President Assad receives a warm welcome into Blair's mutual admiration club

Robert Fisk
Monday 16 December 2002 01:00 GMT
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"In Europe we trust" – or maybe it's just "In Britain we trust". Whether the Syrians really believe Tony Blair can stop the invasion of Iraq, produce a just peace in the Middle East and secure the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights, it says a lot that President Bashar al-Assad – after visiting France, Germany, Italy and Spain – should really believe that Britain, the hopeless mandate power in Palestine, can help his country.

You might have thought the Arabs would be as sick of Europe as many of them are of America. But no, the mutual admiration club goes on.

Britain believes that Mr Assad still wants to "liberalise'' his country – and we'll forget the state security courts and the imprisonment of reformists in Damascus for the time being – while Syria believes that Britain struggles for a comprehensive Middle East peace and against an invasion of Iraq.

Mr Blair was the first British prime minister to visit Syria. So Mr Assad is the first Syrian president to visit Britain, albeit that his British training as an ophthalmologist means that he knows London rather well.

So over the coming two days, we are going to hear all about Mr Assad's familiarity with London, Britain's gratitude to Syria for voting in favour of the United Nations Iraqi-disarming Security Council resolution 1441 and the central role of Damascus in any future Middle East peace. President Assad's extremely well-educated young wife is a great credit to him – so we shall see her picture in the papers every day.

But real life has a habit of strolling on to the stage of the Middle East. So here's a bit of real life.

Syria is in great danger. Its renewed trade links with Iraq will be cut the moment the Americans invade. Israel is daily accusing Syria of involvement in "terror'' – because it hosts nine Palestinian militant groups in Damascus and supports the Hizbollah in southern Lebanon – and the Americans, by courtesy of the Israeli lobby, are trying to turn Syria into a pariah state.

If the United States occupies Iraq, Syrians will have Israeli troops to the south of them, Israeli aircraft and warships along the Mediterranean coast to the west of them, Turkish and US planes to the north of them and a very large number of American troops to the east of them. Time to go to London?

Farouk al-Sharaa, Syria's Foreign Minister – and a slightly smarter man than our own Jack Straw – will be doing much of the work in London, emphasising Syria's ability to ensure security in the Levant and co-operate with the British (and the Americans) over al-Qa'ida. It has already opened some of its intelligence files to London and Washington.

Mr Straw will be pleading with the Syrians to keep things cool on the southern Lebanese border with Israel, lest Ariel Sharon gets very, very angry and decides to bomb Lebanon – a complicating factor if Britain is busy helping America to invade Iraq.

Europe is happy to portray the Syrians as the good guys for voting in the Security Council for 1441, hoping that Syria will not shout too loudly about Washington's hijacking of the 12,000-page Iraqi weapons manifesto. Syria is happy to have European friends – indeed any friends at all – and President Assad may be persuaded from making egregious remarks about suicide bombers or the Jewish Holocaust.

Britain will hold out the prospect of financial aid to Syria, whose lethargic economy is still hostage to the old men of the Baath Party. Mr Blair, I dare say, will offer to put in a good word for Mr Assad at the White House. In Syria, we trust.

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