UK FCO calls Syrian Ambassador in; why did Brooks Newmark MP meet Bashar al-Assad?

Syria’s ambassador in London has been summoned to the Foreign Office after claims a diplomat had been intimidating Syrians living in the UK.

The Foreign Office said ambassador Sami Khiyami was called to see its Middle East director Christian Turner.

The move came after media reports that Syrians who took part in demonstrations received phone calls and home visits.

It is understood police have received no complaints about intimidation in the UK by members of the Syrian embassy.

‘Respond swiftly’

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Mr Turner made clear our strong concerns about the media allegations that a diplomat at the Syrian embassy has been intimidating Syrians in Britain.

“Any such activity would amount to a clear breach of acceptable behaviour. If such claims were substantiated, the Foreign Office would respond swiftly and appropriately.”

According to the reports, Syrians who took part in anti-government protests in the UK claimed they were photographed by embassy staff before being contacted.

Some alleged that Syrian secret police visited their relatives in their homeland with copies of the photos, warning them to ensure those in the UK stopped taking part in demonstrations.

In Syria, dissidents have met publicly for the first time in the capital Damascus to discuss the current crisis in the country.

There were calls for an end to the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters and for a peaceful transition to democracy.

The event took place after Syrian government officials said they would not object.

Afterwards, the opposition was invited to joint talks to discuss the framework for a national dialogue conference.

GUARDIAN: Why did the government whip Brooks Newmark meet Syria’s president Assad yesterday?

The Foreign Office has stressed that Newmark’s trip does not have government backing.

But the trip threatens to undermine government attempts to present a tough line against Assad. Former foreign office minister, Denis MacShane has tabled a parliamentary question aimed highlighting the government’s embarrassment.

MacShane said:

On the day that Bashar al-Assad’s fellow despot, Colonel Gaddafi, is indicted by the International Criminal Court it is extraordinary that a government minister turns up in Damascus to meet with the man responsible for the deaths, disappearance, torture and repression of thousands of Syrians. Did Mr Newmark discuss his trip with William Hague?

Was it authorised by the Chief Whip? Who paid for the trip? How long was he in Syria? What did he say to Bashar al-Assad? It is without precedent that a minister on the government payroll goes off to meet a man now being accused of grave crimes against his people?

If the Foreign Office did authorise this trip it should have been reported to Parliament when William Hague spoke on the region last week. If it was not authorised by the Foreign Office then who is in charge of government foreign policy and contacts with dictators with blood on their hands?

Alan A on the Labour blog Harry’s Place digs up some pro-Assad statements that Newmark made in 2007.

Telegraph: Foreign Office defends Conservative MP’s Syria visit
The Foreign Office on Tuesday defended a visit to Damascus by a Conservative MP who was paraded on television meeting with President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of suppressing democratic protests.

Brooks Newmark, the Conservative MP for Braintree and a government whip, held talks on Monday with the controversial leader whose brutal repression of protests has been condemned by the UK.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that while Mr Newmark had discussed the visit with him but that he had undertaken the trip in a personal capacity.

In a letter to Douglas Alexander, his Labour shadow who had demanded an explanation of government ties to the visit, Mr Hague said Britain had maintained diplomatic ties with Syria.

“My officials met with Mr Newmark and they made clear the steps that the UK Government thinks the Syrian regime should take,” he wrote. “He agreed to reflect this in his conversation with President Assad. I believe it is important that we use all means to convey these messages directly to President Assad.”

The regime has been sharply criticised for its hardline response to protests. Hundreds have died and thousands were imprisoned as it sent in the army to crush street protests for greater freedom and democratic electioons in cities across the country.

Sana, the Syrian state news agency attempted to gain a propaganda benefit from the meeting. It reported that the pair had discussed “the recent events taking place in Syria and the advanced steps achieved in the comprehensive reform programme”

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “It is important that we use all means to convey the message to President Assad that he must reform or step aside.”

The US-born MP was a foreign affairs whip in opposition but now covers Business and Wales. He lists Middle East policy among his special interests and has visited Syria and nearby Lebanon many times.

Sami Khiyami, the Syrian ambassador to London, was called into the Foreign Office to be warned that reports of intimidation of British-based Syrians sympathetic to the protests by embassy staff was unacceptable.

“Any such activity would amount to a clear breach of acceptable behaviour. If such claims were substantiated, the Foreign Office would respond swiftly and appropriately,” a spokeswoman said.