Ex-ambassador calls for Syria sanctions to be lifted

Ex-ambassador Ford: the west should

A former British ambassador has called on western governments to "shorten the agony of Syria" by re-engaging with the Assad regime – in effect, turning a blind eye to the regime's atrocities during the seven-year conflict.

In an article circulated (here, here and here) by the regime's defenders, Peter Ford, who served as ambassador in Damascus from 2003 to 2006, says the west should "start to engage with the Syrian government on recovery issues" by lifting of sanctions and supporting reconstruction along with the return of refugees.

Since leaving the diplomatic service Ford has become an outspoken critic of western policies towards Syria and has repeatedly disputed evidence of atrocities by the Assad regime. In 2016, when a UN humanitarian convoy was attacked in Aleppo killing 14 civilian aid workers, he suggested rebel fighters were responsible – even though the attack came from the air, and only Syrian and Russian air forces were operating in the area. 

He later appeared in a radio programme produced by the Russian government's Sputnik News disputing a report by Amnesty International about atrocities in Saydnaya prison near Damascus and, in a BBC television interview, said it was "simply not plausible" that the regime had attacked Khan Sheikhoun with the nerve agent sarin.

Connections with the Assad family

Ford has connections with the Assad family through the British Syrian Society which is headed by Assad's British father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras. Ex-ambassador Ford became a director of the society in February last year even though it had been mired in controversy since 2012 when Akhras was found to have been emailing advice to President Assad about how to rebut allegations of torture.

The society currently has two other British directors who both joined the board in January this year.

One is Lord Green of Deddington, founder of the controversial Migration Watch organisation, who was also a British ambassador to Syria in the early 1990s.

The other is retired Major General John Taylor Holmes DSO, OBE, MC, a former head of Britain's Special Forces. Since leaving the military, Holmes has become a director of two security firms, Titon International and Erinys International (which is based in Dubai and registered in the British Virgin Islands). 

The society has a further five directors who are all either Syrian citizens or residents of Syria.

Lords and bishops join in

Ford's article appears to be part of a lobbying effort to rehabilitate the Assad regime as it regains control over lost territory. 

Last month a previously unknown group called the Global Network for Syria sent a private paper to Britain's prime minister advocating a change of policy in relation to Syria. In a covering letter which was subsequently published they said current policy means stabilisation and reunification of Syria "under a unitary authority" [i.e. the Assad regime] will "remain a distant possibility".

The letter to prime minister Theresa May. <a href=Click to enlarge." src="/sites/default/files/gns-letter.jpg" style="border-style:solid; border-width:1px; height:560px; width:400px" />

The letter's 13 signatories included Ford and Lord Green, plus several other members of the House of Lords, three prominent Anglicans and, rather incongruously, a university lecturer in Australia. They were:

  • Lord Cormack
  • Baroness Cox
  • Lord Gordon of Strathblane
  • Lord Hylton
  • Lord Naseby
  • The Earl of Oxford and Asquith
  • Lord Stoddart of Swindon
  • Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Dr Michael Langrish, former Bishop of Exeter
  • Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester
  • Tim Anderson, University of Sydney

The letter identified Baroness Cox as the group's contact person.

Anderson, the only non-British member of the group, lectures in political economy. He has visited Syria numerous times and in 2013 he met President Assad.

According to Anderson, “There is no credible evidence that the Syrian Army has ever used chemical weapons” and “the war on Syria was always a conspiracy by powerful states to destroy an independent Arab nation.”

In 2017 he paid a “solidarity” visit to North Korea in the company of fellow Assad defender Eva Bartlett.

Several other members of the Global Network group have been criticised for going on trips to Syria which were seen as giving succour to the regime. One such trip, last April, was reported by journalist Gareth Browne, who accompanied them as an observer. Browne also gave a lengthy interview with his impressions of the visit.