Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 27, 2013

Sir Bashar?

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

queen_assad_277691k

The Sunday Times (London)
July 1, 2012 Sunday
by Dipesh Gadher

Assad close to being knighted under Blair

The decision to court Assad came despite the Syrian leader attacking Israel and comparing pro-Palestinian terrorists to the French resistance at an event attended by Blair.

Discussions about the honour took place ahead of Assad’s visit to Britain in 2002 during which he sought “as much pomp and ceremony as possible”. The Arab leader was granted audiences with the Queen and the Prince of Wales, lunch with Blair at Downing Street, a platform in parliament and many other privileges.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Times under freedom of information laws show for the first time the lengths to which the government went to accommodate Assad. The red carpet treatment he and his entourage received is embarrassing given the bloodbath that has since taken place under his rule in Syria.

The documents outline in candid detail:

  • Blair’s willingness to appear alongside Assad at a joint press conference – even though the Syrians would probably have settled for a farewell handshake for the cameras.
  • British officials seeking to manipulate the media to portray Assad in a favourable light.
  • Efforts by Downing Street aides to help Assad’s “photogenic” wife boost her profile.

Blair invited Assad to London in December 2002 after meeting him the previous year in Damascus. At the time, the West hoped the Syrian leader would be a moderniser.

The courtship has parallels with Blair’s friendly relations with Muammar Gadaffi, the Libyan despot who was killed by his own people last year. Plans for conferring an honorary knighthood on Assad are discussed in an exchange of emails between unidentified government officials.

They followed reports that Blair, on a tour of the Middle East, sat at a press conference with Assad in Damascus in November 2001 as Assad hit out at “Israeli terrorism” against the Palestinians and sharply criticised the US war on terror.

On November 14, 2002, a desk officer covering and Lebanon at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, writes: “You should be aware that President Bashar of Syria will visit the UK as a guest of government … This will include an audience with the Queen. I have been advised that we need to consider whether the Queen should bestow an honour on him.”

The official, whose name has been redacted, asks a colleague from the protocol division for examples of other visitors who have recently received awards.

On November 22, the colleague replies: “Other heads of state who got honorary GCMGs while on [official] government visits were the presidents of Portugal and Mexico in 2002. The presidents of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela did not get any.”

A GCMG is a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George. The order is the sixth most senior in the British honours system and denotes distinguished service in foreign affairs. It is jokingly referred to as “God calls me God.”

An email written by a third official on November 25 states: “In view of Syria’s human rights record and the fact that our relationship with them is not particularly cosy, we do not believe it would be particularly appropriate for an honour to be bestowed on Bashar.”

Despite this conclusion, the documents show the government was eager to please. One FCO official writes: “It is quite clear what the Syrians are looking for: as much pomp and ceremony as possible.”

Media management was crucial. Henry Hogger, then British ambassador to Damascus, told officials in London on November 12: “I know that our main concern is to try and fix in advance the handling of difficult media issues (eg why are we cosying up to this nasty dictatorship that locks up its own MPs?).”

Hogger later wrote: “At No 10, I don’t think the Syrians would mind Bashar having to brief the press alone (in the street?) but is there a chance the prime minister would appear at the door for a photocall/formal farewell?” As it turned out, Blair was willing to go much further, conducting a joint press conference with Assad in front of the world’s media after emerging from talks at Downing Street.

As well as his royal audiences, Assad was treated to a banquet at Mansion House by the lord mayor of London and dinner at Lancaster House hosted by the lord chancellor.

A separate programme was organised for the president’s British-born wife, Asma, including an invitation to tea at No 10 with Cherie Blair.

Another email reveals how Downing Street aides were prepared to help Asma raise her profile. A press officer at No 10 wrote to a Syrian official: “I have been exploring the ideas we discussed concerning a possible interview with Mrs Assad … I do not think The Guardian’s women’s pages would conduct the kind of interview you indicated you would want.”

Despite causing anger in Israel, Assad’s visit was seen as “highly successful” in Damascus. Hogger reported: “Bashar and particularly Asma generally a hit in PR terms.”

Yesterday, a spokesman for Blair said: “Engagement with Syria and Assad in 2002 was absolutely right at the time to encourage change. Mr Blair has said many times since that the situation has changed and Assad now has to go.”

Hogger, who has retired from the diplomatic service, said: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Were we to have known then what we know now, some of the advice and decisions might have been different.”

3 Comments »

  1. “They followed reports that Blair, on a tour of the Middle East, sat at a press conference with Assad in Damascus in November 2001 as Assad hit out at “Israeli terrorism” against the Palestinians and sharply criticised the US war on terror.”

    This is a poorly sourced article. Assad was an ally of the US and the UK in the second Gulf War in 1991 and, as revealed by Seymour Hersh, a covert ally in the “war on terror”, providing intelligence assistance to the US. Assad’s critical remarks were a form of domestic political deception, as were his remarks about Israeli violence directed towards the Palestinians. Assad never did anything to confront Israel about it. Gadher makes the classic error of taking Assad’s public statements as evidence of his actual conduct, whereas Blair was doing the opposite. If Blair believed that there was still a benefit to be gained from supporting Assad, he would do so.

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 27, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

  2. Oops, missed this in the post below, as further proof:

    “Just remember he collaborated with the US on things such as CIA renditions.”

    Comment by Richard Estes — August 27, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Good post Louis. So how come Lyndon LaRouche, for one, didn’t fly off the handle when this information/photo came out? Bashar al-Assad paying respects to the Queen and being courted by the British Empire in spite of his human rights record in Syria. Because, that’s what it looks like – Establishment flunky and thug [with his wife] paying homage to the biggest Establishment-Type and mobster around, if you follow the LPAC talking points. (Sir) Bashar al-Assad. “Queen’s Man! Queen’s Man!” … [Pardon the hyperbole, but I believe it fits here.]

    Comment by Luke Rondinaro — September 13, 2013 @ 6:41 pm


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