The Last Spasm of British Imperialism in the Middle East

During my recent trip to London, I had the immense privilege to interview Peter Ford, former UK Ambassador to Syria 2003 – 2006. Ford has been a vociferous critic of the UK Government’s foreign policy in Syria which has been focused on regime change and has led to seven years of a proxy war coupled with economic sanctions that have decimated a prosperous and progressive sovereign nation.

In May of this year, Ford stepped down from his position as adviser to the Royal Charity Organisation of Bahrain, in protest at Bahrain’s apparent endorsement of Israel’s murderous, ethnic cleansing tactics in Palestine.  

At that point, Ford told 21st Century Wire:

This is the latest step in the downward path Bahrain has been taking recently, distancing itself from its previous staunch support for Palestinian and Arab rights. The exchange of fire was started by Israel and not Iran, in a transparent design to provoke an Iranian reaction following President Trump’s decision to end the Iran nuclear deal.

I find the Bahraini position even harder to understand coming at the same time as the transfer of the US Embassy to the holy city of Jerusalem, which will clearly give Israel encouragement to be belligerent and must be condemned.

Interview with Peter Ford, July 2018

Vanessa Beeley:  Do you have faith in the U.S or Trump’s most recent announcements that they intend to withdraw from Syria?

Peter Ford:  I don’t think the US know themselves. For one, they have divided counsels. The President has said he wants out and I have no reason to disbelieve him, he wants out quickly, but the question remains – can he prevail against other establishment figures who want to hang on? Why they want to “hang on” is unclear but they seem to see it as a zero- sum game, they want to bargain their presence against some concessions possibly in the form of the Iranian presence. Or is it just that typical American behaviour of never leaving a country until you are bombed out? I think they really don’t have a worked-out strategy themselves.

VB:  Is that because they expected the whole “regime change” project to succeed and its failure has taken them by surprise?

PF:  I think their overall strategy (as far as they have one) is to be spoilers, they cannot prevent an Assad victory, but they can be spoilers. They can delay it, they can prevent the country being properly pacified and united. They can hope to, in their mind, recreate conditions for another uprising. Let’s not forget that in the North (of Syria) there ARE more than 100,000 jihadis in Idlib and along the Turkish border. I think that the Americans have the thought in the back of their minds that the “war” is far from over. Assad may prevail over 70% of Syria in the short term but as long as there is a chance that he may stumble, the US will hang on to what they hold and control. There is also the clear strategy of keeping Syria weak with economic sanctions and withholding international reconstruction assistance. If there is a clear strategy, then it is definitely this type of “spoiler” strategy. 

America wants to stop Assad and Russia enjoying the fruits of victory against terrorism and keep the US –backed “resistance” alive for better days as they would perhaps express it. 

Douma Medical Point which received all victims of smoke inhalation on night of alleged chemical weapon attack on 7th April 2018. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

VB:  This has been their ongoing strategy since 1957 with minor or greater intensity interventions. 

PF:  Yes exactly. That has been the Washington strategy for over 40 years, basically. Washington’s 40-year war against Syria. 

VB:  You were in Damascus as UK Ambassador from 2003-06. What was your opinion of the Assad government at that point? 

PF:  I was one of the optimists and I don’t think I was wrong. Things got blown off course by a number of events, primarily the war in Iraq, then the problems in Lebanon which, I believe, were another by-product of Washington’s war on Syria. Assad feared that he was being plotted against at the time, it was America’s plan to use Lebanon as a spring board against Syria and Hariri was probably part of that plan. The reform agenda got blown off course by events in Iraq and Lebanon. The withdrawal from Lebanon had an effect, but possibly for the better. I, myself, urged Syria to withdraw because of the problems with corruption, a corrupting influence, so withdrawal would have helped with reform had other things not intervened like the Iraq war and everything that flowed from that. 

VB:  So, had the so-called uprising not happened in 2011 in Syria, where do you think we would be now in the reform programme? 

PF:  Counter factual history (smiles). Things were on a positive trajectory, incremental reform, more economic than political but I think they would have emerged in the direction in which Turkey has gone and in fact, at the time, Turkey was being held up, including by myself, as a model to follow. A secular government in a strongly Sunni country, strong army, strong government. There was a moment when Syria did draw closer to Turkey and it appeared Syria would take the same path as Turkey but without Erdogan’s obsessions and excesses. Turkey is still a member of NATO, considered “decent” enough to be a member of NATO. 

VB:  The slogan that hovers over this conflict is, as always, the bringing of “democracy”. You have worked in the Middle East. You understand the culture. To what degree should we be imposing our version of “democracy”, which is corroded beyond recognition in our own society, to target nations like Syria? 

PF:  Politics in the Middle East tends inevitably towards the sectarian. That is a fact of life there. Whichever system is advocated, that element must be taken into account. There are different methods of dealing with that. There is the Lebanese model, which by and large works rather well for them with periodic upsets especially when there is pressure from outside. But the Lebanese model is not to be sneezed at. There is parcelling out of power among the religious groups and checks and balances so that neither the Sunnis, nor the Shia, nor the Christians have disproportionate power. There is always a check on them and therefore that encourages consensus seeking. No one party or religious group can rule alone. That is not a model that commends itself very much to Syria, however. Syrians I have spoken to have never seen Lebanon as role model. Both countries have a degree of competitiveness between their respective countries and political systems. 

Tunnels running under the Douma Medical Point. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

VB:  Syrians don’t see themselves as sectarian, that should also be put into the equation.

PF:  Yes, exactly, so for that reason also I don’t think the Lebanese model is practical as it’s a different starting point in Syria. In Lebanon the starting point was a Maronite president which has worked well for them. It has given reassurance for the Christians in Lebanon but in Syria the starting point, if you apply that system, would have to be an Alawite president and in perpetuity – that is the Lebanese system, perpetuity. I don’t think that would gain consensus in Syria, it is clearly a different starting point. The alternative is to turn back the clock to 2005/6 and press on with incremental progress in the reform programme in the direction of the Turkish model – as it was in 2006, of course, that must be emphasised. 

I have to say, I don’t think there will be any political opening up in Syria for several years now. The priority will inevitably be consolidation, stability, security and understandably so. Focus on national security will increase, not decrease because there is more to secure. Some call Syria a police state but it is not surprising when there is so much to “police”. 

VB:  So effectively, as always, the West must be blamed for blowing the Syrian reform programme off course – and into a deepening suspicion of Western influences while opening the diplomatic and military door to Russia and Iran who are the sworn enemies of Western imperialism? 

PF:  Absolutely! We (the West) have managed to set things back at least 20 years! Just as in Iraq, the outcomes have been the opposite of those desired at the outset of Western campaigns. In Iraq we have effectively allowed an increase of Iranian influence. We have exported turbulence and terrorism from Iraq and also mass migration which has helped to destabilise Europe politically and bring about the rise of the far-right groups and led to Brexit in the UK. Not a happy set of net results. 

VB:  What is the UK role now in Syria? You have mentioned the non-strategy of the US but what is the UK objective in this war? Why is the Syrian regime change so important for the UK? 

PF:  Do you want the short answer or the long answer? The short answer is, because they are idiots in the Foreign Office. The long answer is – Britain’s policy over the last several years towards Syria has been a last spasm of British Imperialism in the Middle East. Britain’s instinct has been to interfere, weaponise human rights under the banner of bringing ‘democracy’ to “brown-skinned” peoples. We have been able to indulge this imperialist hobby of ours, as we think, cost free, but it has clearly not been cost free with the inevitable migration panic but in terms of losses of military lives, it has been relatively cost free – it has only cost a few hundred million pounds. 

The government gets away with it in terms of public opinion with a supine Parliament and a supine, quiescent media. It has been a low cost policy, they have been allowed to indulge this imperial whim. They think it makes them look good for promoting “human rights”. It is a Tory government driving a liberal interventionist agenda. That is essentially why they are involved and especially in the last two or three years they have been even worse than the Americans. They, I think Britain, takes the lead on Syria. I was shocked to discover, on a recent visit to Geneva, I was speaking to some people in UN circles there, they do realise it’s more the British than the Americans who lead the dance against Syria. Let’s not forget that when Boris Johnson flew to Washington, not long after Trump’s election, number one on his (Johnson) agenda was to stiffen Trump’s resolve on Syria, Trump having announced before his election, that he planned to scale back on Syria. 

Britain has played a post-Empire role of using America as a sort of proxy. That is a new angle! America as a UK proxy – but it would appear to be so. 

VB:  But what do the UK stand to GAIN? 

PF:  Satisfaction. Emotional satisfaction. Thinking themselves virtuous. They think they are defending the Syrian people against the “brutal butcher” so there is self-esteem and electoral gain, of course, they see Syria as a popular policy or at least, in electoral terms, it is not a liability. It tends to put Labour on the back foot and Labour are so feeble that they allow themselves to be put on the back foot when they should be attacking. Partly because elements of Labour are liberal interventionists still and still share this post-imperial mindset that Britain is still carrying the “white man’s burden”. Extraordinary. Most of the parliamentary Labour Party IS of this mindset - think David Miliband, the archetype of this way of thinking – who typically went to America to head a so-called charity which is active in Syria and to earn a lot of money. It is also down a bit to personalities. 

Boris Johnson must take a lot of responsibility, of course he wasn’t there in 2011. This imperialist mindset is most evident in Boris Johnson who seems to see himself as a latter-day Churchill, stiffening resolve, not of Roosevelt in this case, but of Trump against the “wicked foreign dictators”. Hitler and Mussolini are now Putin and Assad. Johnson wrote a book about Churchill, you know. I think he consciously or unconsciously apes Churchill in his body language and thinking (laughs)

VB:  That is a scary concept! What chances does Johnson have of manufacturing a bid for leadership of the Tory party?

PF:  I am not sure he has even got the strategy or the tactics. I don’t think he planned to resign, he was forced into it by Davis jumping ship and, more or less, shaming Johnson. Johnson wanted to remain the head of the Brexit tribe and he was going to lose that if he hung on after Davis had jumped ship. Now he will certainly be working out a strategy to get into Number 10. Bring it on I say because Johnson will be easier to defeat than May in a general election, when it comes. He will be a more polarizing figure. 

Douma after liberation, markets open again 700m from area of alleged chemical attack. Photo: Vanessa Beeley

VB:  Douma. The OPCW interim report. Why was there an interim report, which is unusual? 

PF:  I pointed out that the BBC had erroneously reported or misrepresented the OPCW report that had been very careful not to say there had even been an attack, let alone who did it. The headline should have been that sarin had been ruled out completely. Overall it was a very positive report which certainly gave little or no comfort to the other side. 

We cannot ignore the immense forces brought to bear upon the OPCW for them to arrive at the required verdict, but they can stall and its not untypical for their reports to be delayed 18 months. I guess, to get some of the pressure off their backs, they put out this neutral interim report. Just by being neutral, the alleged attack is not proven. All that is proven is that one of your claims is false, the main indictment is false.

VB:  I was reading an internal parliamentary propaganda document the other day, co-written by a former BBC employee – Chemical Weapons and Syria, in brief – which basically set the precedent for determining guilt without evidence and acting on the basis that guilt is likely but not proven. This is a terrifying development and must surely determine similar unlawful aggression tactics in future interventions, if the government is not held accountable? 

PF:  A short paper was produced by the government’s legal advisers which was a shoddy piece of work that was torn apart by law professors, but which tried to cite this novel doctrine of Responsibility to Protect which means Licence to Kill. Very dangerous doctrine. A Liberal interventionist’s wet dream. 

VB:  Finally – Trump – who is he really? 

PF:  I said something nice about Trump yesterday actually. If he means what he says, he wants good relations with Russia, he wants out of Syria - let Donald be Donald, I say. I likened him to Gulliver, a giant pinned down by political pygmies who only escapes in the middle of the night at 3am when he can tweet, and nobody can stop him, or when he is freed from his bondage and allowed to attend one-to-one meetings with foreign leaders. Those are the only times that Donald can be Donald.