This is a new feature for the Syria News Wire. As well as regular fresh, original news updates, we will be republishing the best comment/op-ed pieces on Syria. This is from The Guardian (UK).
Britain’s secret overture to Damascus is unlikely to be music to Washington’s ears, writes Simon Tisdall
Wednesday November 1, 2006
It seems an odd time to go knocking on Bashar al-Assad’s front door – or in the case of Sir Nigel Sheinwald, Tony Blair’s secret envoy to Damascus, slipping in round the back for a quiet chat. Only a year ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington and European capitals was that the Syrian president was on the skids. Now it seems he is calling the shots.
Mr Assad’s humiliating troop withdrawal from Lebanon, beefed-up US sanctions, supposed dissent within his regime, and the UN’s inquiry into Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri were all key elements in Mr Assad’s anticipated downfall.
And when Ghazi Kanaan, Syria’s interior minister and former intelligence chief in Lebanon, died in mysterious circumstances in October last year, it did indeed seem that Mr Assad was losing his grip. Mr Kanaan supposedly committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth. Marketplace rumours darkly suggested he was bumped off for secretly collaborating with the UN inquiry, the US, or both.
But like his famously resilient father Hafez, the so-called Lion of Damascus, Mr Assad rode the storm and events began to turn in his favour. The promise of Lebanon’s much-hyped “cedar revolution” was lost in renewed political infighting. Hamas, the militant faction backed by Damascus, won power in Palestinian elections. The threat posed by the Hariri inquiry gradually faded.
Spiralling sectarian and insurgent violence in Iraq, close ally Iran’s ever more confident rejection of western pressure, and finally, Hizbullah’s self-proclaimed summer “victory” over Israeli forces in Lebanon have all served to fortify Mr Assad politically while affording him new tactical options.
So when Sir Nigel unexpectedly turned up on the doorstep on Monday, the UK envoy was hardly in a position to set the agenda, let alone dictate terms. Britain, in its now familiar capacity of sleeves-rolled up proxy for a more fastidious Washington, had little option but to listen politely and make nice, as Downing Street’s highly respectful tone today indicates.
“We all know that Syria is part of the reality on the ground in the Middle East and therefore it can play either a constructive or destructive role,” Mr Blair’s spokesman said. “We obviously would hope that it will play a constructive role. But in the end, the Syrian government will decide what it believes is in Syria’s best interests.”
Mr Blair’s off-the-cuff opening to Damascus raises more questions than it answers. One is whether Syria will really collaborate in practical ways on Lebanon and the Palestinian situation. Another is whether the US is fully on board. At present, the prime minister risks becoming the filling in an unpalatable sandwich.
Former US secretary of state James Baker is expected to recommend high-level engagement with Syria – and Iran – as part of an Iraq strategy review. Many senior Republicans as well as Democrats believe that if Iraq is to fend for itself after a withdrawal of foreign forces, Syria’s collaboration is essential. No coincidence perhaps that officials said the Syrian foreign minister may soon visit Baghdad for the first time since Saddam fell.
But even though improved relations could also help isolate Iran and increase pressure on Hamas to moderate its views, Washington hardliners will oppose a Syrian rapprochement. The Dick Cheney wing of the Republican party and assorted neo-conservatives would portray it as a base betrayal of the Bush “freedom doctrine” of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
For Mr Blair the timing has much to do with his own impending departure and his hopes, after so much war-making, of a peace-making legacy. But few share his sense of urgency – and his is a walk-on part. As usual in the Middle East, the main protagonists are playing a longer game.