Blair Set to Open Washington’s Road to Damascus. Next Stop Tehran

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The primary object of the new Spanish-Italian-French Middle East “peace plan” is to insert European military forces into the Gaza Strip after establishing themselves in the expanded UNIFIL in South Lebanon. In furtherance of their goal, the European Union endorsed the UN resolution’s call Friday, Nov. 17, for Israel to pull out of Gaza, although its withdrawal to the UN-approved line was completed in September 2005.
European assertiveness is coming at the expense of the Bush administration’s post-election weakness. Its tenaciously-held premise that the roads to all the region’s woes lead back to the Israel-Palestinian issue is already reflected in these two European steps, the first of a systematic campaign of crushing pressure on Israel to fall into line.
The campaign will peak in the third week of December, when British premier Tony Blair is due to visit Damascus to open the road for Washington (as first revealed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 278 on Nov, 17).
As a down-payment for buying Syrian president Bashar Asad’s cooperation on Iraq, Blair will try and coerce Israel to accept talks with Syria for the return of the Golan captured in the 1967 war.
Last Monday, Nov. 13, prime minister Ehud Olmert rather naively claimed he and President George W. Bush were of one mind that Israel must not sit down and talk to Syria until the Asad regime had abandoned its sponsorship of terror.
As he spoke, three high-ranking US officials – David Satterfield, the state department’s coordinator for Iraq,J.D. Crouch, deputy national security adviser, and Condoleezza Rice’s assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, David Welch – were deep in arrangements for the Blair visit to Damascus, which they see as the key for opening the door to direct US-Tehran talks.
The fresh US-European Middle East momentum on the Palestinian issue is being crafted as a positive counterweight to the negative effect of the impending American-British withdrawal from Iraq. The groundwork for this ploy was laid by Blair’s senior political adviser Nigel Sheinwald, when he met Asad in Damascus in late October (as first reported by debkafile).
He brought back welcome tidings from his meeting: Damascus and Tehran did not see eye to eye on Iraq; Asad said he felt no compulsion to stick to the Iranian line in the embattled country. Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly also revealed that former US ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobie, would follow Blair to the Syrian capital. Now stationed in Iraq, she was abruptly withdrawn from Damascus in 2005 at the height of the crisis between Washington and Damascus. It is hoped that her return, formally designated as a visit to take leave of old friends in the Syrian hierarchy, will occasion a meeting with the Syrian president. This would be taken as the first sign of a thaw in US-Syrian relations.
The two Damascus visits are meant to be the conduit to the start of Washington’s dialogue with Tehran.
Blair’s most recent foreign policy statements are at odds with the positions he and Bush have shared – unless seen in the context of these behind-the-scenes diplomatic feelers. Through this prism, they sound like an effort to prepare American and British public opinion for the extreme policy reversal embodied in his impending visit to Damascus in the role of appeaser. The pacifier he means to offer for Syria’s cooperation on Iraq: massive Israeli concessions.
In an interview to the Washington Post Thursday, Nov. 16, Prime Minister Tony Blair was suddenly optimistic about progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that “sensible Arab and Muslim countries” now see “strategic reasons” for finding a solution and new initiatives could come within weeks.
In a closed-door video conference Tuesday with the US Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel in Washington reviewing Iraq policy, Blair said that any solution to Iraq must begin with progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is the one issue, he insisted, that unresolved allows extremists to gain purchase on the more moderate elements of the Muslim and Arab world.
Then, talking to David Frost on al Jazeera’s new English language program Saturday, Blair again stressed the importance of progress in the Middle East peace process in winning the “war on terror”. But he admitted for the first time that Western intervention in Iraq had “so far been pretty much of a disaster.”
debkafile‘s Middle East sources note that very few people in Washington, London or Damascus understood why President Bush’s leading ally in the Iraq war had suddenly turned against him. But Blair’s eye, say those sources, was very much on the Damascus ball; he was signaling the Syrian leader that he and Asad were now on the same side: the two leaders should together take a lead role in solving the burning issues of Iraq, the Middle East dispute and Iran. He implied that the US president, whose party had lost control of Congress, like Olmert, who had lost the Lebanon war, no longer held controlling stakes in the must urgent regional issues, whereas Blair and Asad were now in a position to seize the high ground.
The Sheinwald mission in late October tactfully avoided mention of Damascus’ role as headquarters for radical Palestinian terrorist groups. Asad was only warned off schemes to topple the Fouad Siniora government in Beirut. Informed that such machinations would bring the new rapprochement to an abrupt halt, Asad is quoted as saying he understands perfectly the fragility of Lebanon’s situation.
debkafile‘s sources note that the Sheiwald likewise avoided referring to Syria’s long service to the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists as a strategic haven and supply center for fighters and arms. Asad was thus given to understand that for London, the rancor over the Iraq war was water under the bridge and the way forward out of what he later admitted was a “disaster” was the paramount consideration.
All this radical shifting around of US and British positions for the sake of an exit from Iraq, coupled with Europe’s maneuvering to make hay on the Palestinian-Israeli front, leave the Jewish state prey to crippling pressures as well as dangerously exposed to Iran, whose nuclear weapons aspirations remain unsolved in the stampede to leave Iraq. Tehran’s proxy Hizballah, Syria and the Palestinian Hamas will be left in peace to advance on their agenda for rapid armament and preparations for the next war.
There is still a month to go before the British prime minister’s projected mission to Damascus, time enough for the notoriously fickle Syrian ruler to change his mind or for the Iranians to derail the plan – unless the ayatollahs are assured they playing a winner’s game.

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