Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The road to Damascus

The souk in Damascus
Reuters last night reported that Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has met the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a visit to Damascus. In Britain, the Financial Times picks up the story today, saying the meeting was 'the most high-level encounter between the UK government and the Assad regime since the Iraq war in 2003'. Interestingly, while on previous occasions Mr Blair sent Lord Levy, a businessman now at the epicentre of a scandal over political loans, as his envoy to Damascus, this time a heavyweight official made the trip.
That choice rather undermines the British claim that the meeting did not mark a departure, and gives weight to the Syrians' interpretation, that the encounter was 'significant'. The Syrians claim that it proves that the country, which has been ostracised for its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, plays a key role in achieving peace in the Middle East. A greater role for Syria in stabilising Iraq is one of the options reportedly being considered by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in the United States and it is possible that the British government is trying, through offering the prospect of better relations, to weaken Syria's alliance with Iran. The Iranian foreign minister met Assad in Damascus five days ago. The two countries' close relations date back to the 1979 revolution in Iran and Syria backed Iran against Iraq in the 1980s.

The move comes after British MP Richard Spring's prediction in the Guardian last week that Britain would open talks with the Syrian government.

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