British policy on Syria has been “wrong every step of the way” and made the situation worse, a former UK ambassador to the country has claimed.
Peter Ford, who was the ambassador in Damascus from 2003 to 2006 and has been a persistent critic of UK policy in Syria, said Bashar al-Assad’s government should be given “a little credit” for the “relatively peaceful” end to the siege in Aleppo.
He said there was now a Christmas tree in the city’s central square, which there would not have been “if the other side had won”.
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Ford, who has been accused of being an apologist for the Syrian regime, said the UK government faced a choice between two evils and Assad, rather than a jihadi opposition, was the lesser of the two.
He has always claimed the moderate opposition is very small, and the dominant extreme elements are unreconstructed jihadis bent on destroying the west.
The UK Foreign Office view is that only 200 or 300 of the fighters in Aleppo were loyal to al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria. It claims pluralists dominate in the High Negotiations Committee, the umbrella body that has led negotiations with the UN in Geneva.
Ford also opposed UK bombing of Islamic State in Syria, and at one stage, giving evidence to the defence select committee, argued that Assad would win because “repression works”.
The former diplomat said the UK’s policy on Syria had been mistaken from the start. He said the then prime minister, David Cameron, should either have been prepared to commit British forces on the battlefield or refrained from “encouraging the opposition to mount a doomed campaign which has only led to hundreds of thousands of civilians being killed”.
“We have made the situation worse,” he said. “It was eminently foreseeable to anyone who was not intoxicated with wishful thinking. The British Foreign Office, to which I used to belong, I’m sorry to say has got Syria wrong every step of the way.
“They told us at the beginning that Assad’s demise was imminent. They told us he would be gone by Christmas – they didn’t tell us which Christmas, so they could still be proven correct – but then they told us that the opposition was dominated by these so-called moderates. That proved not to be the case.
“Now they are telling us another big lie, that Assad can’t control the rest of the country. Well, I’ve got news for them. He is well on the way to doing so.”
Ford – who has served the Foreign Office throughout the Middle East – said Assad’s forces would need first to consolidate their hold on Aleppo and defend against possible counterattacks. He said they were likely to attack East Ghouta in rural Damascus first before turning to Idlib, the rebels’ last remaining urban stronghold.
“However, this is a time to welcome the fact that there is now a Christmas tree in the central square of Aleppo – there wouldn’t be any Christmas tree if the other side had won,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Ford – a critic of most western military interventions in the Middle East – said aerial attacks similar to those conducted by the Russian and Syrian air force were under way in Mosul in Iraq and in Yemen without the west raising concerns.
“I think we are very selective in our indignation about the Aleppo campaign. Similar bombing is going on in Mosul and in Yemen and we give the people there a pass. We don’t talk about atrocities, we don’t talk about war crimes, although they are indisputably being committed in both those theatres. We don’t talk about genocide, holocaust.
“We will be lucky if those campaigns end with the green buses. There were no green buses in Gaza. There were no green buses after the Nato bombing in Yugoslavia. I think we need to give the [Syrian] government a little bit of credit for what has been a relatively peaceful end to this terrible period.”
Pressed on the regime’s attacks on hospitals, Ford said: “It was also a war crime to use hospitals as command centres, which is what the jihadis did. It was also a war crime to use schools to store ammunition, which is what the jihadis did.”
Ford in the past has suggested opposition forces were responsible for the deadly attack on a UN humanitarian convoy in October, but a UN panel of inquiry has said the attack was conducted from the air, and only Syrian and Russian air forces were operating in the area. The UN panel said it could not judge if the attack, which led to the deaths of 10 humanitarians, was a mistake or deliberate.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The UK continues to believe in a Syrian-led political settlement. A political solution and transition away from Assad is the only way to end the suffering of the Syrian people. The Assad regime has the blood of hundreds of thousands on its hands. There is no way it can unite and bring stability to Syria.
“The UK has pledged more than £۲٫۳bn to support those affected by the Syrian conflict and sought to reduce the suffering with every diplomatic lever at our command.”