By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 02/11/06):
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, but 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 out 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 Palestine’s 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 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 proxy for a more fastidious Washington, had little option but to listen politely and make nice, as Downing Street’s highly respectful tone yesterday indicated. “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 now raises more questions than it answers. One is whether Syria will really collaborate on Palestine and Lebanon. Another is whether the US is fully on board. At present the prime minister risks becoming the filling in an unpalatable sandwich.
Former 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 Syria’s collaboration is essential. Not coincidentally perhaps, officials said yesterday that Syria’s 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 democracy promotion. 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.