The British government has defended its training programme for foreign military leaders after it emerged that it had educated several Syrian officers at Ministry of Defence colleges. Three officers from the Syrian armed forces were trained in Britain from 2005 to 2010, and a further two were enrolled in 2003 at Sandhurst, the army officer training college in Surrey, and at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. The data was released following a freedom of information request by the Guardian.
News of Britain's role training officers loyal to Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, came after allegations his regime's forces have killed at least 450 civilians in a violent attempt to suppress the uprising. They have reportedly used tanks, snipers and armoured vehicles to crush the opposition movement.
The Syrian officers trained by the MoD were among hundreds from Middle Eastern countries whose governments pay for them to attend Britain's world-renowned officer training colleges each year. It trained 104 Bahraini officers over the same period, seven from Libya, three from Tunisia and 56 from Yemen, according to MoD figures.
Asked about why Britain has been training Syrian troops, a spokeswoman for the defence department said she could not talk about individual cases but claimed no training would be given if it would lead to human rights abuses. "The British military provide places on our flagship courses, such as officer training at Sandhurst, to develop a nation's future military leaders and instil the same values of accountability and commitment to the rule of law that underpin our own armed forces," she said. "All overseas requests for defence training are considered on a case-by-case basis and it would not be provided if we thought such training would lead to human rights abuses. Indeed, providing training to the same high standards used by UK armed forces helps to save lives and raise awareness of human rights."
Meanwhile, Lord Bell, the chairman of Chime, the London public relations company that includes Bell Pottinger, told on Wednesday how he acted for Syria's first lady, Asma al-Assad, in 2007 and 2008 at the beginning of a public relations drive to place her at the forefront of Syria's international image, which culminated earlier this year in a sympathetic Vogue article that branded her "a rose in the desert".
"She wanted to set up a first lady's office rather like Laura Bush and Queen Rania of Jordan," Bell said.
"At the time she didn't want to appear in fashion magazines and she wanted to be taken seriously. She was interested in pitching for Damascus to become a city of culture and we set up an office and communications structure for her, did speech writing and set up interviews with serious media." [yes, just like the Emir of Qatar's attractive wife, who wants so much to be taken seriously as a "force for change" -- though not, of course, for the slightest change to the Al-Thani rule in the rich city-state of Qatar, that funds, and constarins, the Arab propaganda network Al Jazeera].