Peter Mandelson: My verdict on Syria's young leader: a decent man doing a difficult job

'It was the most relaxed and honest exchange I am ever likely to have with a foreign head of state'

Thursday 01 November 2001 01:00

I am a friend and supporter of Israel, and nothing that has happened recently has diminished that commitment. My stance did not stop me, however, travelling to Syria, supposed foe of Israel, at the turn of this year. In fact, politics had nothing to do with my plans, except in the sense that I wanted a short break before the resumption of intensive negotiations in Northern Ireland last January (subsequently derailed by my departure from office).

I still play my tape of the car music that accompanied my five-day journey across the country, which my driver presented to me on my departure. Politics barely intruded in all the conversations I had with new Syrian acquaintances, except for one unexpected diversion from my plans in Damascus. The young Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, invited me to call at his home and, standing down my guide for 30 minutes, I changed into collar and tie and sped off to greet him. Three and a half hours later I returned to my mystified guide after what I can only describe as the most relaxed and honest exchange I am ever likely to have with a foreign head of state.

Why did it take so long ? Because Bashar is an intelligent and cultured individual who, having lived and studied in London, wanted to show off his perfect English (unfortunately I did not meet his English wife); but also because, like so many leaders of his type and generation, he is looking for a fresh paradigm for his country that will rescue it from economic backwardness without plunging it into political chaos. Hu Jintao, visiting London this week from China, could tell an identical story.

Syria's case history is instructive. Dogged throughout most of the last century by violent coups, military dictatorships and one-party rule, it found stability of sorts under Bashar's father, Hafez al Assad. Assad senior was famous for his personality cult and ruthlessness and his militant opposition to the State of Israel.

On his death last year, power unexpectedly passed to Bashar, not yet groomed and arguably unready for the burdens of office placed upon him. Without pausing for breath, Bashar had to work out from scratch what he stood for, what he wanted and how he was going to achieve it. Surrounded by the power plays of his father's elderly court that have lived on past his father's reign, he has had to establish himself from a standing start as a true embodiment of the Assad dynasty and also a challenger of everything it stands for. In a very different political climate from our own, it makes New Labour's task look straightforward.

And it was our political experience that kept us talking for our three and a half hours. It does not matter whether I liked Bashar (although I did) or whether he was being totally open with me. What matters is that he is trying to run a country that is alive with competing pressures and tensions, all of which have been made a hundred times worse by the actions of al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden. Bashar no more needs his people polarised into rival Islamic camps – divided over support for the infidel Americans or the crazy bin Laden – than he needs a hole in the head.

There are Muslim fundamentalists agitating in his country, like every other Arab nation. He has to tread carefully. His task is to create enlightenment and spread reform without providing a pretext for rabble-rousers and religious reactionaries to stir the masses and pitch them against his rule. The last time this was attempted in Syria, his father responded by razing much of the town of Hama to the ground by means of a 10-day artillery bombardment of unparalleled brutality.

Nobody imagines that such a course is open to Bashar, or that he would seek it. But this makes it all the more necessary for him to feel his way and to maintain the careful balance of his administration; and to recognise that, among his (Muslim) people, the clearcut virtues of the war against (Islamic) terrorism do not look so simple, or right, from the other end of the telescope, where the politics are about nationalism as well as religion, and about culture as well as human rights.

That does not make it right for Syria to give shelter to Hamas or Hizbollah or any other Arab terrorist group, any more than it is desirable for the provisional IRA to maintain arms dumps in the Republic of Ireland or for the Real IRA to base itself in that country. In Ireland's case, however, the Government is attempting to move against or curtail both of these organisations, while in Syria there is no evidence of similar action – although the country's internal politics might make this very difficult.

Most of my discussion with Bashar was about his country's development and the experiences that Britain has had. But we touched on the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. I offered some lessons from my time in Northern Ireland, stressing the need for a process of some sort to exist, whatever the strains. I argued that confidence-building, on both sides, is vital, whatever the pressures. The two sides had to meet halfway for negotiations to have a chance of success. He did not disagree with any of this. He merely pointed out that some in Israel seemed determined to go in the opposite direction, and that while he was prepared to settle for land in exchange for peace, Israeli settlers had a very different conception of what that meant.

I did not pursue the subject except to point out that the behaviour of Israeli settlers did not constitute an expansionist policy of the state as a whole. I would say that Bashar was less than convinced by this observation and I wonder, in that light, what his views would be now, 10 months and many mutual provocations and savage killings later.

In two weeks' time I will find myself in Israel to speak at the annual Balfour declaration anniversary dinner. I suspect I will encounter the same sort of apprehension and concern about the turn of events that the Prime Minister has discovered on his visit to Damascus. Nobody benefits from terrorism. It is a cancer whose tentacles spread to every country and society, whatever its origins. That is why the Bashars of this world know that it has to be countered. Our job is to make it easier for them to help without compromising the objectives of the task.

The author was the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, 1999-2001

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