcome the visitors to the Public Gallery who have certainly been playing their part in keeping this crisis at the forefront of our thoughts. We have had ongoing discussions in this committee. I am very impressed with the figures given by Mr. Al Habib about the amazing amount of rescues the Syrian Civil Defence has conducted with a relatively small number of volunteers. Are there any other civil defence organisations working on the ground alongside the Syrian Civil Defence to rescue people who are injured and seriously incapacitated? In light of the years of conflict, what are the facilities at the hospitals and treatment centres like once the Syrian Civil Defence has rescued people? Is the Syrian Civil Defence involved in assisting relief agencies trying to get supplies and relief to many people who are seriously discommoded as a result of the bombing? I know that relief agencies have been having serious difficulties in getting relief to the most needy.

We had discussions here some time ago about a peace charter. What is the status of this in Syria? Is there support for it or is there much active consideration among ordinary Syrians as to what final solution they would like to see? Is the peace charter which was presented to us some time ago being actively pursued?

Does Mr. Al Habib see any possibility that the crisis that is evolving in Europe, in respect of the number of refugees coming here, may put political pressure on or force EU countries to take a more active role in trying to broker a solution to the crisis in Syria? What would be Mr. Al Habib's one big request to this committee and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to help resolve the appalling situation in his country? I know that the involvement of so many other stakeholders such as Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Russia complicates the situation. It is hard to see where a solution will come from in the short term. What would Mr. Al Habib like the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to do, both in Europe and internationally?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

In the areas in which we are able to operate, the Syrian Civil Defence, or the White Helmets, is the only search-and-rescue organisation which operates in these areas.

It might be the only united group at national level that has the same uniform, principles and slogan and which is working searching for, and rescuing, people. We ourselves do not operate health facilities or hospitals. Our role is to provide the first response and to take the injured people to the field hospitals or to the other health facilities. We are always happy, of course, to provide logistical assistance to the relief organisations because the Syrian Civil Defence has the ability on the ground to cross most of the lines and all checkpoints in the areas out of the regime's control. Most of those areas allow the Syrian Civil Defence convoys to cross because of its neutrality. Consequently, we had joint projects in the past with many non-governmental organisations, NGOs, to channel their assistance to the heart of each area.

The refugee crisis will put pressure on European governments, as well as on other governments. We always want to tell our friends in Europe and other hosting governments that we need them both to provide assistance to those refugees who have arrived on their shores and to help us to solve the problem at the source because unless that is solved, there always will be refugees who will arrive. Incidentally, those refugees arriving in those countries might not be the most vulnerable people who need the assistance. Those people had some connections, some relationships and perhaps some money to be able to pay to the smugglers, to travel and arrive here. While we thank you very much for the warm welcome and for hosting of our brothers and our friends who arrived in your countries, we need you to help us to solve the crisis in our country because there is no country like one's home country.

Honestly, I am not aware of the peace charter to which Senator Mullins referred. What does he mean? Does that initiative have another name and by whom was that peace charter submitted? Is it linked to the Geneva track?

It was a document presented to this committee by Rafif Jouejati.

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

Honestly, I have not read that document and did not know about it. However, we trust Rafif Jouejati. I believe she expresses our thoughts and our beliefs.

As to what we expect from the joint committee and the Irish Government, we are aware Ireland is not a member of NATO and that Ireland alone would not be able to find a solution in Syria. However, we ask that Ireland continues to advocate for the same rights and values which we share, that is, the values of human beings in Syria and the rights of the Syrian people to live in democracy and freedom. Ireland should put pressure on other states in Europe and the United Nations to take decisive actions if not to stop the crisis in the short term but at least to try to ease it and make it more difficult for the criminals who now act in Syria to continue their operations. For example, we are surprised by how there has been no decisive action up to now to prevent foreign, non-Syrian fighters coming to Syria. They cross the borders, as I stated earlier both from Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and other countries. It is organised and public and nobody speaks about it or about the shipments of arms and the transfers of money. We need Ireland to exert pressure to stop this and to pass on our message that dictatorship and continuous atrocities fuel extremism. Extremism is a symptom, not the disease itself, and without building democracy in Syria, extremism and the refugee problem will not be solved.

I thank Mr. Al Habib. Apologies to Deputy Smith for not inviting him to contribute sooner but he may wish to comment at this point.

I thank the Chairman and apologise as I was delayed at an earlier meeting. I welcome Mr. Al Habib's presentation, which I have just had the opportunity of reading. The White Helmets is an organisation of 2,700 volunteers. Are all its personnel Syrian?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

Yes.

They all are Syrian. Mr. Al Habib mentioned his role as a political adviser. On the valuable and important work he does in highlighting the need to get humanitarian aid to those people in most need, members often have discussed the failure of the United Nations in many crises to be an effective world organisation or to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to many conflicts throughout the world. Has Mr. Al Habib's organisation had an opportunity to speak directly to officials from or to some part of the United Nations? At what international fora has Mr. Al Habib had the opportunity to make the presentation he has given to this joint committee? Once again, in respect of creating awareness and getting out the message regarding the huge suffering and the horrors inflicted by the Assad regime in the mass murder of Syrian people, including civilians, it is most important to take every opportunity to highlight and to bring to the public's attention the desperate deeds of that regime because sometimes an individual crisis may not get the attention it deserves as there are so many crises throughout the world. However, in respect of specific contact, communication or engagement with the United Nations or some of its constituent bodies, has Mr. Al Habib's organisation had that opportunity?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

I thank the Deputy for raising this point again. As I stated before the Deputy arrived, working with the United Nations is a slow bureaucratic process. Regrettably, we believe most UN offices and teams are not able to adapt their internal policies and procedures to the hard conditions in which we work. However, we had several meetings in the past with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, team in Turkey and in Jordan, while trying to co-ordinate with it. Until recently, it was not legally possible for OCHA to provide direct assistance to the White Helmets because it is not registered as a legal entity anywhere. This is because we operate in Syria and there is no government in our area with which to legally register. Two weeks ago, we heard from OCHA that it now is able to co-operate with non-registered organisations. Consequently, we submitted a file requesting to be added to its platform. In any event, my point is there are many bureaucratic obstacles and it was easier for us to work directly with governments and agencies, such as USAID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Japan International Cooperation Agency as well as with international NGOs like Handicap International or others. However, until now, we have not worked with the UN.

I apologise for missing the presentation, which I now have read. I will make a few brief points. Can Mr. Al Habib pinpoint or give members a view as to when the breakdown in Syria happened? Fifteen or 20 years ago, one would have thought Syria was doing reasonably well and there were not that many difficulties there. What was the spark or the straw that broke the camel's back that caused these difficulties to break out in Syria? I believe Mr. Al Habib also mentioned in his submission to beware the refugees who come here and perhaps not to take them at face value, because some of them may be here because they are well connected or whatever.

We hear on occasion that the groups fleeing are composed not of family units but mainly of young males between certain ages. Will Mr. Al Habib give his perspective on that?

I am not saying that Mr. Al Habib goes easy on ISIS in his presentation, but he does not seem to be as critical of it as one might expect. Here in the West we are very aware of the dramatic and barbaric incidents for which that group is responsible, as he did mention. Does Mr. Al Habib see any future for the Assad regime or will it not, in his view, be part of the solution?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

People like myself, of the younger generation, realise that the problems in Syria started a very long time ago. Syria was not okay ten or 15 years ago. There was continuous killing and assassination, but the world was not aware of it. For 50 years, the same party - the Ba'ath Party - ruled Syria, including 44 years under the rule of the Assad family. During those decades, there were always assassinations of political figures. Leaders of Syrian society were arrested and imprisoned, some of them for ten, 20 or 28 years, like Riad al-Turk, a leader of the Syrian Communist Party. The suffering continued but people did not dare to speak out about the atrocities. There was no Internet in Syria, no foreign media and no free press. People did not have a chance to pass the message on.

Syrian society was boiling in silence until the Arab Spring arrived. When we saw how the regime was changed in Tunisia in three days and in Egypt in three weeks, we thought we would have the same experience, that through peaceful protests we would be able to create a new destiny for our country. We started peacefully - indeed, Bashar al-Assad himself admitted in one interview that the protests were unarmed for six months before the militarisation of the opposition. Even now, there is still a moderate movement on the ground, on the civilian side and the miliary side. Of course, it is not well organised because of the continuous killing and the catastrophic conditions. One cannot imagine how difficult it is to arrange a meeting inside Syria. How can one build a national institution under daily bombardment?

ISIS is, of course, an enemy for the Syrian people and for people like me. I am wanted by ISIS and al-Qaeda, accused of being an agent for the West because I manage the funds we receive from Western governments. If they arrest me, they will kill me. Likewise, if members of Assad's security arrest me, they will kill me. I was arrested and detained for two and a half months in Syria by Assad's security department. I was detained in a branch called the "Palestine branch" in Damascus, because the regime accuses the opposition of being agents of Israel and all these conspiracy theories. I was not released until my friends paid almost $20,000 as a bribe to the security officers. Otherwise, I would not be sitting here today.

Assad is an enemy and ISIS is an enemy. The important point, however, is that extremism in Syria is a symptom and it did not start with the revolution. Assad released al-Qaeda detainees who were in Sednaya Prison in July or August 2011. Now we see them as heads of armed groups. They include, for example, Zahran Alloush, head of Jaysh al-Islam, the previous head of Ahrar ash-Sham, and most of the leaders of ISIS and the al-Nusra Front. These people were detained in Assad's prisons when the revolution started. He then released them, however, and by way of the continuous killing, he pushed the people to carry arms.

The barbarism of ISIS is clearly anti the Syrian people, as is the Assad regime with its barbarity. The big question for the international community, given the ineffectiveness of the United Nations and the veto used by Russia, is how we can get to an international position that will allow for a transition in Syria. Is the kernel of the problem that no progress can be made until there is a satisfactory transition mechanism?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

It is the responsibility of politicians, not people like me. The Syrian people do not believe the superpowers - the United States, for example - have done all they can do to stop the crisis in Syria and defend the Syrian people. There is a huge frustration inside the country because of that negative position. More pressure should be put on Iran, for instance, to stop sending fighters and arms to the regime. Pressure should be put on Russia, not only because of Syria but also because of Ukraine and other countries. There should be pressure on Lebanon to close its borders and prevent members of Hezbollah from crossing over. There should be no partnership with dictators in the Middle East. Aiming to fight extremism in that way will not work because it fuels extremism, gives more justification for the extremists and allows them to win support from the oppressed people. Dictatorship is not a replacement for what is there. When people lose hope in a political solution and these extremist groups offer a way to have revenge, it makes it easier for them to recruit young people, especially from poor environments and those who are not well educated.

The first step, therefore, must be to put pressure on to end dictatorship, not only in Syria but in the region. Concerning my country specifically, the way forward is obvious for us. First, we must stop the flow of non-Syrian fighters and the flow of arms into Syria.

I agree entirely with Mr. Al Habib's sentiments. The problem, however, is to do with the logistics. How does one convince the Russians not to become involved, as they have been well and truly established for several years now? On the other side, we have the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and various other states with a different view, which is supportive of the revolution. What happens unless troops are put on the ground and what are the prospects if that does happen? I do not expect it to happen. In my view, the experience of Iraq will be the deterrent that prevents the international community from becoming too deeply involved in any strife. I absolutely agree with Mr. Al Habib's attitude to dictatorships, but the difficulty is that the experience has been that one dictatorship can be replaced by another, and that, unfortunately, has never changed. In the international scheme of things, that is the way it goes. Violence begets violence.

Deputies Timmins and Smith referred to the need to identify some type of compromise that will bring the violence to an end.

It will not happen otherwise. The regime will not concede. It is well armed with a good supply of arms. There is a network across the Middle East. There is a fear in Iran that it could go the same way as Iraq and that something similar could happen there. I am deeply suspicious of anything associated with ISIS because its members are certainly not democrats. They overran Iraq when the international community, in particular the US, decided it was going to withdraw, which was not the greatest decision it ever made. Almost instantly after that it had revenue sources and oil wealth and it is the government now. At the same time, it does not recognise government anywhere else. It is a serious issue. We discussed this matter in Luxembourg a few weeks ago at the Defence and Security Committee. The issue is that the global community is trying to deal with the growing refugee issue that has been generated by this strife in this area. The atrocities are growing on a daily basis. The international community wants to do the right thing but what can it do? What can it do so long as the violence continues? The question has been asked before. Will Mr. Al Habib hint at how there might be a compromise and a cessation of violence, at least for a while, in order to identify what the global community can do? It would be willing to do something in those circumstances.

Deputy Timmins wants to come in as well.

How much support is there for ISIS in Syria?

How can Europe identify the legitimate refugees? Mr. Al Habib has mentioned Lebanon and its borders that prevent Hezbollah from crossing the border. I was in Damascus 20 years ago and I got the impression that it was a police state. I went from Damascus to Beirut, across the Beqaa Valley, and all of northern Lebanon was occupied by Syrians and there were Syrian checkpoints. Does Syria still occupy northern Lebanon? What is the situation?

Mr. Farouq Al Habib

I will reply directly. There are no Syrian checkpoints in Lebanon because Lebanon is controlled by Hezbollah. The Syrian army does not need to exist on the ground in Lebanon as long as its closest ally is able to conduct any action it needs in Lebanon.

How does one identify refugees? I am not an expert in that regard. Ireland needs to co-ordinate with other European countries to establish a unit for due diligence to examine the history of those refugees, for example to look at their Facebook or Twitter pages because we heard that some of those who were involved in atrocities in Syria, both from the extremist side and from the Assad security or army forces, decided to retire to Europe. We need Europe to conduct due diligence and not offer them a happy life here after all the crimes they have committed in Syria.

I do not trust the Russians, but if I did I would tell them that what they are doing is threatening their national security and the security of Europe. Can they imagine the position of people who were already under siege by indiscriminate shelling by barrel bombs from the regime and suddenly the Russians attack them? The first air strike by the Russians was on the northern countryside of Homs where there was a big battle against ISIS four months ago to kick it out of the region. ISIS is no longer in that region. The first air strike by Russia was on that area where there is no ISIS and which lost more than 100 armed men in the fight with ISIS. They were bombed and on the same day the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow announced that it is a holy battle. Can the committee imagine the reaction of the Muslims there? It was of great assistance to the extremists to tell people that this is a serious campaign against Islam and Muslims and has nothing to do with extremists because the Russians bombed non-ISIS areas. They bombed some FSA groups which were armed by the Americans and had been vetted and identified as moderate opposition. They bombed the building of the local council in Tel Bisi which is a civil society organisation elected by the people. These actions fuel extremism and jeopardise the position of counter-extremism. It threatens national security in Russia and Europe. Russia should be convinced that if it continues to support the Assad regime it will mean the expansion of extremism in Syria.

We would be happy to have compromise. Just before the Geneva II meeting, I was in Yabroud in the Damascus countryside and I met with fighters from an FSA group. I told them that after the meeting in Geneva there might be a compromise with the Assad government, and asked them would they stop fighting and what they would do if the leader of their armed group rejected the Geneva agreement. They told me that if the politicians in Geneva reached a compromise without Assad, because, as I said, he is a symbol, they would kill their leader if he stood against the agreement. All of those young men are tired. They are human beings like us. They just want to go back to their families. They have been forced to carry arms to defend their territories and they just want to go back home to see their children and their mothers. We cannot have transition with the symbols of killing, from all sides, not only from the regime side. All those who provoke the other side, either the leaders of the Syrian army or the leaders of specific armed groups and the opposition should be isolated from the transitional governing body. The transitional governing body should be made up of people from both sides who are in the middle or close to the middle. We cannot have those symbols. There are tens of thousands of armed men and nobody can control them now if they are not offered an alternative, a way to convince them that they can have their rights and justice without arms. This might be with part of the Syrian Government, by the way.

That is the $69 million question.

I have a very brief point. I thank Mr. Al Habib for indulging me. Would he say that any of the refugees that have come here were involved in atrocities for ISIS or the Assad regime?

We have someone here from a different group. It is unfair to ask some of these questions. This man represents the White Helmets.

He does not have to answer the questions.

I am not being confrontational. I ask the question in the context of what Mr. Al Habib has said. I understand his position. I am very supportive of Ireland taking in Syrian refugees. I was instrumental in our local authority passing a motion to that effect. Mr. Al Habib has made the important point that there should be due diligence. My concern is that due diligence is not in place. If anyone has evidence that people who should not be coming in are coming in, there should be a mechanism to look at that.

There is a process there for that.

I am happy to withdraw the question.

It will be next year before any refugees come here. At that stage there will be a process there for these people coming in.

Mr. Al Habib has created great interest among the members of the committee in today's session.

As I said at the beginning of the meeting, it was important for us to get a graphic account of exactly what is happening from somebody like Mr. Al Habib. I admire the work he is doing for the White Helmets. We must also pay tribute to the first responders, those people who gave up their lives to help others and those who continue to do so in these areas.

I visited the Turkish border earlier this year with GOAL and met some Syrian refugees and orphans. We heard the graphic stories of what happens when there is a bombing from the air and about the dreadful atrocities that result. We have given millions of euro to help the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and will continue to do so because we have an excellent track record in humanitarian aid. Ireland has long called for the implementation of the Geneva principles of non-violence, a transitional government and a constitutional process that protects the multiethnic population. We have constantly called on the UN Security Council to uphold international law in Syria, and will continue to do so.

This has been a very interesting meeting. There were quite a lot of exchanges between Mr. Al Habib and members, and it is to be hoped he keeps in touch with us. He should keep up the great work he is doing but, as he rightly pointed out, it is dangerous. Many of his members were killed. We will keep Syria very much to the forefront of our minds in the committee for the foreseeable future.

As Mr. Al Habib said, the situation is complex and difficult, and there is no short-term solution. Even if we discussed the issue for another day or two we would not come up with a solution. In the end, no matter what conflict is happening people will have to sit down and talk because that is the only way it will end. I thank Mr. Al Habib for the frank and open manner in which he dealt with the questions. We look forward to keeping in touch. On behalf of the committee I thank him for coming before us. I also thank Ms Valerie Hughes.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.45 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 November 2015.