Britain's view of President Assad has transformed over the years, but the West still hasn't learnt lessons about supporting dictators around the world.
Joe Lo writes on the West’s change in view of President Assad and how the West hasn’t learnt its lessons about supporting dictatorships around the world.
In recent weeks, British political discourse has, not for the first time, echoed an aspect of the dystopian future depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. In the novel, the world is divided into three competing power blocks: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. In one passage it is announced that Oceania, where the protagonist lives, having previously been at war with Eurasia and allied to East Asia is now at war with East Asia and allied with Eurasia. The citizens of Oceania are expected not just to accept this new situation but to forget that the situation is new at all.
Something similar is happening with regards to the West’s position to President Bashar Al-Assad after the recent alleged chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb. Assad is now portrayed by Western leaders like John Kerry as “Syria’s Hitler” and we are close to war. With this kind of rhetoric it is easy to forget, and the mainstream media and political elite has shown little desire to remind us, that it was not always this way.
In 2002, in fact, Assad was honoured with a State visit to Britain. He shook hands with the Queen and Prince Charles, had lunch with Tony Blair, spoke to Parliament and was even considered for an honorary knighthood by Blair’s government. At the time, Britain’s Ambassador to Syria wrote 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?).” Why indeed?
This is by no means the first time in recent years that such a U-turn has quietly taken place. The Arab Spring has turned several dictators from heroes to zeroes in the eyes of the West as their crimes become impossible to ignore. In the same year that Assad was feted, Blair called Mubarak “immensely courageous and a force for good”. Two years later, he shook hands with Colonel Gadaffi, announced a partnership in the “war on terror” and at the same time major companies like Shell and BAE Systems announced major lucrative projects in Libya.
So Tony Blair made some mistakes and was selective in which dictators he befriended and which he went to war with. Is this old news? A uniquely Blairite attitude? Have we learned from the Arab Spring that arming dictators will always lead to bloodshed? Not at all. We have renounced our support for Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi because they have either been overthrown or the bloodshed has been too protracted to ignore. Other Arab dictators managed to repress democratic uprisings so quickly that the Western public has forgotten that they happened, Western leaders can continue to support them and Western companies can continue to profit from them. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman.
Western support for dictators is multi-faceted and deep-rooted but the clearest example of it is in the sale of weapons. Last year, the year after the Arab Spring uprisings were repressed, Oman was Britain’s biggest customer for weapons and Saudi Arabia was fourth. Just next week, the world’s biggest arms fair is coming to London, bringing together arms sellers and arms buyers from around the world. According to its website it offers “an unrivalled arrange of over 1,500 suppliers from around the world”. One of these suppliers is Rosoboronexport, a Russian arms firm who, according to Human Rights Watch have been supplying around 78% of Syria’s arms imports in recent years. Another one is BAE Systems, a British arms firm who employ 5,000 people in Saudi Arabia. These firms will try and sell weapons to the governments in attendance. The list of these governments has not been released but at the last fair in 2011, 63 governments attended including 14 considered “authoritarian regimes” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The double standards, hypocrisy and selective condemnation in international relations are clearly morally sickening and there is an alternative. To avoid the Orwellian U-turns, Britain could pioneer a new foreign policy based on ethics, not on the interests of business owners or the egos of our political leaders. Through this, we could start to repair our global image and have a country to be proud of. We could start by cancelling the arms fair.