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Is Bishop Nazir Ali the new ‘Comical Ali’

September 17, 2016 at 10:44 am

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali caused a stir earlier this week when he was interviewed by journalist Matt Frei on Channel 4 News about his controversial meeting with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The former Bishop of Rochester was part of a delegation to Syria that included peers from Britain’s House of Lords and members of the Christian community.

Prior to the interview, the delegation at the start of September was the subject of much criticism. It was accused of giving Assad a “photo opportunity and a tool for propaganda.” In response, Nazir-Ali was robust in his defence of the trip. “Western reports of the conflict are one-sided,” he claimed, “and the voices of Syrians, including Christians, are going unheard.”

In an article for the Daily Telegraph he was keen to emphasise Britain’s conflicting and at times hypocritical relations with dictatorships. “Britain maintains relations with and encourages visits to countries like the Sudan, Iran and Zimbabwe,” he protested. “Why is Assad being demonised to this extent?” He even repeated the common mantra at the root of the West’s long tradition of supporting dictators in the region by stressing that, “In the Middle East the choice is not between angels and monsters but between one kind of monster and another.”

Though his comments were met with raised eyebrows, his TV interview was greeted with disbelief. It’s never a good idea to defend the indefensible in a TV interview which is less conducive to nuanced reasoning and more amenable to short sound bites.

With his claim that “the real mass murders are ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra” and not the Assad regime, as well as his persistent evasion of questions about Assad’s brutality, the bishop not only appeared to be letting “Assad of the hook” as Frie pointed out, but also to be someone in denial; an apologist in the same vein as Iraq’s “Comical Ali”, the infamous Iraqi diplomat notorious for making outlandish comments about the Iraq invasion.

Nazir-Ali complains that “one of the problems with allegations of government abuse is that they often come from unverifiable sources, within rebel held territory or from exiles outside the country.” That’s fair enough, but as bystanders whose perception of the war is almost entirely shaped by others, the source of our information becomes even more crucial. Nobody in their right mind will take the words of a man accused of the mass murder of his own people over the accounts of people who are the victims of his brutality and independent agencies tasked with monitoring human rights abuses.

According to Bishop Nazir-Ali, the meeting with Assad was “courteous but frank” and his delegation questioned him repeatedly about barrel bombs and their indiscriminate use, torture, attacks on hospitals and other matters. We assume that he was also questioned about the daily slaughter of his opponents, vicious sieges and the use of chemical weapons by his regime.

By all accounts, it seems that the bishop has placed Bashar Al-Assad’s honesty on a level undeserving of a person accused of war crimes. Are we really to believe that he would have admitted to the delegation that his troops have committed such awful crimes? I was part of a delegation to Syria with British parliamentarians in 2009, before the war, and can confirm that Assad can be extremely courteous. I’m sure that Saddam Hussain was no less courteous to the dozens of western delegations which visited him in Baghdad, but how much credence would we have given to his denial of war crimes and the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in northern Iraq?

Delegations by their nature are limited in their ability to provide an accurate picture of any situation; this is especially so in war zones. Bishop Nazir-Ali acknowledges the wonderful work carried out by the Association of Doctors, which has 3,000 personnel working in Aleppo, including 250 paediatricians, six active public hospitals and many more which are private. As he acknowledges, though, these are in government-held territory.

The question that the bishop failed to ask concerns what Assad has done in territory not controlled by his forces. Who is responsible for the death and destruction that we see daily on the news and which is reported by refugees fleeing from Syria? Comparing reasonably well-functioning territory held by the government to the desolation of rebel-held territory is not the best way to judge Assad’s brutality against the people of Syria.

No one disagrees that the Syrian conflict is extremely complicated and a resolution will be hard to achieve. However, Syria’s future will not be made any more promising by not acknowledging the crimes committed by the Assad regime and the true extent of the devastation caused by forces loyal to the president. The conflict is probably the most documented in history, with mainstream media complemented by dozens of videos on social media and numerous reports by prominent human rights groups.

It’s unfortunate that Nazir-Ali seems reluctant to acknowledge that neither Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra nor ISIS are responsible for starting the conflict in Syria. That dubious honour belongs to the government of Bashar Al-Assad who met the demands of his people for greater freedom and an end to dictatorship with the brutal violence of his security forces.

If Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is honest about the Syrian revolution he would have to acknowledge that it was Assad who promoted extremism by sponsoring Al-Qaeda forces fighting against the US occupation in Iraq. He would also have to admit that it was Assad who released Jihadi elements from his own prisons to radicalise his opponents in order to support his claim that he is on the front line defending civilisation against “barbaric Islamists”.

There is no doubt that Assad will have counted on the bishop’s delegation to carry this claim to the rest of us. They will not have disappointed him.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.