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Monday, 16 December, 2002, 19:46 GMT
Assad engages politics of politeness
Bashar al-Assad
Mr Assad toned down his previous forcefulness

They probably disagree as much as ever but a calm atmosphere was evident during a news conference at 10 Downing Street between Tony Blair and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr Assad dealt with the possible war against Iraq by saying he was "optimistic now" and by calling for the UN weapons inspectors to be given a chance to do their job.

He made no mention of the warning against war that he had delivered in an interview in advance of his visit.

Was this because he missed an opportunity or was he softening his position?

Perhaps he was just being polite in someone else's house.

Sweet talk

Mr Blair did not confirm reports that Britain was likely to conclude that the declaration Iraq made about its weapons programmes on 7 December was inadequate because it did not account for materials (including nerve gas) still missing when the UN inspectors left Iraq in 1998.

Tony Blair in Damascus in October 2001
Mr Blair was lectured by Mr Assad in Damascus in October 2001

Such a conclusion is quite possible and it would mean that Iraq had failed the first test of its declaration and that the road to war could be open.

The British purpose in inviting President Assad was probably to sweet-talk Syria, which currently holds one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council.

Syria voted for inspections resolution 1441, which was very welcome for London and Washington.

In an ideal world, they would want Syria to follow this up with a vote for military action if Iraq did not co-operate fully.

That is likely to be a hope too far, but rhetoric and language is important in diplomacy, so any effort to lessen criticism is regarded as worthwhile by British diplomats.

Uprising repressed

It was all very different from the last time Mr Blair and President Assad met, in Damascus in October 2001 after the 11 September attacks in the US.

Then the young Syrian leader, who took over the presidency when his father Hafez al-Assad died in June 2000, lectured Mr Blair about the danger of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and about the difference between terrorism and resistance.

Syria, he declared, was against terrorism and had been for decades.

Nizar Hindawi
The Hindawi plot led to a break in UK-Syria ties

Indeed, the secular government of his father bloodily repressed an Islamic uprising in Syria in 1982.

He did not refer to the case of Nizar Hindawi, who in 1986 was allegedly given a bomb by Syrian intelligence officer which he passed to his pregnant girlfriend who then unwittingly tried to take it on board an El Al flight at Heathrow.

Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Syria after that incident.

This time, there was no mention of Afghanistan and although Mr Assad stuck by his definition of terrorism, he was not so forceful.

'Cultural differences'

Palestinians in Damascus representing Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Lebanese representing Hezbollah, he said, were press officers not terrorists, as Britain believes.

He attributed any disagreement about this to "cultural differences" and "geographical distance".

Mr Blair merely remarked that he condemned anyone who ''engages in terrorist activities anywhere in the world''.

The US State Department lists Syria as a ''state supporting terrorism'', partly on the basis of those Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad offices in Damascus.

On the so-called Middle East "peace process", and one is reluctant even to use that term given its current state, there was the usual expression of hope - but nothing to indicate that that hope was justified.

The BBC's Paul Harper
"To some it made no sense to give the red carpet treatment to a leader with almost as bad a record on democracy as Saddam"
See also:

16 Dec 02 | Politics
25 Sep 02 | Conflict with Iraq
19 Mar 02 | Middle East
16 Dec 02 | Middle East
13 Dec 02 | Middle East
12 Dec 02 | Crossing Continents
04 Sep 02 | Business
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
01 Nov 01 | Middle East
30 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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