An international campaign in the United States, the United Kingdom and France calls for lifting sanctions on the Syrian regime. This misleading advocacy which ignores the Assad regime’s major responsibility in the Syrian disaster provides a rare opportunity to explore the international pro-Assad ecosystem.
This story was first published in French in January 2021. Read the French version here
“We urge you, Mr. President, to help Syrians to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that threatens to trigger a new wave of instability in the Middle East and beyond by implementing the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation”, says open-letters published on social media addressed to US president Joe Biden and his French and British counterparts Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson on January 21th 2021.
This series of open letters with the apparent objective of raising awareness of the Syrian people’s struggle hides an influence campaign led by allies of the Syrian regime.
Since 2011, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has been targeted by American and European sanctions with the objective of maintaining pressure on Damascus and pushing it to advance towards a political solution to the 10-years conflict. Implementation of the Caesar Act by the U.S. administration last June tightened the noose even more on the Syrian government.
Open letters addressed to Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron were published on social-media by SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. A French NGO claiming to be “apolitical” but led by French far-right militants close to the Syrian regime. Under the guise of providing humanitarian aid to Christians communities in Syria, the NGO is supporting pro-Assad Christian militias accused of war crimes and is doing business with the Syria Trust for Development, an organisation created by the Syrian dictator’s wife, Asma al-Assad. Asma al-Assad is also the target of American and European sanctions since June 2020.
Benjamin Blanchard, the director-general of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, is a former militant of the anti gay marriage movement and former parliamentary assistant for several elected officials of the French far-right National Rally party. He is among the many signatories of this campaign against sanctions on Syria. Also among them is Charles de Meyer, president of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient and assistant to Thierry Mariani, a National Rally MEP, who also signed the letter. Mariani — who met with Bashar Al-Assad in person no less than six times after the breaking of diplomatic relation between France and Syria — is also one of the more vocal advocates for Vladimir Putin in France.
The list of signatories of the campaign constitutes a rare group snapshot of the major Assad defenders in Europe and the United States. Among the French signatories, for example, is Gérard Bapt. During his term as a socialist member of the French National assembly, he constantly defied the French diplomacy of former president François Hollande on Syria. He was also one of the more frequent visitors to Assad, with no fewer than six trips since 2015. In 2017, he paid his respects publicly to the Syrian general and war criminal Issam Zahreddine. “May he rests in peace”, he wrote on his Facebook page.
At the centre of this campaign is also French propagandist Pierre Le Corf, close to SOS Chrétiens d’Orient. The French citizen went to Aleppo in 2016, on the regime’s side. In December of the same year, the young YouTuber, who never misses an opportunity to attack “western propaganda”, was “celebrating” the seizure of the city by the Syrian army.
All roads leads to Damascus
Another fervent Assad supporter, Greek-Melkite archbishop of Aleppo Jean-Clément Jeanbar whose foundation received financial support from SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, is also among the signatories, as is Nabil Antaki, a member of the Blue Marists of Aleppo. Antaki’s advocacies of diplomatic normalisation with the Syrian regime have been published on far-right French websites such as Breizh Info. He offered shelter to Pierre Le Corf when he arrived in Aleppo in 2016.
Among other signatories is José Bustani, a former director of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). He is also associated with the Courage Foundation, an organisation close to WikiLeaks which received the testimony from a so-called “whistle-blower” known as Alex. Alex (later identified as former OPCW employee Brendan Whelan) gave Assange’s organisation documents supposedly proving that OPCW’s investigation into Douma chemical attack in 2018 was a total fabrication. Those “revelations” have been debunked several times.
Caroline Cox, a pro-Assad baroness in Britain’s House of Lords, is also among the signatories. She’s the founder of the Humanitarian Aid and Relief Trust, an organisation that also has ties with Pierre Le Corf. She was a member of the Christian Solidarity International, the NGO leading this campaign against sanctions on Syria and which is also known for it’s campaign to buy Christians slaves in Sudan and set them free. Those operations, intended to save the slaves, may have allowed the funding of Christians armed groups accused of war crimes.
One last notable personality of this campaign is Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria. He is a member of EuroCSE, an organisation which hosted the British pro-Assad propagandist Vanessa Beeley at a conference in 2017, though she did not put her name on any of the open letters advocating for the lifting of sanctions. Ford is the director of the British Syrian Society, a pro-Assad lobby created by none other than Fawaz Akhras, Bashar al-Assad’s father in law.
A UN Special Rapporteur on propaganda outlets
This campaign builds on the work of Alena Douhan, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures. In a public statement published on November 29th 2020, she says that the American sanctions on Syria “violate the human rights of the Syrian people, whose country has been destroyed by almost 10 years of ongoing conflict”, without ever mentioning Assad regime’s responsibility in the Syrian crisis.
The United Nations website states that “special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity”.
Alena Douhan is a professor of International Law and the Director of the Peace Research Center at the Belarusian State University, an establishment close to Alexandr Lukashenko’s regime. Several of the State University’s staffers have been put on the EU sanctions list for their role in the repression of the Belarusian opposition. The Belarusian president is an ally of Bashar Al-Assad, whom he praised for his fraudulent re-election in 2014. Syrian president returned the favour in 2020, after Lukashenko’s fraudulent re-election.
In November 2020, Alena Douhan was invited on the pro-Kremlin channel RT, and in October she appeared on Iranian official channel Press TV, talking about the negative impact of American sanctions on Syria, but also on Iran and Venezuela.
She also gave an interview to the pro-Kremlin conspiracy theory website The Grayzone, in January 2021. The website was created by Max Blumenthal, a journalist formerly opposed to Assad who made a dramatic U-turn after a trip to Moscow. The Grayzone was the main amplifier of the WikiLeaks campaign to discredit the OPCW’s investigation into Douma chemical attack. Several actors of this campaign are also connected to the open-letters advocating for the lifting on sanctions on Syria.
In a Facebook post published on January 26th 2021, Pierre Le Corf posted a photo of himself talking with Alena Douhan and wrote: “Yesterday I was discussing with Alena Douhan, United Nations special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures against Syria to try to move together in the same direction.”