The Arabs "were incorrigible children, feckless and colour-blind... their mind strange and dark, full of depressions and exaltations, lacking in rule".
These were the words of T E Lawrence, dripping with colonialist condescension, apparently used by the high-profile Conservative MP Rory Stewart to opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime, dismissing their plea for democracy in Syria. But the email quoting from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and purporting to be from Mr Stewart is, however, a forgery, as is a response from the Syrian embassy which hails his apparent backing for their regime.
Both, it appears, are part of a propaganda war being waged between the opposing sides as the blood-letting continues on the ground. The scam was carried out, it is claimed, with the help of lobbying and public relations companies specialising in the "dark arts".
Mr Stewart, a former soldier and diplomat who was involved in development projects in Afghanistan and now also works for television, expressed "surprise and concern" at what had happened.
He said: "My main worry is that my email account may have been hacked into by some people who were then using the address to send this type of false email in my name. I am having checks made, but so far we haven't discovered any other similar emails."
In the forged email, "leaked" to The Independent, the MP supposedly wrote: "Democracy abroad has nothing to do with democracy in the UK".
An apparent response from a Syrian embassy official in London then crowed: "Even a leading member of the British Houses of Parliament (mother of democracy?) Foreign Affairs Committee understands why the Baath Party must continue to lead the Syrian nation. Russia and China have strong governments that serve all their people, just as we in Syria have. Who needs democracy?" But the email "leaking" Mr Stewart's supposed damning of democracy in the Arab world came from a Mohammed Nassar – a name that does not appear in the list of foreign diplomats in London.
One of the few remaining members of staff in the Syrian embassy insisted: "There is no one called Mohammed Nassar working here; someone is using our email address falsely. We don't know anything about it but it looks like the opposition playing tricks."
Most of the Syrian legation in London were expelled recently on the orders of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague. The aim of the emails may be to discredit the Assad regime – albeit in a convoluted fashion – by illustrating its contempt for any reform.
But others have interpreted it differently. Firuz Ahmed Qassem, an activist who had been working in Idlib province in northern Syria, said: "I was worried when I first saw this. We know that Mr Rory is a respected politician in the ruling party and if he was saying things like this then maybe the British government does not really support us and secretly wants Assad to stay on.
"Also, we have many different factions within the opposition all doing their own thing using [PR] companies. Some of these groups have been infiltrated with the aim of causing divisions. I looked into this and found something similar has happened with a US Congressman."
The email from Mr Stewart's account was sent at the end of May. It was allegedly in response to an email to him from an Adnan Hassan Mahmoud a week earlier pressing for the West to take military action against the regime.
Mr Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, said :"I have not really spoken publicly much about Syria at all. I do recall getting an email from someone with a different name back in April.
"I replied saying that I fully agree that what Assad was doing was abhorrent and he should go. But this should be done through diplomatic means. I said that I did not think that the British Government should get involved militarily and that we should not get involved in arming the rebels. I certainly did not quote Lawrence in any way."Reuse content