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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 11:10 GMT
Blair's road to Damascus
British Prime Minister Tony Blair with Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara in Damascus on Monday
Blair is the first British leader to visit Syria for 30 years
Barnaby Mason

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has held talks in Damascus with President Bashar al-Assad about the international campaign against terrorism and the possible revival of Middle East peace talks.

It is the first such visit to Syria by a British leader for well over 30 years, and marks the start of another diplomatic mission by Mr Blair.

He is taking a high-profile role in efforts to consolidate the support of Muslim and Arab countries for the American-led campaign.

The arrival of Mr Blair in Damascus is a startling development, designed to make the world sit up and take note of the western powers working with Muslim governments to crush terrorism.

Unlikely ally

To western opinion, Syria is an unlikely partner. It is classed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States.

Damascus is the headquarters of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which says it killed an Israeli cabinet minister two weeks ago in retaliation for the killing of its own leader.

Syria also supports or hosts three militant Islamic groups banned by the British government last February under anti-terrorist legislation.

They are the more extreme wings of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Shaqaqi.

The Syrian Government, like the Arab world in general, insists there is a difference between terrorism and legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation.

Britain, like the United States, does not accept this distinction; terrorism is terrorism, they say, whatever the motive.

CIA visit

However, in the present crisis, the western powers have decided to be pragmatic and take at face value Syria's condemnation of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

British officials stressed there was no evidence of Syrian complicity in the attacks.

The United States says Syria cannot be against Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden's network, but in favour of other terrorist groups.

But President Bush has indicated that he takes seriously the Syrians' offer of help.

According to the New York Times, a senior CIA official went to Damascus earlier this month to meet his counterparts there, although this has yet to be officially confirmed.

British officials refused to be specific about that kind of co-operation but said Mr Blair wanted to engage in a dialogue with Syria on how to combat terrorism.

Tony Blair with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad at his palace in Damascus on Wednesday
Blair is likely to ask President al-Asad to reign in more radical anti-Israel groups
It was expected that Mr Blair would also urge President Assad to use his influence to restrain the activities of militant groups confronting Israel - just as the British and others are trying to persuade the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to exercise restraint.

The aim is to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflaming Arab and Muslim opinion further and undermining the anti-terrorism coalition.

Britain would also like to encourage the revival of peace negotiations between Israel and Syria itself, though this looks a remote possibility at present.

There is no clear sign of any real shift in Syria's policy, least of all towards Israel.

After coming to power last year, Mr Assad allowed some public debate of the way the country was run, but he later clamped down again.

He has continued the policy of rapprochement with Iraq, mainly by developing economic links.

British connection

In a particularly controversial move, Syria is reported to have been importing oil from Iraq outside the oil-for-food arrangement permitted by the United Nations.

But all that is for the moment secondary. For Mr Blair, Syria is an important symbol of a Muslim country not traditionally known as a friend to the West making common cause with it.

The visit would not have happened at all except for the present crisis, although preparations were being made for Mr Assad to come to London.

The British government is hoping to build on the links he already had with Britain: he studied here to become an eye specialist in the early 1990s.

See also:

09 Oct 01 | Middle East
Syria gets UN security seat
28 Sep 01 | Middle East
Syria cautions EU on terror fight
25 Sep 01 | Middle East
Arafat's Syria meeting cancelled
10 Sep 01 | Middle East
Democracy activists held in Syria
06 Sep 01 | Middle East
Lebanese bishops criticise Syria
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