Diplomats & Dictatorships
Category: Brits Abroad
By Sir Andrew Green for LIBERTY Blog
My first experience of a dictatorship was when I visited Ceaușescu’s Romania for some financial negotiations in the mid 1970’s. We held a preparatory meeting in the British Embassy in Bucharest to agree on our strategy. In the middle of the meeting, the door opened and two technicians entered the room carrying various bits of equipment. They motioned to us to keep talking while they “swept” the conference room.
A little while later they invited me to listen to what they had intercepted. The sounds were not of our meeting but those of a man and wife in their apartment over the road having a discussion over a meal. Clearly, a Securitate van had been bugging a private house and we had picked up the signal they were recording. I was left with a revulsion that we had intruded into the private life of a Romanian couple – a feeling that I have never forgotten.
Later, in several postings in Arabia, people were careful what they said, especially to foreigners, but they did not live in fear. However, Syria under Hafez Al Assad was very different. It was immediately apparent that Syrians had to be very careful about any contact with foreign diplomats and certainly speaking to a foreigner in front of another Syrian.
We gradually learnt the reasons for this. At the time there were five or six intelligence services reporting on Syrians and, on each other. They were all reporting to the President who played them off against each other and whose reputation for ruthlessness struck fear into them all.
All ordinary Syrians knew that a word out of place could lead to a dawn arrest. If that were to happen, nobody would dare to even ask where you might have been imprisoned or by which intelligence service. Asking such questions only attracted unwelcome attention from the regime’s thugs.
Faced with this curtain of fear, diplomats had to proceed with extreme caution. Of course, it was absolutely essential to avoid getting Syrians into trouble. A number of rules had to be followed. First, it was essential never to show any particular interest in one person. One should not, for example, be seen talking in a corner with a Syrian acquaintance. Equally, it was important to steer clear of politics if anyone was in earshot or if there was any risk that the building or room was being bugged.
Sadly, the Syrian’s were also very cautious with each other. On one occasion I invited a handful of well-informed Syrians to meet the British Foreign Secretary. Foolishly, I included an Alawite. That killed the conversation stone dead.
On another occasion I had enjoyed a conversation with a young Syrian girl over dinner. Perhaps too much so since she was summoned the next day by a Colonel in the Syrian Intelligence and told to watch her behaviour. Someone else at the dinner had clearly reported on her.
As for ourselves, we had to assume that the Syrian Security Service bugged our residence and parts of our embassy. The only answer was to make sure that no sensitive conversation was ever conducted within the four walls. The garden was the place with a fountain in the background to drown your sound. When the Soviet Union collapsed I was able to talk informally to the Russian Ambassador for the first time. When he arrived we both opted immediately for a discussion in the garden!
For those who live in a Western country it is almost impossible to imagine the oppression that a ruthless regime can impose on its population. It is hugely to the credit of the Syrians that they bore it gracefully and, even occasionally, with humour.
Sir Andrew Green, is a former British Diplomat and the Founder & Chairman of “Migration Watch UK”. He joined HM Diplomatic Service in 1965, working for 35 years as a Diplomat before he retired in June 2000. He was the British Ambassador to Syria from (1991-1994) during Hafez Al Assad time. Then he was appointed as the Director for the Middle East in Foreign Office, before he finally served as the British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He spent half of his diplomatic career in the Middle East, where he served in six posts.