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Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 18:30 GMT
Syrian leader makes historic UK visit
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (l) and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair
Mr Blair held a difficult meeting with Mr Assad last year

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has arrived in Britain for a four-day official visit.

Syria
Currently only Arab member of UN Security Council
Influences Arab opinion
Neighbour of Iraq

Mr al-Assad and his wife, Asma, landed at London's Heathrow airport amid tight security, and received a red carpet welcome.

The crisis in Iraq is likely to be top of President Assad's agenda as he meets Prime Minister Tony Blair and other senior politicians.

In an interview last week he said he believed that an American-led war against Iraq was inevitable and would have serious consequences right across the Middle East.

Mr Assad is also set to meet the Queen on what will be the first official visit to Britain by a Syrian leader.

The trip comes at a time when Britain is trying to forge closer links after a difficult exchange between President Assad and Mr Blair at a news conference in Damascus last year.

President Assad and his wife Asma
Mr Assad studied in Britain and his wife, Asma, grew up in London
Foreign Office officials say the two countries do not pretend to agree on every issue, but Syria is important, they say, because it strongly influences Arab opinion and is also a close neighbour of Iraq.

Syria is the only Arab country which currently has a seat on the UN Security Council and last month, much to everyone's surprise, Syria voted in favour of the tough new UN resolution calling on Iraq to disarm.

Increased liaison

The British view is that Syria, under its new, young, president is changing, and is seeking to engage more closely with the West.

There is now said to be increased liaison between Britain and Syria in the fight against al-Qaeda and international terrorism.

Britain also wants President Assad to use his influence to end the violence carried out by extremist Palestinian groups which have a presence in Damascus.

The Syrian leader, who once trained in Britain as a medical student, will be accompanied on this visit by his wife, who was born and brought up in London.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Biles
"The two countries don't pretend to agree on everything"
See also:

13 Dec 02 | Middle East
04 Sep 02 | Business
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
30 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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