From FT.com By Roula Khalaf and James Blitz in London
Published: October 31 2006 18:49 | Last updated: October 31 2006 18:49
Tony Blair, Britain’s prime minister, has launched a secret diplomatic gambit to prise Syria away from its support for radical Middle East groups and policies.
In a secret diplomatic initiative that is unlikely to be well-received by Washington, Mr Blair this week sent Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his most senior foreign policy adviser, to Damascus where he met President Bashar al-Assad and other senior figures in the regime.
Downing Street and the Syrian government on Tuesday night confirmed that Sir Nigel, a close aide of Mr Blair, met Mr Assad on Monday.
Although the UK and Syria have maintained diplomatic relations, Sir Nigel’s visit is the highest level encounter between the UK government and the Assad regime since the Iraq war.
Downing Street on Tuesday insisted that the visit did not mark any change of strategy by the UK towards Syria. The US and UK continue to believe that Mr Assad is backing insurgent groups in Iraq, and meddling in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories – charges that Syria denies.
However, Mr Blair – now in the final months of his premiership – wishes to use these “back channel” discussions to test whether senior figures in the Syrian regime want to engage in the Middle East peace process and rethink their close alliance with Iran. The prime minister is still personally focused on the Israel-Palestine peace process – and could pay another trip to the region before the end of the year. But he believes that the success of any initiative would first require Syria to rethink its stance on relations with Israel and Iran.
The Damascus-based leaders of the Palestinian group Hamas are believed to be obstructing plans for a Palestinian national unity government. In Beirut, Lebanese officials claim Syria is trying to supply weapons to Hizbollah and working to undermine the government dominated by pro-western forces.
The UK move on Syria puts Britain out of step with the Bush administration. The US, which pulled its ambassador out of Damascus last year, considers engagement with Syria would only encourage more mischief by the Assad regime.
However, a Congressional committee headed by James Baker, former secretary of state, is now looking at US options in Iraq and may recommend renewed contact with Syria over Iraq’s future.
Britain’s relations with Syria reached a new low last year after the assassination in Beirut of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and Syrian opponent. A United Nations probe is looking at the alleged Syrian role in the killing.
International pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and left it deeply isolated, even within the Arab world. Politicians in Beirut say that Damascus wants the UN investigation dropped in return for changing its foreign policies.
Engagement with Syria, however, became fashionable again this summer during the month-long war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. European officials have been arguing for engagement to move Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran.
Since the end of the war Mr Assad has renewed his calls for a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel on a return of Syria’s Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel, however, has dismissed the overtures. The US has shown little interest in encouraging new negotiations, insisting that Damascus’ ultimate goal is to regain control over Lebanon.