I am in London today. Syria has one ambassador in most countries, but in the UK it maintains two. The official diplomat is the chain-smoking Sami Khiyami, but the real ambassador is Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras—a high-profile cardiologist to many of the UK’s wealthiest people. Assad himself was partly educated in Britain. His wife, Asma, was born and raised here. She was once a J.P. Morgan banker who still maintains friends in this city. As such, the chattering classes in England feel they have special access to the latest developments in Syria.
There is a false confidence in the air here, much like in Washington, DC, but made worse in Britain by the post-imperial snobbery that somehow Brits understand the politics of the Middle East better than Americans. In London, personal ties of the Assad family to this city only add to this complex. The British rumor mill has no shortage of stories on Syria.
First, there were reports that Assad would seek political refuge in Britain within weeks. But that was before the murder of three thousand innocent people.
Second, and more recently, there were reports that Asma Assad had flown to London with her children in protest at her husband’s actions. Soon, she would seek a divorce in public.
Third, the official ambassador, Sami Khiyami, is expected to be defecting anytime soon. He is, they say, being contained by the real ambassador, the Assad father-in-law, to prevent embarrassment of the Assads back in Damascus.
What these and other sequences of hearsay (so far) tell us is that Britain is no more “in-the-know” than the United States. Both countries are operating in the dark when it comes to policy toward Syria. Syria has been, and very much remains, a private country.
For as long as the international media do not have access to developments on the ground, and cannot distinguish fact from fiction, we in the West would be mistaken to continue developing policy measures that harm Syria and Syrians (Yes, sanctions will impact ordinary people). We are putting in place a series of causes that will generate effects. I have written about this here and here. Already, Syria’s leading cleric is threatening a campaign of suicide bomb attacks against the West in our cities. If we escalate the rhetoric of conflict, they will too. It is still not too late to return to sobriety and leave Syrians alone to put their complicated, sectarian house in order.