A visit to Syria last weekend by three members of the European Parliament has given the Assad regime a useful propaganda boost.
Ahead of the visit the Syrian government news agency, Sana, reported:
"A delegation from the European Parliament headed by Vice-President for the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament, Javier Couso arrives in Damascus on Saturday for a two-day visit."
Sana's report was accompanied by a large photograph of the EU parliament building and readers might easily have got the impression that the visitors were an official delegation from the EU – which there were not.
On Saturday, the group met the speaker of the Syrian People's Assembly and, according to Sana, Couso was fulsome in his support of the regime:
"Couso ... stressed his support for Syria in its demand for the lifting of the European sanctions imposed on it.
"He denounced the arrogant conduct in which the European states and the US deal with the countries of the world, expressing his rejection of interference in the domestic affairs of any country.
"Couso said the terrorism striking in Syria today is the same kind of terror that claimed the lives of civilians in his homeland Spain in 2004, adding that he and the delegation will work to convey the true image of the events in Syria to the European Parliament.
"The European official affirmed it is the Syrian people’s right to decide their country’s future and choose their leadership for themselves, expressing disapproval of the positions of the US, France and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in this regard."
The group later visited a hospital treating injured military personnel and, according to remarks atttribute to Couso, this gave the group "a picture of the sort of suffering the Syrian people are going through and of the steadfastness of the Syrian army in its war against terrorism".
On Sunday, the group met President Assad who urged the MEPs to "play a significant role to correct the wrong policies of their governments that have caused terrorism to spread and led to worsening the living conditions of the Syrian people due to the economic blockade they imposed on them, forcing many Syrians to leave their country and seek refuge in other states".
Sana's report added:
"For their part, the European delegation members said their visit to Syria and the suffering of the Syrian people they have seen firsthand would make them put effort to the effect of correcting the policies of the European governments and pressuring them into lifting the sanctions."
According to Sana, the group also met Syria's Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, who "called upon European parliamentarians to stand up to US arrogance and hegemony".
On Monday, European spokesperson Marjory van den Broeke made clear that the trip was "not an official visit from the European Parliament or any of its official bodies" and that the parliament would not be contributing towards the cost.
In Estonia, MEP Yana Toom has been strongly criticised for taking part in the trip. Foreign Affairs Committee chair Sven Mikser told the Estonian broadcaster ERR:
"This is without a doubt unacceptable ... [Assad] is a person who is accused of very serious war crimes and with whom respectable politicians most certainly do not communicate. Assad absolutely cannot be a part of a long-term solution to the civil war in Syria.
"Such a meeting with MEPs sends entirely the wrong message. Regrettably, however, it can be said that that is deliberate. The goal of Yana Toom’s visit was to get some attention. It is hardly likely that meeting with Assad will contribute to any sort of solution."