DAMASCUS - Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed personal interest in
the domestic reform program begun by Syria's new President Bashar al-Assad in
2000. Blair wrote an article at the time, saying that Syria was "a power in the
Middle East, a leader of Arab opinion, central to any comprehensive peace deal
with Israel, and a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council".
He visited the capital Damascus shortly after September 11, 2001, to recruit
Syria into the international "war on terror" that was being launched on
Afghanistan. The two men could not agree on a definition of terrorism; with
Assad saying, "We should differentiate between combating terrorism and war. We
did not say we support an international coalition for war. We are always
against war." The Syrian leader added, "We, and I personally, differentiate
resistance and terrorism. Resistance is a social, religious and legal right
that is safeguarded by UN resolutions."
London's Guardian newspaper then reported that following this conference, Blair
confided to friends, "I was saying to him [Assad], you have to help to renew
the Middle East peace process. He was saying to me, if you want moderate Islam
to defeat Islamic fundamentalists, I also need your help." The newspaper added
that Blair had been "dressed down" in Damascus.
When Assad went to London in 2002 it was generally believed the reason was to
extend a friendly hand to the Western world in a public relations campaign
aimed at polishing Syria's image following 9/11. In London, Assad portrayed a
very civilized, classy and well-groomed image. He met with Syrians living in
Britain, visited businessmen, politicians and held a meeting with both Queen
Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles, who promised to soon visit Damascus.
Assad found time to visit his former classmates and professors who taught him
while he underwent his medical residency in Britain in the early 1990s.
The Syrian leader was showing the international community that Syria was a
modern nation and that he was with the civilized world and not with the
terrorists. To make his point clearly heard, and show that Syria was as far as
possible from fundamentalism, he brought along a large business delegation
composed of Syrian women entrepreneurs.
According to one observer who is close to both Syria and Great Britain, "They
[Assad and his wife] were charming, modest and warm with just the right touch
of informality that the British appreciate." Another Syrian objective was to
explain the Arab perspective with regard to the then-impending US war on Iraq.
Some in the West, however, speculated that Blair would use the visit as an
opportunity to recruit Assad into a war on Iraq.
But Syria worked against the US war on Iraq and relations with Britain remained
lukewarm until Blair left office in 2007. Before leaving, however, he watched
the US-imposed isolation on Syria crumble when Spanish foreign minister Miguel
Angel Moratinos visited Syria in 2006, right after the end of the Lebanon war,
followed by Javier Solana, the European Union's chief foreign policy
negotiator, in March 2007.
Solana offered the Syrians a series of economic incentives, including the
signing of the EU Partnership Agreement, in exchange to finding a solution to
the crisis in Lebanon. London's perception of Syria began to change, as well as
that of Europe. The British - as Foreign Secretary David Miliband clearly said
this week from Damascus - now see Syria as a problem-solver, rather than a
problem-seeker in the Arab world.
Among other things, it was reasoned that getting rid of Hezbollah in Lebanon
through military force was impossible - as Israel found out in 2006. Israel
clearly could not do it, and nor could UN Resolution 1701, which distanced the
Lebanese group from Lebanon's border with Israel. The only way was to get the
Syrians to cooperate on changing Hezbollah's behavior, either directly through
their considerable weight in Lebanon, or indirectly through Iran.
Syria, for example, helped release the 15 British sailors taken hostage by Iran
in 2007, and also helped release BBC reporter Alan Johnston from the hands of
an Islamic group that was reportedly close to Hamas in Palestine. Syrian
cooperation on Iraq and Palestine paid off, but the real breakthrough came when
Syria started indirect peace talks with Israel, and helped solve the crisis in
Lebanon last May.
The fact that Syria was willing to enter into indirect talks with Israel -
under the auspices of a world-recognized honest broker like Turkey - was proof
that the Syrians were not as bad as the world had thought since 2003. Before
that, the Syrians had gone to the Annapolis peace conference in the US in 2007,
despite objections from allies like Hamas and Iran, aimed at showing the
Americans that they were in fact serious about finding solutions to the
The turning point came when French President Nicolas Sarkozy began engaging
both Damascus and Hezbollah, to find constructive solutions to the presidential
crisis in Lebanon, in 2007. When the Doha agreement - which had Syria's
fingerprints all over it - was hammered out in May, Sarkozy invited Assad to
Paris in July. In September, he went to Damascus - signaling a clear break from
the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac - and met with Assad to discuss
the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkish mediation.
Miliband steps in
Based on the above, Miliband arrived in Damascus on November 17 for talks with
his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem and Assad. His visit, the first for a
senior British official since 2001, signals a new start in Syrian-British
Speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Monday, shortly before visiting the
historical Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City, Miliband said that
Syria had an "essential role" to play in securing Middle East peace.
The young secretary (43) was clearly pleased by his visit, being taken to the
famous Bakdash ice-cream parlor in the Old City, and given a chance to meet
with Syrian statesmen and activists in civil society. Miliband, who had hosted
Moualem in London in October, hailed Syria's "new approach" to dealing with
Middle East problems, saying, "I think it is important for us to find ways for
Syria to play a constructive role in the future of the Middle East. Syria is a
secular state in the Middle East. It has the potential to play a stabilizing
role in the region."
The secretary added, "In a significant way, there has been an important change
in the approach of the Syrian government, notably the historic decision to
exchange ambassadors with Lebanon." Milibandís Syria agenda revolves around
four topics: cooperation in combating terrorism, Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle
East peace process.
He noted, "We have been consistently emphasizing the importance of Syrian
cooperation on all four of those dossiers," and acknowledged Syrian cooperation
on border security with Iraq, adding, "The funneling of foreign fighters and
arms into Iraq over the last 15 to 16 months has certainly been curtailed."
This is new talk from London, in light of an upcoming change in US policy
towards Syria, after the victory of president-elect Barack Obama.
In 2006, Blair sent senior diplomat Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, where he
presented five British concerns to Syria after having met with US Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. They were: support of the political
process in Iraq, backing for Mahmud Abbas in Palestine, combating terrorism,
Iran and ending the political tension in Lebanon. Syria immediately responded
by sending Walid al-Moualem to Baghdad, where he extended his country's support
for the US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He talked Hamas into accepting
a Palestinian government and relinquishing the post of prime minister. That
declaration was specifically made by Hamas statesman Musa Abu Marzkouk from
Damascus, telling the British that the initiative also had Syrian fingerprints
on it. Syria's performance in combating terrorism was already advanced, given
its own national interest in doing so.
More recently, it showed that it can provide results as well - such as during
the sailor crisis with Iran, and in Lebanon through the Doha Agreement. David W
Lesch, a Syria expert who teaches at Trinity College in the US and who authored
a biography of Assad, told Asia Times Online, "Foreign Secretary Miliband, who
is an ambitious politician jostling for possible leadership of the Labour
Party, is striking out in the hope of enhancing his own personal stature as
well as paving a path London hopes the new Obama administration will soon
Lesch, who recently wrapped up a meeting with Assad, added, "From Syria's
perspective, it continues the more than a year-long process of breaking out
from US-led isolation, and clearly sends positive signals to the new US
administration, and offers an opportunity to, perhaps, assess the possibility
of a new US policy direction in the Middle East through the eyes of a trusted
It is also reported that the main focus of Miliband's visit was the
reestablishment of high-level intelligence cooperation between Britain and
Syria, which apparently began in secret a few months ago, before The Times of
London broke the story. The newspaper reported:
The newly revived
intelligence relationship could be hugely beneficial to Britain. Syria is known
to have one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in
particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around
Syria is certainly storming back onto the world
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst who is editor-in-chief of
Forward Magazine in Damascus.