Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador in Damascus, gave the following speech at the recent EUROCSE conference – ten years of war against Syria 15/3/2021:
“I shall try in this presentation to look at what UK officials say is British policy towards Syria and what it is in reality. I shall also examine how successful it is and what underlies it, asking why it is that the UK has such a remarkable and bitter hostility towards Syria.
First a little personal reminiscence. The FCO has hated Syria for a long time. Ambassadors who went there loved it, but always Whitehall was deeply hostile.
I bought into this culture very soon after I joined the FCO in 1970 and went to Lebanon to learn Arabic. The Cold War was in full swing. Next door Syria was considered virtually enemy territory, being part of the Soviet sphere of influence and socialist to boot. Hafez Al Assad was demonised. It didn’t help that in the great Middle East carve up after World War 1 rich Syria had fallen to France’s lot while Britain got poor Jordan and the headache of Palestine.
What we see today is not very different from the 1970s. We hate Syria as much for being in the Russian sphere of influence and never having been in ours as for anything in Syria’s own actions.
Syrophobia as I would diagnose it is then a subset of Russophobia, a pathology of the British establishment too complex to go into here, but fundamental to any understanding of almost any aspect of British foreign policy.
When Trump was elected, before he took office even, Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, rushed over not just to ingratiate himself but top of his agenda was trying to dissuade Trump from putting into practice what he had promised to do on the stump, dial back on US interference in Syria. In doing this Johnson was acting in concert with the powers that really be in Washington, the security-military establishment, which Trump never managed to overcome.
I wish I could say that British policy towards Syria was just the usual British kowtowing to Washington. But it’s not. It’s worse than that. If anything the British are even more obtuse over Syria than the US. We mix sanctimoniousness with crude Syrophobia, while the Americans at least are basically only really concerned about power. American policy could easily tilt, if Syria would just kow tow. The British wouldn’t. Even when Syria was tilting in the early 2000s when I was Ambassador, and pleading to be cut some slack, Whitehall refused to concede any demands.
So what is British policy towards Syria today? Let’s look first at the declared policy before we look at what is not declared but matters more. The most recent iteration of policy came at the Security Council discussion of Syria on 21 January from the mouth of Ambassador Jonathan Allen:
Now, Mr President, the political settlement envisaged in Resolution 2254, which this Council adopted unanimously just over five years ago, remains the best means of resolving Syria’s multiple crises. …
Without a new constitution, free and fair elections involving all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, cannot take place as envisaged in Resolution 2254.
Free and fair elections should involve all Syrians, including membersof the diaspora. If the Syrian regime wants refugees to return, they need to ensure that the conditions set out in paragraph 14 of Resolution 2254 are met and that Syrian citizens will not be returning to the status quo that led to and sustained this conflict.
Note the double emphasis on including members of the diaspora, and the opposition to refugee return. This is what gives the game away. Why? Because including the diaspora in elections would be a way of rigging them to produce the result we want, which is to get rid of Assad. We know the diaspora is stuffed with opposition and others gasping for the opportunity to win in a rigged election what they lost on the battlefield. It’s asking Assad to sign a suicide note to accept it, at least until a substantial number of Syrians have returned home. But of course we are not keen for them to return home and put every obstacle in the way of that happening, mainly by our sanctions policy which ensures there are no jobs to go back to and by subsidising refugees to stay where they are with our billions of pounds worth of aid.
Can anyone seriously expect that after recovering control over most of his country Assad will just cheerfully accept a political process deliberately designed to remove him? You have to be either deranged or a cynical British official to claim that such a policy is serious. But of course it is not meant to be serious. It is meant just to have something to which we can nail our flag, anything, which looks like a solution, however unreal. And to have a stick with which to beat the backs of Assad and the Russians because they will not buckle to our unrealistic demands.
Declared but hollow support for a political solution and undeclared but ferocious economic war, mainly in the shape of sanctions, are the twin pillars of British policy, both aimed at undermining the current government and if not securing regime change then at least preventing Assad and the Russians from enjoying success. It’s vindictiveness dressed up as a policy.
The UK is in denial about sanctions. In our heart of hearts we know how they are causing hardship to ordinary Syrians but we pretend it’s not the fault of sanctions. Here is Ambassador Allen again:
We are …concerned about the recent water crisis in regime-controlled Syria. As with many serious problems, rampant corruption has played its role, with regime diesel supplies designated for the city’s water pump generators being sold illegally. The food, fuel and economic crises – all of the regime’s making – sadly continue.
The sheer mendacity of this is breathtaking. Of course corruption exists in Syria but set beside the impact of sanctions it is very secondary. Successive UN Rapporteurs on Coercive Measures have testified to this. And to the fact that the humanitarian exemptions to sanctions are in practice meaningless.
The truth is that punishing sanctions are the absolute core of British policy towards Syria. They make it more difficult for the Syrian government to feed and fuel its people, they create unrest, they hamper anti-ISIS efforts, they make refugee return impractical.
But are they actually working? Does anyone even ask this question? Is Assad after eight years of severe sanctions anywhere near buckling ? Of course not. But British policy is blinkered and cynical. As long as our mainstream media ignore the impact of sanctions the government can continue to pursue a pointless cruel policy leading nowhere except to Syria’s immiseration.
Which brings me to another strand in British policy. The immense propaganda effort which goes into justifying the economic warfare we wage on Syria. The support for dubious organisations like the White Helmets. The support for the notorious Bellingcat website, an outlet for doctored intelligence. The private briefings for a supine mainstream media. The propaganda use of the BBC World Service. The support for exiled pro-jihadi medics given sinecures in universities from which to pump out propaganda.
British spokesmen like to boast about our humanitarian effort on Syria. And indeed we have poured many hundreds of millions into keeping Syrian refugees festering in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. No expense spared, as long as the refugees don’t head our way or back to Syria.
There is much more that can be said about British policy but I shall stop here. I shall conclude with a pessimistic assessment that the British will only change that policy after the US does. The visceral hostility of the British establishment for Syria has such deep roots that it cannot be assuaged by issues of practicality or morality. As long as British governments incur no pain for the pain they inflict on Syrians British policy will carry on its blinkered short-sighted cruel way.