Last April, shortly after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against civilians, a group of analysts and pundits gathered in London to discuss the situation in Syria. The speakers included those lobbying for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Syrian ministers, and, in at least one case, a notorious genocide denier. It was, as opponents of the Assad regime described, little more than a “propaganda exercise” to whitewash the Syrian government.
It also featured one American: Dennis Kucinich, the current candidate for Ohio governor.
Kucinich — who memorably met with Assad in 2017 — has found himself in hot water over the past few days following a series of revelations that a pro-Syrian group paid the former congressman tens of thousands of dollars to attend the 2017 conference. As Cleveland.com first reported, Kucinich received some $20,000 from the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, a California-based group that acts as the parent organization for the Syria Solidarity Movement.
The Syria Solidarity Movement’s politics aren’t difficult to discern. Not only does the organization push posts from Russia propaganda outlets while blaming “corporate media propaganda against Syria,” but it further claims that organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International are little more than front groups for the United States in Syria.
When contacted earlier this week, the group’s treasurer, Paul Larudee, told the Columbus Dispatch that he doesn’t “care that [Assad] is a dictator.” The Dispatch also reported that the group’s president, Kamal Obeid, has propounded 9/11 conspiracies in the past. At the time of last year’s conference, while Kucinich was being paid to speak in London, the Syria Solidarity Movement was running material calling the 2017 chemical weapon attack a “false flag” designed to make the Assad regime look bad.
It’s unclear how Kucinich first came into contact with the group, or why he thought it was a good idea to take money from an organization — which Kucinich called a “civil rights advocacy group” — that helps defend the Assad regime. (As Vox described this week, Kucinich has “an unusual affinity for… the Syrian government.) The Kucinich campaign ignored ThinkProgress’ request for an interview, instead responding with Kucinich’s prior statement that he issued following the revelations about the payments.
In the statement, Kucinich describes the 2017 conference — awkwardly titled “Syria- Six Years On: From Destruction to Reconstruction” — as a “peace conference.” Organized by the European Center for the Study of Extremism, Cambridge (EuroCSE), the conference billed itself as “The 1st comprehensive and unprecedented conference about Syria in the U.K. and across Europe in the last six years.”
— Dennis Kucinich (@Dennis_Kucinich) April 4, 2017
That may have been the case, but the conference doesn’t appear to have featured any prominent voices interested in criticizing the Assad regime outright. (When ThinkProgress requested an interview with EuroCSE, a representative from EuroCSE asked for this reporter’s credentials, and did not respond to follow-up emails.)
Among the listed speakers at the conference were Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar, Syrian Tourism Minister Bishr Riyad Yaziji, and Iran’s ambassador to the U.K., Hamid Baeidinejad. A letter signed by a series of outspoken anti-Assad activists described the conference as a “propaganda exercise,” calling on “those involved with the groups who do not share the objectives of this conference to publicly distance themselves from it.”
Smiles, handshakes, and genocide denials
But Syrian and Iranian officials weren’t the only ones joining Kucinich, whose opening statement at the conference said that “[a]ll aggressor countries cannot continue to attempt to overthrow the government of Syria without destabilizing their own lands.”
For instance, the gubernatorial candidate was joined by Peter Ford, the former British ambassador to Syria. A few weeks after the conference, Ford was outed by The Telegraph as the head of a lobbying firm run by Assad’s father-in-law. Added the Telegraph, Assad’s father-in-law had previously “offer[ed] advice on how the regime should handle criticism of its suppression of the opposition uprising, including how to counter video footage appearing to show the torture of children.”
Another speaker was Baroness Cox, a member of the House of Lords. In December, Cox was interviewed by Sputnik, a Russian propaganda outlet, where she said that “Russia is doing the right thing in Syria and I really commend the Russian position and Russian policy.” As the Telegraph wrote, Cox — whom Kucinich described this week as “an international humanitarian leader” — is “best known for trying to invite the far-Right Dutch MP Geert Wilders to Parliament before the Government banned him from entering Britain.”
Other speakers included Lord Hylton, whom the Times of London dubbed in 2017 as the “arch-defender of Assad.” Also joining was Jonathon Steele, who last week said in an interview with Russian propaganda outlet RT that it was “possible” the recent chemical attack was “staged.” According to RT, Steele added that the “attack was more in the interests of the rebels than Assad.” (Kucinich appeared on RT as recently as October, criticizing U.S. policy in Syria.) Steele and Ford are both Senior Counsellor Fellows for EuroCSE.
"The attack was more in the interest of the rebels than Assad" says Jonathan Steele as Tony Blair says 'non-intervention in Syria has consequences'. pic.twitter.com/Kfmt0P1C9x
— RT UK (@RTUKnews) April 11, 2018
One photo shared by EuroCSE shows Kucinich grinning alongside Ford, Hylton, and Baedinejad.
— EuroCSE (@eurocse) April 5, 2017
Perhaps the most controversial speaker at the conference, however, was an analyst named Marcus Papadopoulos. EuroCSE describes Papadopoulos, himself a member of the EuroCSE’s advisory board, as a “regular face and name in broadcast and print media,” highlighting appearances on Russian and Iranian state media channels among his credentials.
According to the Times of London, Papadopoulos “denies the Srebrenica genocide, defends the Assad regime and suggests that the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox could have been a conspiracy.”
On Twitter, Papadopoulos describes himself as an “expert” on the former Yugoslavia. But as Jasmin Mujanović, a lecturer at Elon University and recent author of a book on the region’s political dynamics, told ThinkProgress, Papadopoulos is a “a peddler of revisionist history, genocide denial, war crimes apologia, and, in particular, apologia of the [Slobodan] Milosevic regime.”
But Papadopoulos’s reputation as a genocide denier didn’t prevent Kucinich from posing for multiple handshake photos with him, which Papadopoulos later shared on Twitter.
— Dr Marcus Papadopoulos (@DrMarcusP) April 5, 2017
Given the group paying for Kucinich’s speech and the roster of speakers joining him in London, Kucinich’s participation in the London conference presents a raft of new questions – as well as questions about what kind of views he would push should he win the gubernatorial election. As Cleveland.com wrote in its endorsement of his campaign, Kucinich “must never again make nice with Syrian butcher Bashar Assad.” He may not make nice with Assad, but if last year’s conference is any indication, he doesn’t seem to mind making nice with Assad’s fellow travelers.