“Crazy Club”: Inside the UK Delegation Propping Up Assad’s Propaganda

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Members of UK delegation, including Reverend Andrew Ashdown (L) and former Bishop of Exeter Michael Langrish (3rd from R) with Grand Mufti of Syria (3rd from L), accused of authorising the executions of thousands of Syrian prisoners, April 2018 (Gareth Browne/The National)

Gareth Browne reports for The National on his trip to Damascus with a UK delegation last week.

Several of the delegation’s members have made recurrent visits to the Syrian capital, to be used by the Assad regime in propaganda declaring international legitimacy for its political and military approach to the Syrian conflict. As we noted in November:

]The] delegation is supporting a regime that is accused of war crimes by the UN, including chemical weapons, mass killing of civilians, sieges and starvation, indiscriminate bombing and the detention, torture or killing of thousands of political prisoners.

Browne’s piece has cameos by pro-Assad propagandists and chemical attack deniers, including the bloggers Tom Duggan and Vanessa Beeley:

See How A British Delegation Enabled Assad Regime’s Propaganda
How an Obscure UK Blogger Became Russia’s Top Disinfo Warrior Over Syria’s White Helmets


“Welcome to the crazy club!”, laughed Baroness Caroline Cox in the lobby of a ritzy, five-star Beirut hotel. Her words would mark the beginning of a one-week journey into the heartlands of the Syrian regime and the war-wracked cities under its control – Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.

As the fighting in Syria has fluctuated over the past seven years, the member of Britain’s House of Lords has organised many trips into areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad under the watch of his feared secret police. She organises them in tandem with her associate, Andrew Ashdown, a British Anglican priest.

They say the trips are for research purposes, but first and foremost a show of solidarity with the Syrian people. Previous meetings have seen them take tea with Assad, the man at the heart of the conflict, while others have transported them to the frontlines.

Father Ashdown, for instance, was present in the northern city of Aleppo in December 2016 as the government unleashed its final bombardment to reclaim the heart of the revolution’s last rebel-held areas.

Both during this trip, and in previous tours, the pair have touted them as “pastoral” ventures. But they have attracted a wave of criticism for being inherently political in nature, seen to be sidling up to a regime that has been accused of a litany of crimes against humanity. That list includes and is not limited to: gassing its own people, torture, death by hanging and enforced sieges on civilian-populated areas.

What was an already controversial trip had become all the more significant on the day of our departure: Saturday, April 14. Hours before we set off for Syria from Beirut, the US, Britain and France fired over 100 cruise missiles at three suspected chemical weapons productions sites in reaction to the Douma gas attack that killed at least 43 people a week earlier. Eighteen people were on the bus as it hit the road to Damascus, among them clergy, academics, journalists and members of the House of Lords.

For one week I was to be an honorary member of the “crazy club”, travelling with the delegation as an observing journalist. Syria has become an increasingly hostile, if not almost impossible, place to report from. So journalists who seek access must grasp the rare opportunities to report from the ground.

Meeting the Conspiracy Theorists

In an indication of just how powerful the church has become in Syria, it was the Syrian Orthodox Patriachate who had ‘vouched’ for those invited on the trip. The regime awarded visas to a number of individuals who would likely be denied entry under all other circumstances.

Controversy surrounding the trip grew and seeped into the British public’s consciousness after Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, tweeted photos of the group’s meeting with Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun and Syrian Minister for Religious Affairs Mohammed Abdul Sattar.

As the week progressed, it quickly became clear that the trip was anything but pastoral. Individuals who allege to operate as independent journalists inside regime-held areas, pushing the Assad line on social media, namely Vanessa Beeley and Tom Duggan, were brought in to speak with us separately. Both have no identifiable ties to a reputable news organisation.

The group challenged Mr Duggan, who told us the White Helmets, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated organisation of first responders saving lives in the rubble of Syrian and Russian air attacks, had in fact been murdering civilians before they were forced to evacuate from the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta that lies east of Damascus. Members also challenged Ms Beeley, who offered her alternative perspective of the conflict at our Damascus Hotel. Her views of the world include suggesting the Charlie Hebdo attack was a false flag operation and that Al Qaeda was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, says actors like Ms Beeley are vital to spreading misinformation about Syria in aid of the regime:

I think they play an important role, a couple of years ago, I would have dismissed these people as irrelevant lunatics, sadly I was very wrong. They may well be lunatics, but they are not irrelevant. Indirectly I think they have been very influential indeed.

[People like Ms Beeley] help to feed conspiracy theories into the mainstream, that’s their function. If the mainstream was healthy, they wouldn’t be relevant.

A Journey of the Naive?

While Mr Fraser and others in the group bought a deal of scepticism to the trip, assertively challenging both Mr Duggan and Mr Ashdown, there was an undeniable sense from outside that the group had naively wandered into becoming the regime’s useful idiots.

Two instances stood out. First, Baroness Cox would repeatedly draw attention to her House of Lords questions about the British government’s alleged funding of “terrorist groups”, grouping the White Helmets into that category. Second, Lord Hugh Dykes, Baroness Cox’s colleague, deemed it appropriate to warn Syrian parliamentarians about the dangers of the US’ vast defence spending.

There is little doubt that such visits are being used by Syrian officials to claim legitimacy. In his high-rise office, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohammed Abdul Sattar boasted of a meeting with Former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband “in this very office” in Damascus.

Grand Mufti Hassoun, who Amnesty International alleges ordered the execution of up to 13,000 inmates at the notorious Sednaya torture prison, asked the delegation why he had been denied a visa to visit Britain. “I wish to speak in front of the British Parliament”, he told us, bragging of a recent address he made to the Irish Parliament in December 2016. There was no mention of his alleged crimes during our meeting.

The legitimacy derived from such photo opportunities and visits has become an integral part of the regime’s normalisation project, says Mr Yassin-Kassab. “The regime needs legitimacy; it needs as much legitimacy as it can get within Syria. That’s what these visits offer”, he said. “It looks good for them to have their photo taken with an English priest, or member of the House of Lords”.

A UK State Visit for Assad

Avoiding the regime cameras would prove a challenge. Often it seemed that the most important person in the room was the one with the camera. Every public event would be featured in the Syrian state media. After one of our meetings with church officials, the headline read: “British delegation visits Syria”. The impression given was that this was an official, government delegation. Despite Cox’s claims that the trip was pastoral, it was not portrayed in the Syrian media as that at all.

As the group crossed back into Lebanese territory by bus, I quizzed Baroness Cox on her accusations that the “UK was funding terrorist groups in Syria”. I asked exactly which extremist groups Britain was supporting. She declined to answer, citing parliamentary privilege – the Houses of Parliament’s legal immunity for statements made in its house.

Seeking clarification on her positions, I continued to probe the baroness. Does Russia have a more ethical foreign policy than the UK? “I think in Syria, they do,” she responded. Should Britain welcome President al-Assad for a state visit? “I don’t see why not”, she said.

The trip was an embodiment of how Syria, and its history, is being rebuilt in the image of one man. Any talk of initial uprisings would be accompanied by the claim that protesters were paid to take to the streets by foreign powers. “I remember the first days – I asked the kids protesting, I called from my balcony ‘How much are they paying you?’ They said 500 Syrian pounds (about $1) each”, Haysam Kozma, 61, told me in Homs.

These version of events possessed minimal acknowledgement of any opposition that is not ISIS or Al Qa’eda-affiliated groups. Just as the opposition slogans that sparked the revolution have been removed from the walls of Homs, the historical narrative has been whitewashed. It was this binary choice between al-Assad and ISIS that seems now to be the underlying principle of the Syrian government.

Remaking the Population

At an accommodation centre in Adra on the outskirts of Damascus, families who fled Eastern Ghouta told me of their exhaustion after five years of a hellish siege. “We don’t want your aid, or food, we don’t want jobs, we just want our homes back”, cried one woman, failing to hold back the tears, her young daughter in her arms.

There are millions like that woman, both in Syria and abroad, displaced from their homes and living in the indignity of a refugee camp. Despite the regime’s talk of “reconciliation”, it remains unclear if those forced to flee the country will ever be able to return.

A massive effort in demographic engineering is under way in the country. Former rebel heartlands are slowly being repopulated with ethnic groups the regime believes it can rely on for support. Driving into Homs from the south, the construction of new residences is clear to see. And locals, such as Mania Khashoun, a communications trainer from Homs’ Hamdiya district, told The National that people moving into the city were Alawites, and others staunchly loyal to the regime. “My Alawite friends come into the city for work. They live close, but not too close”. This in a city long regarded as the nucleus of the Syrian revolt.

A new piece of legislation titled law No. 10, which was issued earlier this month also looks to put these changes into law. The law gives private property owners just 30 days to register and prove their ownership of property, and with millions unable to return to the country and do so, it essentially sets the sets for widespread property confiscation by the government. It is largely those who supported the opposition who are yet to return even years after the government’s recapture of certain city’s. As author Leila Al Shami wrote recently on the Syrian website Al-Jumhuriya, the new law is an “attempt to implement demographic change”.

In Aleppo, Yanal Bashkour, who works in the office of the presidency, defends the new law. “If they want to get their property back, they can come back, it’s no problem”, he says of those who have left.

But such an attitude appears to ignore the practical dangers of returning, many of those who fled are wanted for evading conscription into the Syrian Arab Army, or merely expressing non-violent support for the opposition. Millions face lengthy jail sentences if they ever return.

Indeed, President al-Assad has indicated as much. In a 2015 speech he said: “Syria is not for those who hold its passport or reside in it; Syria is for those who defend it”.

“Millions of Syrian have not only been brutalised by the war, but have lost their homes, their communities, their anchors of political and national identification, possibly forever”, says Tobias Schneider of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. “Syria might move into a post-conflict period, millions of Syrians won’t”.

Thanking the Secret Police

At a public meeting with Governor Talal al-Barazi in Homs, it becomes apparent that Father Ashdown essentially encourages the propaganda by organising such meetings, and the very public telling of peoples’ tales, for the group’s viewing. There is little genuine dialogue, and similar sessions throughout trip descend into competitions to publicly praise President Al Assad, and share horror tales of beheadings and drownings at the hands of the opposition.

In perhaps the most surreal moment of the trip, Baroness Cox called the group to attention to thank our half-dozen Mukhabarat minders on the penultimate day at a service stop on the Aleppo to Damascus highway. The men, sometimes armed, had shadowed us at almost every moment of the trip, listening in on every conversation. They are the foot soldiers in an organisation that instils unabated fear into the average Syrian. As a gesture to thank them for “keeping us safe”, she presented them with a set of tin plates from the gift shop of Buckingham Palace, home to Queen Elizabeth II. There was bemusement on all sides.

A visit to two psycho-social centres in Aleppo managed by the Syria Trust, a charity set up by the country’s First Lady, British-educated Asma Al Assad, was illustrated with glossy literature and buzzwords like “life skills” and “family planning”. One of them was housed in a building the regime claimed was once used as a headquarters by militants.

But as the group departed, so too did all the students, who appeared to have been bussed in on our account, the whole visit apparently staged, much like the wider reconstruction of Syria – a façade in the image of one man, propped up by his backers in Moscow and Tehran.

The crazy club had checked out of the Old City of Damascus, but what was pertinently clear was that the madness of Syria’s dictatorship is booked in for the long-run.

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45 COMMENTS

  1. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/syria-western-nations-may-seek-040009101.html

    “Western nations want to end the months-long paralysis at the United Nations over Syria by referring the issue of chemical weapons use to the entire UN general assembly, where Russia’s security council veto would not apply.

    The idea is to draw on a rarely used route first established in the cold war to transfer responsibility for aspects of the crisis to the 193-member general assembly.”
    .
    Could this be a glimmer of hope for a solution to the Syria invasion?

      • Legitimacy kind of goes out the window when you kill hundreds of thousands of your own people and gas children among other horrendous crimes.

          • Which US ally killed hundreds of thousands of their own people whilst using sarin and chlorine? And the US sure as shit isn’t running a massive disinformation campaign to cover up attacks like your Russian overlords.

  2. Scott, is there a possibility of putting pressure on Syria, Russia and Iran with sanctions on future reconstruction.

    I’m imagining a scenario: start the process of indicting war criminals (including, especially, Assad and family). Craft legislation in NATO countries to place financial sanctions on governments, firms and individuals aiding war criminals (i.e. helping the Assad regime with reconstruction) in perpetuity until all war criminals (again, especially Assad) have been handed over to the Hague. It is especially important that there be few appealing ways to ever end the sanctions once in place (making it a credible threat).

    Then, offer to slow down the process of indictments and/or legislation in exchange for ceasefires and meaningful peace talks. Meanwhile, speed up the reconstruction of areas beyond Assad’s control.

    Do you think it’s feasible, and might it work?

    • Woody,

      It’s a possibility, but it would require a lot more joined-up thinking than we have right now in various governments.

      Scott

      • I was afraid that was the issue. Other than coordination, and the big gaping hole that is the “leader of the free world” at the moment, the concept seems sound.

        Do you think that the Russians would respond to that type of pressure?

    • It probably won’t Woody.

      Not only has the US overplayed it’s hand on sanctions, but it’s going to have a very difficult task demanding that other states stay away from lucrative reconstruction contracts in Syria. China is prepared to pour huge amounts of money into Syria and no one is going to sanction them.

      Of course such sanctions would also harm the Syrian population, so the very suggestion that you are in favor of them goes to show you have no regard for the Syrian people anyway

      • “so the very suggestion that you are in favor of them goes to show you have no regard for the Syrian people anyway”

        Says the guy supporting cover ups of chemical weapons attacks on civilians, hospital bombings, etc. LOL

        • Says the guy supporting cover ups of chemical weapons attacks on civilians, hospital bombings, etc. LOL

          Says the guy who believes everything fed to him by the government that lied the US into both Iraq wars.

          • When did I ever say I believed that shit? Link? Great comeback though. That “I’m rubber, you’re glue” comeback is so epic. You really haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about.

      • The contracts won’t be lucrative unless the West agrees to put up the money. Assad’s Syria has little in the way of resources, and a devastated economy. Russian and Iran won’t pay for reconstruction.

  3. [Correct headline: Christians in Damascus are coming under heavy fire] https://www.churchinneed.org/christians-damascus-coming-heavy-fire/

    “WITH MEDIA focused on the Syrian regime, aided by Russian planes, killing some 250 people in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, rebel attacks on the Syrian capital’s Christian neighborhoods go largely unreported. According to a report by Caritas Internationalis, the situation there is critical, as Christian suburbs have been hit by mortar attacks since late January 2018. More than 200 mortar shells have hit Damascus’ eastern neighborhoods, causing more than 28 killed and 90 injured,” Caritas has reported. Attacks are ongoing at this writing. Official figures hold that more than 42 people have been seriously injured and that a dozen people have been killed. The actual numbers may be much higher.”

  4. [Correct headline: How open source evidence took a lead role in the response to the Douma chemical weapons attack]
    https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/04/how-open-source-evidence-took-a-lead-role-in-the-response-to-the-douma-chemical-weapons-attack/

    Sam Dubberly: “I am certain that the recent images from Douma that have been collated and verified – using well-established methodologies – by trusted organizations are not faked. That is not to say, however, that there are no fake images out there. There are – and this part of a wider problem.”

  5. Archive: UN team heads to Syria to inspect sites of alleged chemical weapon attacks: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/01/un-inspectors-syria-chemical-weapons

    “The breakthrough ends months of negotiations that began when the regime invited the UN to investigate an attack at Khan al-Assal, a village near Aleppo on 19 March. The government and rebel forces blame each other for using chemical weapons in the attack.”

    The inspectors arrived on August 18th to begin their investigation. 3 days later there was a major sarin attack in East Ghouta which was also exactly a year after President Obama told an NBC reporter on August 20th 2012 that the use of chemical weapons would be “crossing a red line”. The OPCW inspectors never had the chance to visit Khan-al-Assal, and other locations, as they had originally planned to do.

    • I’m so shocked that yet another obvious supporter of the tyrant is reporting from Syria. Strange how the supporters of the genocidal regime never seem to have trouble reporting and yet several independent reporters have been kidnapped or killed. Let me know when even a single independent journalist is reporting from Syria as opposed to some pro-tyrant blogger.

  6. Syria Controversy: Don’t Believe the Official Narrative: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/syria-controversy-dont-believe-the-official-narrative/

    “To date, no concrete evidence of a chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government in Douma has been produced to support the Trump administration’s justification for the allies’ bombing in response. The only sources of what State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described as “our own intelligence” on chemical warfare allegations were the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society. The U.S. government has funded both groups, and they operate exclusively alongside Salafi-jihadi militants, including the local affiliate of al-Qaida and Islamic State.”

    “The most compelling reasons to doubt that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Douma lay not only in witness testimony but in a basic consideration of motivation and timing. The Syrian army had completely defeated the Jaysh al-Islam insurgents in eastern Ghouta and was on the precipice of destroying them in Douma when the chemical attack was alleged to have happened. From a military standpoint, the Syrian government had no need to deploy chemical weapons, as it had already achieved victory through conventional means. From a political perspective, a chemical attack was suicidal—guaranteed to trip the “red line” imposed by Western governments and immediately trigger military intervention.”

    • For now, I’ll just leave my response when I read the article earlier today — weighing up whether it is worth the time to do a detailed takedown of this in addition to the Twitter thread at top of my page on “Journalism, Disinformation, and Syria”:

      At least 17 errors/falsehoods in @MaxBlumenthal’s polemic over #Douma chemical attacks. Either

      1. This is a paper which would flunk a first-year uni student

      or

      2. It’s blatant disinfo

      #Syria

      https://twitter.com/ScottLucas_EA/status/988732170184396800

    • I’ve heard the behavioural excuse many times before: the old Assad is winning line.

      It suffers from two massive logical problems: one, chemical attacks are meant to terrorize the population, not secure military victory. How Assad was doing militarily was thus never relevant. Even after victory, he needs to keep the people intimidated, and chemical weapons do that.

      Second, far from being an act of suicide, Assad has paid very little cost for their use. So, as a rational actor, there is no reason for Assad to believe he would pay a cost.

      So, if that’s the evidence against, it’s unknowledgeable, self-contradictory BS.

      • one, chemical attacks are meant to terrorize the population, not secure military victory.

        What would Assad gain from terrorising the population? They are not the ones fighting him and the vast majority support him, certainly over the jihadist rebels who are locking them in cages and using them as human shields.

        After 7 year of war, the people are desperate, hungry and want their lives to go back to normal. Even his opponents have no desire to fight him, so there is no need to keep the people intimidated.

        Second, far from being an act of suicide, Assad has paid very little cost for their use.
        Wrong. 12 months ago, Trump sai regime change was off the table. Cue the false flag CW attack and the cross hairs are back on him.

        3 weeks ago Trump said the US would be withdrawing it’s troops from Syria. Not only would this have meant he no longer had the US military breathing down his neck, but it would have freed up what oil fields to the North East and hence returned revenue to Damascus. Now that too is off the table.So, as a rational actor, there is no reason for Assad to have carries out the attacks.

      • Assad has paid very little cost for their use.

        Silly argument. Assad knows that any CW attack (real or otherwise) would elicit a response from the US. To argue that the response ended up being little more than a glorified fireworks display doesn’t wash. No one but Mattis and Trump and Theo inner circle would have known what they had planned

        Assad had no way of knowing what the scale of the attack would be and in fact, everyone expected it to be massive. So unless you want to argue that Assad has a death wish or enjoys seeing his army decimated, your thesis falls apart

        • I’ll play. What cost did Assad regime pay for the sarin attacks on East Ghouta in August 2013? Or the scores of chlorine attacks? Or the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017?

  7. Seems that one of Staffan de Mistura’s brain cells has been resurrected and he has worked out that Idlib is heading towards disaster.
    .
    “Mistura told a donor meeting in Brussels that Idlib risked suffering the same fate as Aleppo, seized in a Russian-backed Syrian offensive in 2016, and Eastern Ghouta, retaken by the regime shortly after an alleged chemical attack in early April.”
    .
    Then he reveals that is only one singular brain cell that is functioning by making a request: –
    .
    “Mogherini and de Mistura both called on Russia, Iran and Turkey — the three powers involved in the so-called Astana process seeking peace in Syria — to do more to reach a ceasefire.”
    .
    He lacks the savvy to work out that Russia and Iran are the aggressors and the last thing they want is a peace plan. They are only interested in military victory!

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-5651659/UN-envoy-warns-Syrias-Idlib-big-new-challenge.html?ITO=1490&ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490

  8. Here in the good old USA, your patriotism is brought into question if you don’t believe that Russia had anything to do with our election. Screw that. This patriot knows that Russia had nothing to do with our election. It’s The Deep State’s propaganda.

    • When you’re relying on InfoWars Alex, Jimmy War, and right-wing polemicist Tucker….

      May want to think through your tactics.

  9. I don’t care for Alex Jones. It’s important to hear all sides, though. Tucker Carlson was open-minded about Syria until the Deep State had FOX spank him. I’ll bet he’ll never mention Syria again. Jimmy Dore is honest. Several on the ground videos are available from Douma. The Deep State has no defense for the on the ground reports. The Deep State controls the MSM when it comes to Syria and Russia. When the Syrian Proxy War started 7 years ago I watched every news outlet. Every one of them said………. “Assad is slaughtering his own people”. Each of them said the same exact thing. Obviously orchestrated.

    • Not a complicated phrase, and quite obviously what he’s been doing for the past 7 years.

      Is multiple pointing out “the sky is blue” also evidence of a conspiracy?

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