Mauled in Syria, frustrated in Israel, but Blair remains a man with a mission

War on Terrorism: Diplomacy
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The Independent Online

As Tony Blair arrived at Heathrow airport early today, he could have been forgiven for wondering whether he should have entered the minefield of Middle East politics.

Having endured an embarrassing public rift with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and a robust encounter with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, Mr Blair knew his latest bout of shuttle diplomacy had failed to deliver favourable headlines. But despite appearances to the contrary, the Prime Minister and his entourage insisted his trip had been a qualified success.

There was a sharp contrast between what seemed a presentational disaster and the behind-the-scenes glimmers of hope. Perhaps for the first time, Downing Street realised that the spin and soundbites that had served New Labour so well at home lacked the subtlety so often needed for international diplomacy.

After a gruelling, 7,000-mile trip that had taken in five countries and one proto-state in Palestine, Mr Blair looked tired, but his enthusiasm remained undimmed. Acutely aware of the criticism that he was an innocent abroad, naively seeking to right the world's wrongs, he refused to be deflected from his attempt to restart the Middle East peace process.

As Mr Blair said at yesterday's press conference with Mr Sharon: "The one thing that is clear is that this is a very, very difficult and fraught situation, but I think it's better to be here and take part first hand and listen to what people have to say."

When he left London on Tuesday, Mr Blair set out with a clear plan, and armed with one or two choice phrases to repeat throughout the trip. On the peace process, he would stress there were two "fixed points" to which all parties would have to return: the existence and security of Israel alongside a stable, legitimate Palestinian state. His other, equally important, message was to say that "violence from whatever quarter" and "terrorism in all its forms" had to end.

He hoped such public messages would provide enough cover for the real business of his mission – to secure promises of military aid from the Saudis and crucial new engagement in the peace process by the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians.

Within minutes of the start of his meeting with Mr Assad, Mr Blair judged that the new young President could offer the fresh thinking that was vital for any resolution of the region's problems. Nevertheless, the Blair party was taken aback when Mr Assad launched into vigorous criticism of the Allied bombing, as he stood alongside the Prime Minister in a televised press conference in a cavernous hall of the presidential palace in Damascus. Mr Blair realised immediately that the first visit to Syria by a British prime minister was in danger of turning into a public relations fiasco that provided an international platform for Arab criticism of the American and British military action.

However, Mr Blair decided not to go on the offensive, preferring to tell his officials later that there was a significant difference between what the Syrian President had to tell his domestic audience and what he conveyed in private.

Normally such a media disaster would have triggered an inquest into what went wrong. But Mr Blair shrugged off the incident as part of the ritual of diplomacy. As his spokesman put it: "It takes someone to go face to face with each leader and to reassure them that not only we are serious but that other leaders are serious players. This is not about providing instant results, this is about the slow accumulation of understanding of where we are. It was intended to prepare the ground for engagement."

In Saudi Arabia, Mr Blair shrugged off repeated questions about the fact that none of the Arab leaders he had met had expressed support for the bombing. His aides said there was little public criticism by the Saudis and the Jordanians, saying they "fully understand the need for action over Afghanistan" a formulation of words that comes as close as diplomatically possible to tacit support.

Even as Mr Sharon lambasted the Syrians in the garden terrace of the Israeli Prime Minister's residence at his joint press conference with Mr Blair yesterday, the British drew comfort from a two-hour private meeting earlier, when Mr Sharon indicated a willingness to make "painful compromises". But a look of irritation crossed Mr Blair's face as Mr Sharon launched a lengthy diatribe against the Syrian President, with whom Mr Blair had dined a day earlier.

Mr Blair might have been an unlikely peace-maker in the Middle East, but he impressed his Syrian and Israeli hosts with his passion for the Northern Ireland peace process, which has finally paid dividends with the IRA's decision to decommission some of its weapons. As in the Middle East, an end to violence was necessary before any negotiations.

Mr Blair's spokesman underlined the point about the need to "dirty" one's hands in the pursuit of peace later. "No matter how difficult it becomes, no matter how much that it involves taking flak, it is worth doing so," he said. He added: "Just as in Northern Ireland, what people said after a meeting and what they said in private was not the same thing. When it looked as though no progress had been made, some progress had been made. The same is true here – what's said in public is not necessarily the best indication of what happened in private."

The same message was relayed to yesterday's cabinet meeting in London by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. Despite the diplomatic setback, Mr Straw insisted: "There is no one better qualified to lead debate in the Middle East and to lay the foundations for a better future for everybody in the Middle East than our Prime Minister. He has never been one to duck a difficult situation and he did not yesterday and he has not today."

One minister said: "It has been a presentational nightmare and Syria was worse than we expected. But it was still worth it. We have got to show we have not forgotten the Middle East if we are to keep the Arab nations onside."

Mr Blair had an easier time when he met the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, after flying to Gaza City by helicopter.

At a joint press conference, Mr Blair summed up exactly why he believed his trip had been worthwhile.

"One thing I have discovered in these last few days going around this region is the gulf of misunderstanding between the Arabs and Muslims and the Western world," the Prime Minister said. "What the bin Ladens of this world want to do is to widen that gulf. Islam against Christians, Arabs against Westerners or the United States, and I tell you there lies disaster."

The meeting in Gaza was the last scheduled visit of his Middle Eastern mission but, as if to prove his reserves of energy had not been sapped, Mr Blair slotted in a visit to Genoa last night, where he met the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, for a brief discussion on the bombing campaign. He is due back in Britain soon after midnight today.

Next Wednesday, the Blair odyssey will resume when he visits Washington on Concorde for his second White House meeting with President George Bush since the terrorist attacks in America. At least Mr Blair can be assured of a much warmer reception there than he received in the Middle East.