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'Assad not mad' enough to use chemical weapons, says former UK ambassador

Many of Peter Ford’s encounters with Assad concerned Lebanon in aftermath of assassination of Rafik Hariri
Assad's government has denied it was behind Tuesday's chemical attack (Reuters)

Bashar al-Assad would have known that any use of chemical weapons would backfire, a former British ambassador to Syria told MEE.

Peter Ford (MEE/Jonathan Steele)
Peter Ford, who served in Damascus from 2003 to 2006, said it was out of character for the Syrian president to provoke his US counterpart, in this case Donald Trump, just as Washington was taking a softer line compared to Barack Obama's policies on Syria.

On Friday, US missiles hit a Syrian airfield in retaliation for an attack in Khan Sheikhun with a Sarin-like nerve agent that left up to 100 people dead. Washington blames the chemical incident on Assad, a charge the Syrian government has denied.

Ford said: "Assad is not mad and would have known that when Donald Trump produced an olive branch in his direction, any use of chemical weapons would have been counter-productive."

In the weeks before the deadly attack, US officials said that to remove Assad from power was no longer a top priority.

"He is someone who doesn't leap without looking. He is trained as an ophthalmologist," said Ford, who said he regularly met Assad during his service in Damascus. "He has an analytical mind and knows that actions have consequences."

Ford has disputed widespread reports that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack. Instead, he is inclined to believe that Syrian aircraft inadvertently bombed a rebel-controlled chemical warfare factory or stockpile.

He said there should be "no rush to judgment, no rush to war" because of the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun; instead, there needs to be a proper investigation into the facts of what happened before decisions were taken.

Assad and Lebanon

Ford has been a vocal critic of UK policy on Syria for several years. He has long believed it was a mistake for London to cut diplomatic links with Damascus and call for regime change.

Many of Ford's encounters with Assad concerned Lebanon in the aftermath of the crisis caused by the assassination in Beirut of the Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, in 2005.

Syrian government officials were accused of involvement, but the facts were never proved. The crisis prompted Assad to bring back the large contingent of Syrian peace-keeping troops who had been based in Lebanon for almost 30 years.

Medics attend victims of the attack in Khan Sheikhun, which involved a Sarin-like nerve agent (Reuters)
"He withdrew Syrian forces wisely and under pressure after the scandal of the assassination," Ford told MEE. "He never admitted a Syrian role, but he’s someone who withdraws when he sees it’s prudent to do so.

"Assad was relatively new in power when I had contact with him. He was learning the ropes and would get a lot of views from different people.

"He was criticised for being indecisive and vacillating. People would think they had persuaded him to take a particular course of action and then he would do something different."

Assad's cautious style remains to this day, Ford added.

Critical of UK policy

On Wednesday, Ford spoke at Syria: From Destruction to Reconstruction, a conference in London organised by the European Centre for the Study of Extremism. It brought together critics of the Assad government as well as Christian and Islamic leaders who see the defeat of Islamic State and other militants as the highest priority.

Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, gave the keynote speech. He was due to be followed by Ahmed Baddredin Hassoun, the grand mufti of Syria, but the British government refused him a visa. The Syrian ministers of tourism and national reconciliation were also denied visas.

Ford told the audience: "Among those who are in the front rank of destroying Syria is my own government.

"It's very coy about the nature and extent of its support for armed groups. It declines to say how much it's giving or what groups are receiving it, on the grounds that this will help Assad. The government takes us for fools because parliament has no opposition and the media for the most part is gullible."

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He also said that sanctions supported by the British government had had an immense impact in Syria, left many Syrians as refugees and should end.

He described British policy as "incoherent and grotesque" in continuing to demonise the Assad regime and stir up more sectarianism and hatred.

The way forward for the UK government in Syria today, Ford said, was "to stop making it worse, to stop supporting the armed groups, and to stop encouraging the illusion that they can win and that Assad can be forced to go. This is unkind to the Syrian opposition themselves. Any fool can see that this is not going to happen, especially after Aleppo."

Opposed Iraq in 2003

Ford told MEE that he regretted not having opposed the Iraq war more forcefully in 2003. He was UK ambassador in Bahrain at the time and sent two critical memos to London but now wished they had been stronger.

He began to dissent seriously from UK policy when he was still ambassador in Damascus. "We showed no understanding for Syria's behaviour vis-a-vis Iraq," he said.

"I was under regular instructions to remonstrate with the Syrians over the flow of jihadis into Iraq, which I honestly did, but I could understand the Syrian viewpoint.

"They were worried that after the fall of Saddam they were going to be next. The Americans were virtually advertising the fact that Assad was on their hit list and he would be next, so it made sense for the Syrians to put spokes in the wheel and keep the Americans bogged down.

"The British government showed no understanding of this and just slavishly followed the American line."

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