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When Hampshire council chief met Syrian president Bashar al-Assad
2:55pm Sunday 22nd September 2013 in News
THE security guards looked more like menacing gangsters as they lurked in the background watching a group of foreign visitors walk up the long red carpet.
It was obvious from the bulges under their jackets that they were all carrying guns.
But while the unnerving sight of moustached henchmen was one thing, the very prospect of walking through the palace of one of the world’s most infamous dictators was quite another.
So it was with some surprise that when Roy Perry reached the end of the grand arcade, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad himself opened the door to his office with a big smile and a warm welcome.
Little did Mr Perry know then that he had come face to face with a man who would later stand accused of overseeing horrific war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on his own people.
Fast-forward just over a decade and US President Barack Obama has led threats of military intervention in the war-ravaged country amid allegations hundreds of civilians were targeted in a deadly gas attack.
Assad denies his regime is responsible for scenes that have shocked the world, including the distressing sight of children exposed to poisonous sarin gas.
Global powers are currently working on a UN security resolution to make safe Syria’s chemical arms stock.
It was around the year 2000 that Roy Perry, then a Member of the European Parliament, was invited to join a delegation to the Syrian capital Damascus.
Now the leader of Hampshire County Council, he still remembers the moment Assad – surrounded by powerful businessmen – welcomed him in to his low-lying Japanese-built palace in the hills overlooking the sprawling city.
It was winter, and – unusually – the country lay under a thick blanket of snow.
As they chatted in the luxurious surrounds of the palace grounds, there were few clues that this seemingly mild-mannered man, dressed smartly in a suit, was capable of overseeing atrocities. In fact, the delegation was there to see whether closer links could be forged with the nation.
Mr Perry, who was part of the Parliamentary Association for Euro- Arab Cooperation, told the Daily Echo: “We had been walking along a very long red carpet. There were all sorts of tough-looking characters in black leather jackets and with black moustaches with bulges under their armpits – they were clearly armed.
“We walked up some steps to a door and suddenly the door opened and there was Assad with his hand out, saying ‘thank you for coming’, and he took us inside.
“He was very friendly, very relaxed.
There were a lot of pleasantries and he spoke in English for a while.
“At one point he put his arm around my shoulder, looked out of his window across the city and said: ‘Look Roy – you will never have thought you would see Damascus like this, under a blanket of snow.’ “We then had long chats and he was explaining the political situation.
“At that time he was not the bloody tyrant we know him to be now.”
Mr Perry, who was an MEP for Wight and Hampshire South between 1994 and 2002, was hopeful at the time that meetings such as this could, in some small way, help in the long-term efforts to secure a more peaceful Middle East.
His delegation was invited to Damascus amid hopes Assad was a potential reformist, ready to embrace closer links with the outside world.
However, at the time, the Syrian leader was a l r e a d y adamant that there could be no sub-division of Syria and that moves to create an independent nation for the Kurdish c o m m u n i t y would mean war.
On a visit to Israel shortly afterwards, the Foreign Office there was so interested in what he had seen in the heart of Assad’s palace that he was invited in for talks.
Mr Perry, a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, added: “One of the things the European Parliament was interested in and the Association was interested in was can we do anything at all to help create peace in the Middle East?
“I’m not saying we were on a peace mission, but I am one of those that believes ‘jaw jaw’ is better than ‘war war’.
“I can remember Assad saying there have to be discussions with the Israelis – he was concerned about the plight of the Palestinians.”
The long-serving councillor is philosophical when looking back on meeting a man whose actions are now firmly at the forefront of global affairs.
Although he was hopeful Assad might become part of a driving force for positive change in the region, he now recognises that the dictator “has to take responsibility” for what has happened in the war-torn country.
“At the time there was every hope that he was becoming a more moderate and modernising influence,” he said.
“There was a hope that he could have become a liberalising force in Syria which is, in many respects, a society that was tolerant of other religions and faiths. In that respect Syria was a society with potential, and it is so sad and terrible to see it has descended to the state it is in now.
“I think he has shown himself to be a weak man.”
As well as fearing for the future of the country under Assad, Mr Perry said the prospects of him “being replaced by some moderate democratic person is pretty unlikely”, and that an “even more tyrannical figure”
may end up in charge.
Reflecting on the meeting he had all those years ago, he added: “I honestly got the impression that here was a guy who wanted to bring his country into the 21st century, but equally got the impression that he was a man surrounded by some very strong people.
“I don’t think he’s the man driving all of this, but he is a man who is the face of it and headed it up, and he has not accepted responsibility.
“I think the situation is awful.
Finding a solution in the Middle East is key, but far from going forward we have gone backwards.
“I’m just a guy who thinks there should be peace between the Arab states and Israel.
“But one thing is for certain – I would not be smiling if I shook his hand now.”
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