BEIRUT: Official papers have revealed that the U.K. government under Tony Blair considered asking the queen of England to bestow an honorary knighthood on Syrian President Bashar Assad, The Sunday Times reported.
According to documents obtained by the U.K. daily under freedom information laws, discussions to honor Assad took place prior to his 2002 visit to Britain where he sought “as much pomp and ceremony as possible.”
On his trip, Assad met Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, had lunch with then Prime Minister Blair at Downing Street and other privileges.
The documents, according to the paper, show the lengths to which the British government went to accommodate Assad, including holding a joint press conference, manipulating media to portray Assad in a favorable light and efforts to boost his “photogenic” wife’s profile.
Assad was invited to visit Britain by Tony Blair in December 2002 after meeting him the previous year in Damascus.
According to the documents, on Nov. 14, 2002, a desk officer covering Syria and Lebanon at the Foreign and Commonwealth office wrote: “You should be aware that President Bashar of Syria will visit the U.K. as a guest of government ... This will include an audience with the queen. I have been advised that we need to consider whether the queen should bestow an honor on him.”
The desk officer went on to ask a colleague for other examples of honored heads of state.
The colleague responded on November 22, saying that the Mexican and Portuguese leaders were honored while the heads of state for the Dominican Republic and Venezuela were not.
A third official wrote an email on Nov. 25 stating: “In view of Syria’s human rights record and the fact that our relationship with them is not particularly cozy, we do not believe it would be particularly appropriate for an honor to be bestowed on Bashar.”
Another official wrote: “It is quite clear what the Syrians are looking for: as much pomp and ceremony as possible.”
Former British Ambassador to Damascus, Henry Hogger, told officials in London on Nov. 12: “I know that our main concern is to try and fix in advance the handling of difficult media issues [e.g. why are we cosying up to this nasty dictatorship that locks up its own MPs?].”
Hogger later wrote: “At No. 10, I don’t think the Syrians would mind Bashar having to brief the press alone [in the street?] but is there a chance the prime minister would appear at the door for a photocall/formal farewell?”
The documents also report a press officer from Downing Street writing to a Syrian official: “I have been exploring the ideas we discussed concerning a possible interview with Mrs. Assad ... I do not think The Guardian’s women’s pages would conduct the kind of interview you indicated you would want.”
The 2002 visit was reported to be “highly successful” in Damascus while Hogger reported: “Bashar and particularly Asma [Assad] generally a hit in PR terms.”
A spokesperson for Tony Blair defended the actions of the government under the former PM, stating: “Engagement with Syria and Assad in 2002 was absolutely right at the time to encourage change. Mr. Blair has said many times since that the situation has changed and Assad now has to go.”
Hogger, who has since retired from public diplomacy, said: “Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Were to have known then what we know some of the advice and decisions might have been different.”