POLITICS
11/05/2017 16:01 BST | Updated 16/05/2017 22:16 BST

A British Baroness Wants To Rekindle Donald Trump's Affection For Bashar Assad

Lady Caroline Cox's case for the Syrian dictator reflects how support for Assad is often tied up with a skepticism about Islam.

WASHINGTON ― Lady Caroline Cox, a prominent member of the British Parliament’s House of Lords, agrees with President Donald Trump on quite a lot: the need for Brexit, the success of Russia’s brutal counterterrorism strategy, the theory that some Muslims are pushing an insidious effort to undermine Western democracy from within, and the idea that the traditional media is biased because of political correctness.

She just wishes he still agreed with her on another matter: Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Cox met with Assad for about two hours last fall during a visit to regime-held areas of Syria. She believes that most Syrians want to keep the dictator in power and that Assad himself seeks to turn his family’s repressive 45-year regime into a democracy. Now she’s in Washington ― and she’s hoping that Trump, who repeatedly praised Assad and raised hopes in the Damascus government, will come around.

“Of course, no one wants to belittle [Assad’s] track record. I’m not here to be an apologist. But I’m here to say where it is now in Syria, according to the Syrian people,” Cox said at a National Press Club event Tuesday. “He’s quite loved by many of the people of Syria ― obviously not the people who’ve suffered at his hands … [they say] let Assad stay and take Syria into freedom from [the so-called Islamic State] and freedom from Islamist terrorism and then talk about the future.”

In the baroness’ telling, her trip was independent of the regime’s desire to improve its image abroad and mostly concerned with meeting civilians suffering because of the conflict. She cited her time with those people and invitations from the country’s grand mufti and the Syrian Orthodox patriarch ― without mentioning that civilians in regime-held areas are the most likely to support Assad and fear criticizing him, or that both those religious leaders have been publicly supportive of Assad’s rule.

Echoing supporters of the Assad regime in the U.S. and elsewhere, Cox questioned whether the dictator was really responsible for an April 4 chemical weapons attack that the U.S., France and others say they are sure he committed. Those who see the dictator as a potential partner claim it would have been foolish for him to use nerve gas when he seemed stronger than ever ― and Trump has repeatedly expressed such thinking in private, according to Politico. (Syria experts say the extreme move was actually classic Assad, designed to overwhelm his opponents and prove to them that he can do as he pleases with no consequences.)

“I was obviously disappointed by the change between what I had perceived as Trump’s position before and then his recent … extremely unfortunate intervention following that as yet highly problematic chemical weapons incident,” Cox told HuffPost, referring to the president’s decision to launch an American military strike against a Syrian government airfield on April 6.

A former member of the Conservative Party and now an independent, she hopes to share her perspective with the administration and Capitol Hill. An aide claimed she had meetings set up with the White House, other parts of the administration and senators. (Members of the House are back in their districts this week.)

But her schedule remains largely a mystery. A State Department official told HuffPost the agency’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs was not scheduled to meet with the baroness, and two Senate offices said they had not heard about her visit. The offices of two lawmakers who share her sympathy for the Assad regime’s presentation of events, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Tom Garrett (R-Va.), said they had not been in touch with Cox either. And the White House did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged meetings.

Still, Cox’s trip shows that pro-Assad lobbying is alive and well in the West even after Trump’s turnaround ― and that it’s being packaged to appeal to the current U.S. political scene, where fear of Islam is driving official state policy more than ever before.

Radu Sigheti/Reuters
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad is seen next to a banner of the European Front of Solidarity for Syria during a demonstration by members of the Syrian community in Bucharest in 2013.

The baroness spent much of her Tuesday press conference repeating the regime’s claim that all alternatives to Assad are dangerous fanatics. In fact, the opposition to Assad grew out of peaceful protests by ordinary citizens in 2011 that the government responded to with bullets, and the regime deliberately released extremists from jail and avoided fighting radical groups so it could portray the entire opposition as irredeemable. Many anti-Assad groups have now become associated with Islamists, including the local affiliate of al Qaeda, but experts believe they could be wooed out of that relationship if they received strong Western backing. (Despite claims abroad that the U.S. and other nations have been supporting military “regime change” for years, Western aid to the armed opposition has been tightly limited and U.S. officials have repeatedly said they have held the rebels back from too forcefully challenging Assad.)

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups and rights activists say the regime continues to be responsible for most ongoing deaths and alleged war crimes in Syria. Political figures who say Assad is the “solution,” then, must be worried about a different problem ― not the mass brutality, but the fact that the other side appears to be more religiously inclined.

Cox also echoed the regime argument that Assad is a defender of religious minorities, particularly Christians, and of women. “He’s very happy to have a country in which a lady in a bikini can be alongside a lady in a [body-covering] burka [veil] and that’s their choice,” she said. Of course, Assad’s top emissary to negotiations with rebels challenging his rule last year said he would not speak with a counterpart who had a beard, claiming that was a mark of Islamic extremism. That kind of assertion is popular among authoritarians in the Middle East ― with “war on terror” rhetoric dominating the global conversation, they know their best bet is to play on worries about Islamist extremism.

Meanwhile, Assad’s own forces have worked closely for years with sectarian fighters. Militants aligned with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah cite religious loyalties to target communities following different faiths, like adherents to the Sunni school of Islam.

In Britain, Cox is well-known for inciting fear about Islam. She invited the far-right Dutch figure Geert Wilders, who sees Islam as a totalitarian ideology rather than a religion, to the House of Lords in 2010 to screen a film The Guardian called “anti-Islam.” For years, she has pushed legislation seeking to rein in advisory courts that Muslims can voluntarily approach to help settle family issues; while she rightfully notes that people in the community, often women, can unfairly be forced to use that system, observers say Cox’s presentation of the facts can veer into exaggeration andbigotry. Her own rhetoric has only helped her critics: In 2014, Cox said, “Islam is using the freedoms of democracy to destroy it.”

At the press club, the baroness said she had no desire to insult the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

“I am not in any way attacking the Muslim people,” Cox said. “What one is concerned about is the growth of a political, strategic Islam which is introducing policies which are antithetical to the values of our own societies and liberal democracy.”

The baroness says troubling practices she claims Islam promotes are ignored by the media and enabled by British officials too concerned about cultural sensitivity. That’s one reason, she told reporters Tuesday, that she has appeared more than once on television stations associated with the government of Russia, which supports Assad’s apparently moderate regime and which Islam skeptics say is more frank about the apparent threat to Western traditions.

In ways, she said, “Russian TV is much more balanced than the BBC.”

This story has been updated with additional information about Cox’s comments at the press club and about her appearances on Russian state-run television.