Who knew Nick Griffin was one for suspense? Having landed in Lebanon three days ago, the BNP leader, MEP and slack-jawed Jim Davidson of British politics began dropping provocative tweets like frilly items of clothing at a Soho strip show. “Puzzle 4 journalists: Why am I in Beirut right now?” he began. British journalists scratched their heads. They were entranced.
Some made stabs in the dark, with one blogger suggesting that Griffin had either decided to re-launch the Crusades. And salaried journalists soon began to follow suit, buying into Griffin's challenge, trying to imagine an uncomfortable, red-faced man in Muslim West Beirut, amusing the locals with photos of his wild garlic plants and insisting that he hadn't seen a single person wearing a burqa. Slowly his photos lapsed into the mundane. He started tweeting about the traffic and posting blurry pictures of juice bars. It was as if he was trying to take a shot at regular tourism and not even managing that very well.
So far, so strange. But things were about to get much, much weirder. Having got a whiff of the simmering sectarian tension in Lebanon, Griffin decided to feast on it. He set out through the Hezbollah-controlled Bekaa valley towards the Syrian border, and next thing we knew, he was proudly declaring his arrival in Damascus (in his mind, he did so from the top of a camel). He was, he stated, on a fact-finding mission to investigate British funding of Syrian “jihadist” rebels. He was there at the formal invitation of the Syrian foreign ministry. Of particular concern to him, apparently, is the presence of British nationals fighting in the civil war against his new BFF, Bashar al-Assad.
A "typical Beirut corner shop fruit bar" that Griffin visited. (Photo via @nickgriffinmep)
I called Griffin yesterday and asked him whether he supported the Syrian government. He replied: “There's certainly wrongs on both sides – the Syrian government officials admit that they were too slow to reform. They also say that the cultural and religious intertwinings and histories and so on make these places not the same as countries in western Europe." I was glad to have learned that the culture and history of the Middle East varies from that of western Europe.
He then launched into a tirade about British foreign policy, said he agreed with Assad that the situation should be left to the Syrian regime to deal with, mocked William Hague and said the West's "track record in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan is an absolute fucking disaster". That last point, admittedly, was hard to argue with.
I then asked what he thought about the fact that many of his official positions regarding the situation were in line with the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis in the Middle East. He replied, "Well, if you ask me and them, ‘If you drop an apple, does it fall to the ground?’, we’re both going to say yes. Because it’s gravity, isn’t it? It’s just a fact.” Which seemed an overly complicated way of saying, "Yes, I suppose I do take many of the same lines as the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis."
So – say hello to perhaps the most confusing triumvirate in the history of mismatched allies: the al-Assad regime, militant Shi'a Islamist group Hezbollah and the BNP.
Without explicitly expressing support for the al-Assad government, Griffin has begun to parrot the lines issued by the Syrian regime over the civil war. He has branded the Free Syrian Army an organisation dominated by jihadists, and told me that attempts to overthrow the Syrian regime were, “largely foreign-inspired”. In a separate telephone interview, a BNP spokesman elaborated, telling me that the party believes the West’s role in Syria is primarily about securing oil and gas reserves.
Nick Griffin's view of Beirut. (Photo via @nickgriffinmep)
The BNP spokesman also suggested that if the war was not ended it would, “spill over onto our [British] streets” and that the British government, led by “that crazed warmonger Hague”, would send Brits over who would “come back with no arms and legs”.
That the BNP has decided the most effective way to snatch some headlines back from the EDL and UKIP is to launch itself into the centuries-old sectarian clusterfuck that is the Middle East speaks volumes. Having become the Syrian government’s newest de-facto bedfellow, the BNP party leader persisted with his Syrian propaganda programme on Twitter, posting: “…life in capital normal. Traffic busy, shops full of goods. Families out in sun”.
Minutes later, a suicide attack on a Damascus police station claimed 14 lives.
When I pointed that out to Griffin, he retorted, “And when was there last a bomb in London? You know, not that long ago. Or Paris… you know, bombs happen.” Which was weird for two reasons: a) why was Griffin now suddenly a suicide bomber apologist? And b) yes, he's right – four bombs did go off in London eight years ago – but I'd say that, recently at least, quite a few more bombs have gone off in Syria.
Besides the bomb, it sounded like Griffin was having a lovely time. He told me that, on the way in, they'd been able to, "hail cabs and go off and look at things", and – perhaps most excitingly – that he'd had a meeting with the Syrian Prime Minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi. He described the meeting as, "long and fascinating", and told me that the two of them had discussed, "the whys and wherefores of all this – where this war in Syria comes from". But failed to elaborate beyond that point.
New best buds: Nick Griffin MEP and Syrian Prime Minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi. (Photo via @nickgriffinmep)
To me, the BNP and the al-Assad regime buddying up is kind of like those two weird kids at school, who'd do stuff like openly masturbate at the back of the classroom, joining together to find some kind of strength in numbers. Only they're now just a couple of sweaty-palmed men grimacing at a camera together, instead of alone and exposed.
On one level, the whole mission is a pathetic farce engineered by two highly compromised, toxic brands to boost their profiles. But at the same time, perhaps this couple, spurned and shunned for years, really have found something in each other. After all, imagine leading a besieged, embattled, failing regime apparatus against Western-funded enemies. Then, one day, someone extends his hand to you. He’s not like all the others. He understands you. Yes, he agrees, everyone is ganging up against you. Yes, it is unfair. It’s us against the world, buddy. Imagine the relief! And imagine the catharsis when, following months of egg-pelting, you find a Prime Minister who will actually shake hands with you. This is the stuff true political romance is made of.
I feel some kind of journalistic responsibility to note that not everything the BNP said to me was totally insane. They cited a recent survey that found that more than three-quarters of the British public oppose the British government arming Syrian rebels, and claimed to be representing British public opinion (although the notion of being represented by the BNP is slightly terrifying).
Their claim that oil and gas reserves are part of the reason for Western involvement is undoubtedly sound, and they are right that the media and British government have presented an over-simplified, good-versus-evil picture of the conflict. It is also true, according to recent reports, that Brits are fighting as jihadists in the Syrian civil war. The same phenomenon occurred in Afghanistan, and there's no reason to believe that Syria should be any different.
However, one could also argue that a policy of non-interference might be better promoted from London, rather than while shaking the hand of the Syrian Prime Minister.
Follow Nicolas on Twitter: @NBennettJones
Main collage made with elements of image by Ricardo Stuckert/ABr.
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