Syria and its allies prevented regime change, but the US and its allies are continuing to squeeze Syria’s population with crippling sanctions on all aspects of civilian life and a US military occupation in Syria’s northeast breadbasket. Peter Ford, the former UK Ambassador to Syria, analyzes the state of the Syria proxy war and the ongoing propaganda campaign to whitewash it.
Guest: Peter Ford, veteran British diplomat who served as the UK ambassador to Syria from 2003-2006.
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback. I’m Aaron Maté. Joining me is Peter Ford. He is the former British ambassador to Syria, now the co-chair of The British Syrian Society. Peter, welcome to Pushback.
PETER FORD: Thank you, Aaron. I feel privileged to be on your show.
AARON MATÉ: It’s a privilege to have you, and a lot I want to ask you about.
Let me start just with your overall sense of the state of Syria today. The bulk of the proxy war is over, but now there’s a new front—these economic sanctions that are preventing Syria from rebuilding. And you still have rebel control of a major province, Idlib, as well as a US occupation in northeastern Syria. What is your overall sense of where Syria stands right now, nearly 10 years after the proxy war began?
PETER FORD: Well, the situation has basically stood still for a year. There’s been an effective stalemate since the Syrian government forces recovered a slice of southern Idlib back in in March. At that point, the Turkish army intervened massively, and effectively brought hostilities to a halt. But the situation today is that the Syrian government forces control about 70% of the country. There’s that pocket of jihadi fighters controlling Idlib province and a couple of patches of neighboring provinces, and then you’ve got the big—what I call the wild east of Syria—the big triangle of land up all the way along the thousand miles along the Turkish border and then down the Iraqi border, and that is effectively a US protectorate. There are US forces there being helped on the ground by basically Kurdish militia, the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces.
And by their mere presence, they’re preventing the advance of the Syrian government forces. The result is that the Syrian people are denied the great oil and grain wealth of that triangle, the territory. And, so the war over the last year has been more an economic war than a military war.
AARON MATÉ: And the outgoing US representative to the anti-ISIS coalition, envoy James Jeffrey, he’s been giving a number of interviews recently, where he laid the US strategy currently in Syria pretty bare. I want to quote to you what he says.
He says, “Basically, first and foremost is denial of the Assad government getting military victory … And of course, we’ve ratcheted up the isolation and sanctions pressure on Assad, we’ve held the line on no reconstruction assistance, and the country is desperate for it. You see what’s happened to the Syrian pound, you see what’s happened to the entire economy. So, it’s been a very effective strategy.”
Your comments on that?
PETER FORD: Well, it’s absolutely morally abominable. It’s utterly shocking. Confession that the US strategy has been to punish the Syrian people, hoping to get at Assad in that way.
The policy has been effective in the sense that Syrian people are suffering every day. There are long queues for bread, long queues for gasoline. The policy of sanctions and denial of assistance for reconstruction has been effective, but what kind of policy is it that tries to immiserate a whole country? It’s delusional because it’s not even going to work.
The experience of 10 years of this conflict is that the Syrian government is amazingly resilient. They’ve been on the ropes many times in this conflict and pulled through largely because they have the support of great swaths of the Syrian populace. Assad is not going to buckle under this new increased economic pressure. It is utterly delusional to believe that this cynical, callous policy could work. So, it’s a failure even on its own terms, if the objective is to bring about regime change in Syria. It’s not going to work. In the meanwhile, it’s causing appalling suffering. The suffering in Syria today is on a par with what was witnessed in Iraq, in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
AARON MATÉ: And that situation in Iraq caused two UN coordinators who were overseeing that policy to resign, because they called the US-led sanctions policy on Iraq genocidal. But we’re not seeing that same kind of outcry today over the US sanctions on Syria, when, as James Jeffrey says openly, that the aim is to target reconstruction. Can you talk more about the material impact of that, on what that means on the ground level to try to rebuild Syria, for there are reports of long lines to get bread, basic staples like that, people not having fuel, doctors having to smuggle in medical parts into the country just for their medical machines.
PETER FORD: That’s right. The sanctions’ architects, the Western governments practicing sanctions—mainly the US and the UK—claim that there are medical exemptions, but this is a cynical claim. They know very well that in practice the sanctions work by deterring providers. That there are no … it’s not possible to point to text in the legislation covering the sanctions, banning trade in humanitarian goods. Nevertheless, the effect—because of the chilling effect on banks, in particular—banks will not go near any dollar transaction with Syria. And many, many providers of medical equipment are deterred. Even some of the humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International, which would normally support the Western governments, are complaining about this. It is a scandal. And the hypocrisy of the claims that there are medical exemptions is breathtaking, Aaron. Breathtaking.
AARON MATÉ: I want to read you more from James Jeffrey. He also, on his way out, acknowledged that in another interview that he misled the White House and the public on the levels of US troops inside Syria.
He said, “We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.”
What is the aim of the US troops in Syria right now? Trump was very open when he talked about stealing Syria’s oil. But what is the geopolitical aim here? Because it’s not just about the oil itself, but it’s about what that oil means to Syria. And, also, this is a region that produces a fair amount of wheat for Syria. Food, if I understand it correctly.
PETER FORD: That’s right. The troops are there basically as a tripwire, a deterrent, so that if the Syrian government forces advanced, they would trip over a few American soldiers and that would incur the massive intervention of the US Air Force. This is what it comes down to. They don’t even need big numbers of troops to create the tripwire.
Even so, it’s interesting that the architects of this policy in the permanent government of the US found it necessary to deceive the head of the executive, the President, keep him in the dark about the numbers. Trump seems to have gotten the impression that the troops were numbered in, like, a couple of hundred, when in fact the figure was more like two, three, four thousand. So, the deceit that has gone on—on every level—is jaw-dropping to me as a former ambassador and an insider in the British system. I find it absolutely incredible.
But Jeffrey is correct in his cynical assessment that the presence of these forces creates a major geostrategic plus for the US, in the sense that it stymies the Russians who are trying to normalize conditions in Syria. So, if you take as your starting point that the whole point of the war is to prevent Russia having a victory, then yes, the policy is somewhat effective. But if you, as most policymakers would claim, say that the aim is to end the conflict, then it’s achieving the opposite.
What Jeffrey was effectively saying was that the US Plan A, as he called it, is to prolong the conflict, to prevent a resolution on terms which might not favor the US’s preferred solution of getting rid of Assad. That’s Plan A; he was very candid about that. Plan B was to sort of install some stooge regime; he didn’t give many clues about who would actually replace Assad. And no wonder because Plan B is an empty box. There is nobody waiting; there’s no Mandela in the wings in Syria. There’s a bunch of Islamist fanatics that the US supposedly is fighting. That’s Plan B.
AARON MATÉ: What do you think was the aim of the proxy war? You served as UK ambassador to Syria from 2003 to 2006. There was talk back then of an opening between Assad and the West. It didn’t happen. Why do you think the US and its allies devoted so much money and so much energy to this proxy war? The New York Times calls it one of the costliest covert action programs in CIA history. According to The Washington Post, the CIA had a budget approaching $1 billion per year on the Syria proxy war. What do you think the aim was?
PETER FORD: Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not. US policy is not about installing in Syria a democratic government, because there is no prospect of that while the US is effectively supporting Islamist fanatics, and while it’s supporting elsewhere in the Middle East regimes like the feudal regime of Saudi Arabia. No, it’s not about democracy. It’s about helping Israel on the one hand and scoring points against Russia on the other. And when it comes down to it, that is what this whole war is really about, from the US standpoint.
Israel, obviously, because Syria has been a recalcitrant, insisting on the return of its lost territory to Israel—the Golan Heights—and giving staunch support to the Palestinians. So, Syria could never be forgiven for these sins. And for 50 years, Russia and Syria have been quite close. But I am sure that if Syria at some point had offered to switch horses, the US would be backing Assad today.
AARON MATÉ: I wanted to get your thoughts on the OPCW scandal. It’s something I’ve been covering extensively: inspectors from the OPCW who investigated an alleged chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma in April 2018. This was the rationale for US-led strikes on Syria that same month. These inspectors had their evidence suppressed, and they were sidelined from their investigation. And these allegations of chemical weapons attacks in Syria have been very key to the overall narrative that is used to sustain the proxy war and now justify sanctions on Syria, that we have to sanction this regime that uses chemical weapons against its own people. I’m wondering if you followed this controversy about Douma and the suppression of the OPCW’s own findings and their own investigators, and what your thoughts are?
PETER FORD: Yeah, chemical weapons in Syria, the issue has been played much with the issue played with Iraq. And the world has amnesia over Iraq, the non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the Colin Powell dossier proof presented to the UN. It’s like Groundhog Day when you hear the claims made about Assad, the use of chemical weapons.
In the first place, it would make no practical sense for Assad to use chemical weapons; it could only ever have been an own goal. If he wanted to invite heavy Western intervention, he would not have gone about it any other way. You’d have to be incredibly either twisted or delusional to believe that Assad could have been so stupid as to do the one thing—use chemical weapons—which would bring about, or possibly bring about, his obliteration.
And it simply beggars belief for what we’ve seen, I’m quite convinced, is an elaborate hoax. A series of hoaxes. It’s very revealing that not one of the alleged instances of use of chemical weapons was investigated on the ground by any UN or other international investigations, with the sole exception of Douma. And why Douma? Because that was a piece of territory that the government forces managed to recover immediately after the alleged incident, so that the US and its allies were unable to keep away the international investigators. That didn’t stop them bombing Syria; they went ahead without waiting for the international investigators to arrive on the site. And ever since we’ve seen an elaborate attempt to provide a post hoc justification and to provide the justification for the sanctions, the cruel policy that we were discussing earlier. That ultimately is the purpose of the chemical weapon hoaxes—to justify the occupation of northeast Syria and the continuing cruel economic pressure.
AARON MATÉ: And what do you make of the relative media silence on this issue? We’ve done a lot of reporting on this at The Grayzone. The late Robert Fisk covered this issue for The Independent a little bit; he actually got on the ground in Douma, shortly after the alleged attack, and found evidence of the scenes being staged in the hospital. But even though now, since then, these inspectors have had their evidence leaked. And so, it’s been made clear to the public there that the inspectors who went to Douma reached a far different conclusion than what was put out publicly, had key evidence and data being censored, and false, unsupported conclusions being inserted to falsely tell the public that essentially there was a chemical attack by Syria. But, yet, media, for the most part, especially in the West, has been pretty much silent on the story. What do you make of that?
PETER FORD: Well, besides being a former British diplomat, I’m also a former UN official. I worked for eight years with a UN refugee agency in the Middle East, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Because I’ve seen from the inside of the UN machinery how arms get twisted by the Western powers, and particularly by the US. You can’t have a very successful career in the UN if you make an enemy of the US by doing the honest thing, sometimes. And therefore, an organization like the WHO is always going to be extremely easy to manipulate for the US and its allies, including my own country. They stack it with their own people, very often.
But occasionally somebody gets through the net, an honest person with some integrity, and that is what happened on this occasion. And these gentlemen drafted a report stating that they found evidence that was consistent with staging of an incident, rather than an authentic incident. And ever since, they have been vilified, condemned, undermined. And the campaign against the truth goes on and on and on.
AARON MATÉ: Well, speaking of that, there was a recent BBC podcast series called “Mayday,” which interviewed you. It disgusted me as well. And it devoted one episode to basically denigrating these OPCW inspectors in trying to justify the claim that there was a chemical attack in Douma. But the rest of the series was devoted to repairing the image of the White Helmets and its late founder, James Le Mesurier, a former UK military officer. And the White Helmets actually played a role in these chemical attack incidents, because in both the case of Douma and the previous year in Khan Shaykhun, the White Helmets handed over data and evidence that was used in the final reports that aim to justify the narrative that there was a chemical attack. And in the case of Douma, there’s even evidence that the White Helmets were involved in staging the scene at the hospital in Douma, to make it falsely appear as if a chemical attack had happened. And there’s even a BBC producer named Riam Dalati, who claims to have found evidence that the hospital scene was definitely staged with White Helmets’ involvement, although he hasn’t released it. But I’m wondering your comments on the White Helmets, who they are and their role in these chemical attack allegations in the overall Syria proxy war narrative.
PETER FORD: The White Helmets’ role is absolutely crucial, pivotal to the Western effort to undermine Syria through these accusations of use of chemical weapons. I think, basically, what happened is that Western governments realized that after the Iraq débâcle, that if they were going to use claims about WMD, chemical weapons, whatever, again, they were going to have to produce some kind of smoking gun.
And this is the role of the White Helmets. They produced the phony pictures of phony incidents which constitute the smoking gun. And that is absolutely pivotal to the propaganda to justify the bombing and the relentless economic and military pressure on Syria. Without that so-called testimony, the video, the staged videos, the testimony, the eyewitness reports provided by the White Helmets, the story would be even less credible than it is already. But it’s a small investment for the US government and other Western governments compared with its stakes. They’ve been funding the White Helmets to the tune of about $50 million a year. That’s peanuts compared to what they see as the advantages of bringing Syria to its knees.
AARON MATÉ: And I should have specified that the White Helmets are known around the world as a rescue group. And there’s documentaries made about them. One of them even won an Oscar. And there’s footage of them rescuing civilians from buildings that have been bombed by Syria or Russia, which created a very powerful narrative of them as these noble rescue workers. What has come out, though, from reporting inside Syria, and also from the story of the White Helmets’ founder James Le Mesurier’s death is a more sinister side: there’s videos of them working alongside jihadists, including for executions in the towns that the jihadists controlled. In the case of Le Mesurier, he was implicated in financial fraud. He admitted to it in an email shortly before he died. And there’s even questions about how he died. It’s believed to be suicide, but he also may have just fallen off of his building. It’s unclear, but what do you make of who Le Mesurier actually was and what the White Helmets were actually doing on the ground in Syria?
PETER FORD: Yeah. An interesting character. I can’t wait for the film version, actually. The BBC had just tweeted through this 15-part radio series. And I’m sure it’s building up to a fantastic film, and we can have fun doing the casting. I claim to play myself, please, if you’re listening, the filmmakers. And by the way, I happen to know that there’s already a Hollywood mogul interested, and he’s the guy behind the financier of the BBC Radio series. Maybe Tom Cruise will be free to play Le Mesurier.
But this whole “who done it,” about who kicked … or how did Le Mesurier meet his end is a rather amusing distraction, I think, from the real story. He’s obviously an embarrassment to his handlers in the British security services. Topping yourself is not a good career option. And swindling large amounts of dollars wasn’t really a very wise course. So, I think, I’m sure this is why the BBC series was commissioned by Le Mesurier’s handlers, because they had to whitewash not only the White Helmets but also James Le Mesurier.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, and they also attacked me, and they attacked my colleague Max Blumenthal. You had a testy interview with them as well. And it was interesting that in a series about the White Helmets, they also choose to devote a whole episode to the Douma incident. And I actually learned from this that the White Helmets, it actually confirmed a few things.
One is that the White Helmets handed over witness testimony and evidence for the Douma incident. And, also, that the founder of the White Helmets claimed that he gave the coordinates of the bodies of the victims who were found in Douma. He claimed that he gave that to the OPCW, and that those coordinates were given to the Syrian government, although I’ve never seen any official confirmation anywhere that actually the location of the grave of the bodies was ever actually handed over.
So, to me this podcast gave some interesting new details and only raised more questions. And one of their sources was an anonymous guy who claims to work for the OPCW and who attacked the inspectors—the whistleblowers. And he also attacked the OPCW’s first director general, José Bustani, who has spoken out in their defense. And it made me think that whoever was behind the White Helmets had also probably connected this purported OPCW official to the BBC as well. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that.
PETER FORD: Yeah, I find it in a way encouraging that the Western governments have gone to these lengths with the propaganda tool, the state broadcaster of the UK, the BBC. It’s rather complimentary that our efforts should be considered so damaging to the strategy of building up the White Helmets. And as I mentioned earlier, they are pivotal to the whole effort. If the White Helmets are discredited, the whole strategy begins to collapse. So, it’s complimentary to be attacked by these people.
AARON MATÉ: With Donald Trump on his way out and Joe Biden coming in, do you see any prospects of a shift in policy on Syria? Biden’s Secretary of State, of course, is Tony Blinken, or it will be Tony Blinken, who was a very strong proponent of actually increased US intervention in Syria in the proxy war, even more than was ultimately done. What is your assessment of what the US strategy will be under Biden, and do you think there will be any shift from the Trump strategy?
PETER FORD: I’m certainly not optimistic. I think things are likely to get worse, rather than better.
What we’ll probably see is simply a continuation of the status quo. The current policies will simply be extended. That is, the policies as described by Ambassador Jeffrey: the attempt to prolong the conflict, to prevent Assad gaining military victory, the continuation of economic warfare to try to bring Assad to his knees and force him to sign a suicide note, which would be acceptance of elections on US terms. I’m sure these policies will be continued.
But there’s a question mark over whether policy might not become even more adventurous and interventionist with a beachhead of a few thousand soldiers already occupying part of Syria. I greatly fear that Biden might be tempted to increase those numbers, put some military pressure on the Syrian government forces, create more no-fly zones. Already, there’s effectively a no-fly zone over that big triangle of territory that’s occupied by the US forces and Kurdish allies. An attempt might be made to create the no-fly zone of Idlib, which would be ironic. It would mean that the US would … well, the US Air Force was the air wing of al-Qaeda.
But we’ve already seen stuff like that in the course of the Syrian conflict. So, I’m definitely not optimistic. And I fear things could get even worse. Trump, for all his faults, did try seriously on more than one occasion to scale down—end, even—the US military presence in Syria, but he was thwarted by the permanent government. Yeah, it’s not a good outlook.
AARON MATÉ: Peter Ford, the former British ambassador to Syria, and now the co-chair of The British Syrian Society, thank you very much.
PETER FORD: Thank you very much, Aaron. Some interesting questions you posed there.
AARON MATÉ: That’s what I try to do. I really appreciate your time. So, thank you.
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