“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 the man at the heart of the conflict, President Bashar Al Assad, while others have transported them to the frontlines of the conflict.
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.
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,” he said.
“[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”.
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 13,000 inmates at the notorious Sednayah 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”.
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 (Dh3.5) each”, Haysam Kozma, 61, told me in Homs.
These version of events possessed minimal acknowledgement of any opposition that is not ISIS or Al Qaeda-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.
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 stage 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 “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”.
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 psychosocial 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.