Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed personal interest in the domestic reform program begun by Syria’s new President Bashar al-Assad in 2000. Blair wrote an article at the time, saying that Syria was “a power in the Middle East, a leader of Arab opinion, central to any comprehensive peace deal with Israel, and a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council”.
He visited the capital Damascus shortly after September 11, 2001, to recruit Syria into the international “war on terror” that was being launched on Afghanistan. The two men could not agree on a definition of terrorism; with Assad saying, “We should differentiate between combating terrorism and war. We did not say we support an international coalition for war. We are always against war.” The Syrian leader added, “We, and I personally, differentiate between resistance and terrorism. Resistance is a social, religious and legal right that is safeguarded by UN resolutions.”
London’s Guardian newspaper then reported that following this conference, Blair confided to friends, “I was saying to him [Assad], you have to help to renew the Middle East peace process. He was saying to me, if you want moderate Islam to defeat Islamic fundamentalists, I also need your help.” The newspaper added that Blair had been “dressed down” in Damascus.
When Assad went to London in 2002 it was generally believed the reason was to extend a friendly hand to the Western world in a public relations campaign aimed at polishing Syria’s image following 9/11. In London, Assad portrayed a very civilized, classy and well-groomed image. He met with Syrians living in Britain, visited businessmen, politicians and held a meeting with both Queen Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles, who promised to soon visit Damascus. Assad found time to visit his former classmates and professors who taught him while he underwent his medical residency in Britain in the early 1990s.
The Syrian leader was showing the international community that Syria was a modern nation and that he was with the civilized world and not with the terrorists. To make his point clearly heard, and show that Syria was as far as possible from fundamentalism, he brought along a large business delegation composed of Syrian women entrepreneurs.
According to one observer who is close to both Syria and Great Britain, “They [Assad and his wife] were charming, modest and warm with just the right touch of informality that the British appreciate.” Another Syrian objective was to explain the Arab perspective with regard to the then-impending US war on Iraq. Some in the West, however, speculated that Blair would use the visit as an opportunity to recruit Assad into a war on Iraq.
But Syria worked against the US war on Iraq and relations with Britain remained lukewarm until Blair left office in 2007. Before leaving, however, he watched the US-imposed isolation on Syria crumble when Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos visited Syria in 2006, right after the end of the Lebanon war, followed by Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief foreign policy negotiator, in March 2007.
Solana offered the Syrians a series of economic incentives, including the signing of the EU Partnership Agreement, in exchange to finding a solution to the crisis in Lebanon. London’s perception of Syria began to change, as well as that of Europe. The British – as Foreign Secretary David Miliband clearly said this week from Damascus – now see Syria as a problem-solver, rather than a problem-seeker in the Arab world.
Among other things, it was reasoned that getting rid of Hezbollah in Lebanon through military force was impossible – as Israel found out in 2006. Israel clearly could not do it, and nor could UN Resolution 1701, which distanced the Lebanese group from Lebanon’s border with Israel. The only way was to get the Syrians to cooperate on changing Hezbollah’s behavior, either directly through their considerable weight in Lebanon, or indirectly through Iran.
Syria, for example, helped release the 15 British sailors taken hostage by Iran in 2007, and also helped release BBC reporter Alan Johnston from the hands of an Islamic group that was reportedly close to Hamas in Palestine. Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Palestine paid off, but the real breakthrough came when Syria started indirect peace talks with Israel, and helped solve the crisis in Lebanon last May.
The fact that Syria was willing to enter into indirect talks with Israel – under the auspices of a world-recognized honest broker like Turkey – was proof that the Syrians were not as bad as the world had thought since 2003. Before that, the Syrians had gone to the Annapolis peace conference in the US in 2007, despite objections from allies like Hamas and Iran, aimed at showing the Americans that they were in fact serious about finding solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The turning point came when French President Nicolas Sarkozy began engaging both Damascus and Hezbollah, to find constructive solutions to the presidential crisis in Lebanon, in 2007. When the Doha agreement – which had Syria’s fingerprints all over it – was hammered out in May, Sarkozy invited Assad to Paris in July. In September, he went to Damascus – signaling a clear break from the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac – and met with Assad to discuss the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkish mediation.
Miliband steps in
Based on the above, Miliband arrived in Damascus on November 17 for talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem and Assad. His visit, the first for a senior British official since 2001, signals a new start in Syrian-British relations.
Speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Monday, shortly before visiting the historical Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City, Miliband said that Syria had an “essential role” to play in securing Middle East peace.
The young secretary (43) was clearly pleased by his visit, being taken to the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlor in the Old City, and given a chance to meet with Syrian statesmen and activists in civil society. Miliband, who had hosted Moualem in London in October, hailed Syria’s “new approach” to dealing with Middle East problems, saying, “I think it is important for us to find ways for Syria to play a constructive role in the future of the Middle East. Syria is a secular state in the Middle East. It has the potential to play a stabilizing role in the region.”
The secretary added, “In a significant way, there has been an important change in the approach of the Syrian government, notably the historic decision to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon.” Miliband’s Syria agenda revolves around four topics: cooperation in combating terrorism, Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle East peace process.
He noted, “We have been consistently emphasizing the importance of Syrian cooperation on all four of those dossiers,” and acknowledged Syrian cooperation on border security with Iraq, adding, “The funneling of foreign fighters and arms into Iraq over the last 15 to 16 months has certainly been curtailed.” This is new talk from London, in light of an upcoming change in US policy towards Syria, after the victory of president-elect Barack Obama.
In 2006, Blair sent senior diplomat Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, where he presented five British concerns to Syria after having met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. They were: support of the political process in Iraq, backing for Mahmud Abbas in Palestine, combating terrorism, Iran and ending the political tension in Lebanon. Syria immediately responded by sending Walid al-Moualem to Baghdad, where he extended his country’s support for the US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He talked Hamas into accepting a Palestinian government and relinquishing the post of prime minister. That declaration was specifically made by Hamas statesman Musa Abu Marzkouk from Damascus, telling the British that the initiative also had Syrian fingerprints on it. Syria’s performance in combating terrorism was already advanced, given its own national interest in doing so.
More recently, it showed that it can provide results as well – such as during the sailor crisis with Iran, and in Lebanon through the Doha Agreement. David W Lesch, a Syria expert who teaches at Trinity College in the US and who authored a biography of Assad, told Asia Times Online, “Foreign Secretary Miliband, who is an ambitious politician jostling for possible leadership of the Labour Party, is striking out in the hope of enhancing his own personal stature as well as paving a path London hopes the new Obama administration will soon follow.”
Lesch, who recently wrapped up a meeting with Assad, added, “From Syria’s perspective, it continues the more than a year-long process of breaking out from US-led isolation, and clearly sends positive signals to the new US administration, and offers an opportunity to, perhaps, assess the possibility of a new US policy direction in the Middle East through the eyes of a trusted US ally.”
It is also reported that the main focus of Miliband’s visit was the reestablishment of high-level intelligence cooperation between Britain and Syria, which apparently began in secret a few months ago, before The Times of London broke the story. The newspaper reported: The newly revived intelligence relationship could be hugely beneficial to Britain. Syria is known to have one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around the region.
Syria is certainly storming back onto the world stage.
Sami Moubayed is Forward Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Syria.