Arab lobbyist wooed pro-Assad Syrians

Aleppo Syrians demonstrating against President Assad’s regime after Friday prayers in the city last week (Photo: AP)

Aleppo Syrians demonstrating against President Assad’s regime after Friday prayers in the city last week (Photo: AP)

The director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) worked to bring a delegation of pro-Assad Syrian politicians to Britain just months before the outbreak of violence in Syria.

Emails sent by Chris Doyle, seen by the JC, reveal his involvement in plans to organise meetings between the Syrian MPs and their British counterparts in August 2010.

One email released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that, in August 2010, Mr Doyle wrote to Simon Collis, then British ambassador to Syria. Sections of the messages have been redacted and do not reveal the identities of all those involved in the discussions.

Mr Doyle thanked Mr Collis for meeting him in Damascus and added: “I am also writing to [redacted] about the need/desire for an inward Syrian delegation to the UK. Hopefully he will be interested in taking this forward.

“You kindly promised to send me the names of his counterparts in the Syrian parliament. I shall keep you briefed as plans develop about any future Syria-bound delegations.”

Eight days after receiving Mr Doyle’s email, Mr Collis wrote to a contact explaining the plan to bring the Assad supporters to Britain: “I explained to Chris Doyle that, after several British delegations to Syria over the last few years, I’ve had suggestions in recent months from the president of the Syrian National Assembly (and other of their MPs plus Syrian ambassador Sami Khiyami) that it is the turn of the Syrians to visit Westminster.”

Mr Doyle this week said the plan had been Mr Collis’s idea and had been aimed at both boosting trade and developing links with politicians outside the Assad regime. Caabu had “no intention” of organising “any visits to or from Syria of MPs”, he added.

Mr Doyle said: “Simon Collis said at that moment it was part of his mission to promote trade. I said it was not our forte and we were not a trade body. I said I would mention it and link up the Syrians with people here who could help them. There was no real follow-up. I said I could have a word with the Syria All Party Parliamentary Group. It did not go anywhere.”

Caabu had at that time been working to “encourage ways in which reform in Syria could be taken forward”, Mr Doyle said, but did not have “anything to be embarrassed about as we were not promoting the regime nor linking with Assad sympathisers”.

The emails also reveal that Caabu received £21,500 of Foreign Office funding to run a training course in “conflict resolution, leadership and negotiation skills for Syrians”.

Arranged in November last year, the funding was due to be used to assist “Syrian activists” from opposition groups during a “60-hour” course.

Serious clashes between government forces loyal to President Assad and rebels had already taken place in and around the capital at the time the plans were being developed.

Mr Doyle said this week: “Yes, we did training for Syrian activists in London, Syria and Lebanon. It was small-scale leadership training in terms of getting parties to listen to each other. We brought in a professional trainer in London. We wanted to encourage Syrian civil society actors.

“Look, in 2010 we did not know an uprising was going to happen. The best bets most people had were for the situation in Syria to change. Any efforts by me were to encourage that process.

“What I have come to realise with the regime is that you try to build links. You take characters who are not in the security services and you need them to defect. I was in favour of political dialogue at that time, but that has gone now.”

Last updated: 11:45am, December 6 2012