National Press Club

British ‘voice for those who do not have a voice' opposes imposing Syrian regime change

May 13, 2017 | By Mark Krikorian | msk@cis.org

Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury appears at a National Press Club Newsmaker press conference on May 9, 2017.

Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury appears at a National Press Club Newsmaker press conference on May 9, 2017.

Photo/Image: Al Teich

Religious leaders from the region torn by the Syrian civil war oppose regime change from the outside, a humanitarian and member of the British House of Lords told a National Press Club Newsmaker press conference on May 9.

Baroness Caroline Cox of Queensbury came to the Club directly from the Syria-Lebanon border, and visited several cities in Syria itself last fall. She met with Muslim, Christian and Yazidi religious leaders and ordinary citizens.

Their main message to her was to let the people of Syria work out their own destiny.

"Please do not inflict regime change on our people," she said, summarizing their stance.

Being British, Cox said she would not comment on U.S. policy, but she said she was opposed to Britain's promotion of "enforced regime change" in Syria.

Cox described President Bashar Hafez al-Assad of Syria as the lesser of two evils and said the Syrians she met feared his removal would inevitably lead to a takeover of the country by Islamic State and its allies. One man told her "On one side you die from shellings; on the other, you die from shellings and beheadings. And we don't want the beheadings," she said.

When asked whether her meeting with Assad provided a photo op for the Syrian dictator she said, "You can't raise concerns with someone unless you actually meet them."

Cox describes herself as "a nurse and a social scientist by intention … and a baroness by astonishment."

Not having been previously involved in politics, the newly-minted baroness in 1982 asked herself how she might best use the "awesome privilege" of being able to speak in her country's Parliament. Her answer: "To try to be a voice for those who don't have voices or whose voices are not being heard."

She joked about her accession to the House of Lords in 1982: "You wake up one morning and find a baroness looking at yourself out the bathroom mirror. Quite a shock."

This mission has taken her to the ends of the Earth. Myron Belkind, a former Club president who introduced Cox, quoted her telling a reporter, "I seem to spend half my life in a jungle, a desert or half way up a mountain."

Cox got her start by delivering aid behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s and later brought relief to people in Nigeria, Indonesia, Burma, North Korea and elsewhere.

"Aid organizations tend to go places with permission from a sovereign government," Cox said. "If sovereign governments deny access, then they don't go" – whereas she said she has no such limitations. "It is so important to be with the people."

Cox frequently went to "forbidden areas" in Sudan during that country's long civil war, which eventually resulted in South Sudan's independence in 2011.

The Khartoum government, led by long-time President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, has continued genocidal policies in the southern part of what remains of Sudan, she said.

Cox recently visited people who had fled to the mountains to escape government air attacks on civilian targets.

"When the bombers come, 50 people have to cram into a cave, and they try to fill the crevices between the rocks to stop the snakes from coming out," Cox said.

She noted the irony of UK and EU moves to enhance relations with the Khartoum government in order to reduce migration pressures when that government's own actions contribute to the migration.

Cox described the plight of Muslim women in the UK living under institutionalized gender discrimination enshrined in Sharia law.

"There are 85 Sharia courts or councils in the UK and Sharia law has inherent in it gender discrimination," Cox said, highlighting formal gender inequality regarding divorce, polygamy, domestic violence ("chastisement" of wives by husbands), and inheritance.

In describing Muslim women victimized by such abuses who have come to her for help, Cox alluded to the women in the 19th and early 20th Centuries who fought for gender equality: "The suffragettes would be turning in their graves."

Cox has introduced a bill in the House of Lords several times "to raise awareness of the serious situation facing Muslim women in the UK today," and to stress the imperative of two goals: gender equality and "one law for all."

In response to a question about fears for her own safety, Cox said she's been nearly killed 22 times, but at almost 80, "I haven't got much of natural life left to lose and I'd rather use the years I have left to give voice to those who have no voice."