UK MPs and union leader talk Brexit, Turkey and Syria

British Labour Party politicians and Members of Parliament David Lammy (left) and Joan Marie Ryan (right), and International Director of Unite the Union Simon Dubbins (middle).

Kom News reporter Erem Kansoy talked to Labour MPs Joan Ryan and David Lammy, and Simon Dubbins, international director of Unite the Union, the largest trade union in the UK and Ireland on Brexit, Turkey and developments in Syria.

What do you think about UK’s arms sales to Turkey totaling £330m in the past 2 years and a fresh 100 Million new jet deal at the weekend on Theresa mays visit to Turkey?

Joan Ryan: Since the failed coup UK sold £50 million worth of guns since the crackdown on opposition groups by the government. The newly published export statistics that came out confirms that Turkey is now a major buyer of UK weapons. In the current circumstances it is a matter of concern. Obviously, Turkey is now no longer aligned with the US – it is now aligned with Russia, and Russia’s behaviour is volatile and aggressive. Turkey has been very important in terms of its geographic position in relation to Syria.

It is a huge concern to me that some of the strongest fighters on the ground who have been holding back Daesh or ISIS have been the Kurds, the YPG, and Turkey seems to be working with Russia in order to isolate the Kurds out of the peace talks and I think this is a matter of great concern. I think Turkey is an ally of ours and we need to maintain an alliance and a commitment to NATO especially in the light of the fact that previously President Trump cast some doubt on the US commitment to NATO. NATO is extremely important in the face of the aggression we have seen from Russia therefore we need to continue to treat Turkey as an ally but we need to be cautious and clear and certain about what Turkey is using those weapons for. That is an awful lot of hardware that has been sold to Turkey and we should have some concern about it.

David Lammy: I’m deeply worried, what I’m concerned about is those weapons being used against Kurdish people in Turkey and I think that there is some real concern across the world about very undemocratic and unconstitutional means being used by President Erdogan. We have no guarantee as to how these weapons will be used, so I condemn the sale of these arms in this way. What we are saying is that we have confidence in how these weapons will be used, but I am not confident that these weapons will be used in the way they should be. I think this needs far better scrutiny and the way Prime Minister Theresa May behaved on behalf of the British people was unseemly.

Simon Dubbins: Instead of focusing on trying to limit the enormous damage that leaving the European union will cause and concentrating on keeping access to single market to ensure that jobs and rights are protected, Theresa May is so desperate to plug the gaps in trade that she is clearly prepared to strike trade deals with some of the most abhorrent leaders and regimes on the planet. First we witnessed the shameful act of her rushing into the arms of President Donald Trump and then one day later she is closing deals with a man who is destroying the very basis of democracy and human rights in Turkey and who has declared a brutal war on his own population.

The Turkish AKP government has approved the draft constitutional bill affording President Erdogan executive powers. There will be a referendum on this in April. Do you think a presidential system is right for Turkey?

Simon Dubbins: The system that Erdogan is trying to establish and on which the population will vote in April 2017, appears to be designed to give him virtually exclusive powers to decide and determine all key political issues himself and that just cannot be right and should be opposed. Much of the world has observed with horror the manner in which democracy has been effectively destroyed in Turkey, and the manner in which the brutal, nationalist, and discriminatory approach of Erdogan has come to dominate Turkish politics.

In countries where there are clearly deep seated and historical ethnic, religious and political differences, experience shows us that decentralising and sharing power is the manner to respect those differences while finding ways to live and work peacefully together. Look at the decentralised and federalised arrangements in Switzerland and Belgium for example, where the countries officially recognise more than one national language and where regional administrations have considerable devolved powers, or at the UK where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments with considerable power yet remain part of the UK overall.

Given the reality in Turkey it seems a move to decentralise and share power would be a much more appropriate manner for Turkey to try and resolve the problems it currently faces, rather than centralising power even further in the hands of one man who has proved so divisive and seems to have so little respect for human rights and basic democratic values.

Joan Ryan: I am very concerned about this, I think the actions of president Erdogan have hugely undermined democracy in Turkey. And I think that to vote for the referendum and afford him these greater powers again completely undermines democracy in Turkey because it completely undermines the parliamentary system. And I think what we have seen since the attempted coup is an attack on human rights, huge numbers of people in prison – 70 000 people, journalists, newspapers and TV stations have been imprisoned, particularly Kurdish and Alevi news outlets. We have seen martial law with no evidence that it is going to be lifted. We have seen elected members of parliament, the HDP, blocked and very long jail terms proposed for them. We have not seen any real evidence of what they have been charged with, so no, I think we should listen to the HDP and the CHP and I hope the population will not give him the 50% needed to give him the proposed changes.

Brexit is on the UK’s agenda. How will Brexit affect the UK’s Middle East policy?

Simon Dubbins: Brexit is a massive issue that has changed the whole political direction of the UK and the EU – and not for the better. Although we recognised many problems with the EU and many things that needed to change our union campaigned hard for a vote to remain and not to leave. It is still very early to know exactly how this will affect the UK’s Middle East policy, but we do know that Theresa May has disgracefully rushed head long into the arms of Donald Trump who is politically abhorrent, very unpredictable and potentially very dangerous. Right now it appears that Theresa May is looking for a closer relationship with Erdogan for business and trade reasons and that is not right and must be opposed where ever possible.

The approach to the whole region must be driven by support for peace and democracy and support for all progressive forces that support that agenda, it must not be driven just by pure self-interest and a desire to keep refugees out of the UK and EU. Support should not be given to any forces that deny basic human rights or who support Islamic fundamentalist organisations, which is exactly what Turkey has been doing in the region. Likewise the UK government must absolutely oppose other actions that could destabilise the region further, for example they should actively speak out and oppose the Israeli settlement building programme and the proposal of the Trump administration to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which would be a very dangerous and provocative act for the entire region.

Developments in Turkey will be critical to the whole region and the UK government, together with the EU and other powers, must exert every influence possible to change the current direction of Erdogan.

David Lammy: Our influence in Europe and Turkey will be weakened as a result of Brexit – I think we will appear desperate. What was concerning was that Theresa May appeared desperate for Trump and Erdogan. So I am deeply concerned about exiting the EU. I am concerned about the British economy but I’m concerned about the directors of foreign policy now will be a poodle to United States and not an independent major part of the European Union.

Simon Dubbins: The UK government, together with the EU and other governments around the world must maximise pressure on the Turkish government to stop intervening in Syria in the manner in which they do. It has long been suspected that the Turkish government has backed Islamist forces and it is clear that they are more intent on fighting the Syrian Kurds than fighting the evil of ISIS. It is outrageous that a NATO member state is allowed to behave in this manner and it must be stopped as quickly as possible.

Joan Ryan: At the moment we have a situation where the Kurds have been excluded from the talks, Russia, Iran, and Syria are in these talks. We had a fragile three week ceasefire, Turkey is no longer aligned with the US, we (UK) are aligned with the US. It is very hard to see long-term how a real solution can be had if Assad stays in place. The solution first and foremost is to get and maintain a ceasefire for all these powers to work together. Both the US and the UK have made it clear that the long term aim should be for Assad to leave, to not be the person running Syria – and this is where we are at the moment.

In the short term there are terrible ignoring of human rights, loss of human lives, over 300 000 people dead already, all are numbers in refugee camps. When you think of all of these things, sadly removing Assad is not the first step. At the moment we cannot achieve that as the first step either, and we have got to put having a sustainable ceasefire first. So we have to hope that this ceasefire will last and we achieve a more stable situation where Russia, the US and others can reach an agreement that they can all sign up to.