Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Mandelson, Lord Power and New Labour's Syrian Connection

Magazine article The Spectator

Mr Mandelson, Lord Power and New Labour's Syrian Connection

Article excerpt

MEDIA STUDIES

On Thursday of last week a fascinating article by Peter Mandelson appeared in the Independent. It was in praise of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who the previous day had contrived to humiliate Tony Blair. Mr Mandelson's piece had been written before the debacle, and in the expectation that the visit would go swimmingly. He had not foreseen that Mr Assad would defend Islamic suicide bombers as `resistance fighters' or suggest that hundreds of civilians were being killed every day in Afghanistan. Mr Mandelson informed the bemused readers of the Independent that the Syrian President was `an intelligent and cultured individual' who is applying a new broom. He had met Mr Assad in January, when he was still Northern Ireland secretary, and spent three and a half hours with this charming man. At that time, of course, Mr Mandelson was spoken of as a future foreign secretary.

Six weeks ago I touched on a nexus of three men - Mr Mandelson, Charles Powell, a suave operator who is a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and Wafic Said, the Syrian-born multi-millionaire. I remarked then that Mr Mandelson had paid a visit to Syria earlier in the year, which had been arranged by Charles Powell. Lord Powell is a close friend of Mr Said's - indeed, he heads his bank in London - and he introduced Mr Mandelson to him. I noted in that column of 29 September that Lord Powell had written an article in the Daily Telegraph chiding the Israelis at the same time that Mr Mandelson published a similar piece in the Guardian which suggested that the Israelis could do more to achieve a settlement with the Palestinians.

At about the time my article appeared, Lord Powell was asked by Tony Blair to go to Syria to see whether President Assad would agree to meet him. In whose head this idea was originally conceived I cannot be sure. It is likely that Jonathan Powell - Mr Blair's chief of staff and, as it happens, Charles's younger brother - played a part. (Charles and Jonathan meet frequently.) Lord Powell himself may have pushed the idea; and we can be certain that his boss, the Syrian-born Wafic Said, favoured the prospect of a meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Assad. Lord Levy - another of Mr Blair's unofficial Middle Eastern envoys - may well have been involved. At all events, Lord Powell flew off to Damascus to sound out Mr Assad, whom he had met once before. As he told the Daily Telegraph last Friday, he was somewhat embarrassed to find his face plastered over the front page of the Syria Times but, fortunately for him, the British press doesn't have any stringers in Damascus these days.

The question we need to address is as follows: exactly whose interests was Lord Powell representing in his visit to Syria? Since he was sent there by Mr Blair, the answer might appear to be obvious. On the other hand, Lord Powell works for Wafic Said, who wants a rapprochement between Syria, the country of his birth, and Britain, the country of his adoption. That largely explains Mr Mandelson's three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Mr Assad in January. Mr Said has arranged for others to visit Syria. For example, earlier in the year Vivienne Duffield, the multi-millionairess daughter of the late Jewish businessman Charles Clore, went there. She received a private written rebuke for her pains from Lord Weidenfeld, the former publisher and tireless Zionist. …

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