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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 22:13 GMT
Syria trip 'opens bridge for dialogue'
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Tony Blair is the first British prime minister to Syria
By BBC Newsnight's political editor Martha Kearney

This was the first visit ever of a British prime minister to Syria and its unlikely that the trip would have taken place before the attacks on 11 September.

People will have to come back to resolve their differences

Tony Blair
Syria is on the US list of states that sponsor terrorism but Downing Street officials, briefing on the plane to Damascus, stressed that there is now a new dynamic, a new opportunity to both reinvigorate the peace process and to find ways of addressing the underlying causes of terrorism.

But at a joint press conference held at a Soviet-style presidential palace in Damascus the differences between the two countries could not have been more stark.

President Bashar al-Assad made an emotional attack on the allied action against Afghanistan but Tony Blair was adamant in his defence of the bombing.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
President al-Assad: Attacked allied action in Afghanistan
President Bashar also refused to make any concessions about the extremist groups that operate from Syria - the PFLP which claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, Rechavam Ze'evy, has its headquarters in Damascus.

President Bashar described these groups as freedom fighters and compared them to French Resistance fighters like De Gaulle.

Mr Blair said that his visit to Syria was essential to "reach an understanding of each other's perspective".

"There is no alternative when all the killing and bloodshed stops.

"People will have to come back to resolve their differences," he told reporters.

Later the prime minister let it be known that he felt the private meeting with President Bashar had gone well and he appealed to the Syrian President to use his influence over these groups to create a period of calm in which negotiations in the Middle East peace process could take place.

Heated dialogue

Mr Blair makes frequent comparisons to the Northern Ireland peace process, stressing that it is important to talk to everyone.

He himself faced criticism when he initially held talks with Irish Republicans.

Downing Street was also keen to give a positive gloss to the earlier differences at the press conference.

British officials stressed that Syria had taken a softer line on the Middle East peace process by not contradicting Mr Blair when he talked about Israel's right to exist.

Overall Downing Street's line is that they have opened up a bridge for dialogue but they surely could not have expected that dialogue to be quite so heated during a state visit.

See also:

31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Arab world gives Blair tough message
30 Oct 01 | UK Politics
We will not falter, says Blair
30 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel considers further withdrawal
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair urges Mid-East progress
15 Oct 01 | Middle East
Q&A: A Palestinian state?
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