One of the West’s slickest politicians, British prime minister Tony Blair, has began working his way toward converting his decision to pull British troops out of Basra into leverage for a British comeback to the Arab world. In this way, the failure of his Iraq policy would turn into a personal success story.
His senior political adviser Nigel Sheinwald turned up this week in Damascus and was quickly received by President Bashar Asad and foreign minister Walid Mualem – long-strained relations between London and Damascus notwithstanding.
There has been plenty of resentment on both sides because of British involvement in Iraq alongside the United States, the close ties between Damascus and Tehran, the aid British Middle East MI6 agents tendered the UN commission probing the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri – to name just a few of the issues.
This aid could prove devastating in the next two months should the UN commission wind up its work with recommendations to set up a special international tribunal to charge Syrian leaders, including members of Asad’s family – or even the president himself – with complicity in the assassination.
Apparently oblivious to this accumulation of bad blood, Blair sent Sheinwald over with a couple of messages for Asad, summed up here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources:
Now that Blair has decided to pull his forces out of Iraq, starting with Basra, he would be glad to open a fresh page in British relations with the Muslim Arab world, starting in Damascus. His emissary went on to explain that London is the European capital best-placed for this step: whereas France has a history of anti-Syrian involvement in Lebanon and volunteered to lead the UN peace force in the south, Britain has stayed clear of both involvements and is therefore untainted.
The British envoy had another carrot for the Syrian president:
Before sending him to Damascus, Blair phoned the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and offered to act as a postbox for any messages Olmert might wish to send Asad as a starting point for talks between Jerusalem and Damascus. The Israeli prime minister not only replied in the affirmative but empowered his British counterpart to explore Asad’s real intentions above and beyond his public utterances, some of them pretty aggressive.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that upon the return to London of his adviser, Blair called Olmert again with a positive reply from Asad; the message was that he was ready for preliminary secret talks to start. The British premier offered his services for carrying more messages between Jerusalem and Damascus unless Olmert preferred another channel.
The Israeli prime minister said he would think about it and reply within a few days.
On the subject of Lebanon, Sheinwald advised the Syrian president to stop backing the plot hatched by pro-Syrian elements to overthrow the Fouad Siniora government in Beirut. The British view Damascus’ support for the conspiracy as one of Asad’s ploys to save his close relatives being tried for a role in the Hariri murder.
Under UN resolution 1559, a special international tribunal for the murder can only be set up with the consent of the Lebanese government. Toppling the anti-Syrian administration in Beirut would get round this provision. The British envoy indicated that if the Syrian ruler was willing to take real action to stop the smuggling of weapons and insurgent elements to Iraq, a way might be found out of the difficulty posed by the UN murder probe.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources, the British premier’s initial foray into mending his Arab fences was quickly – albeit indirectly – shouted down on Nov. 1, by a chorus of US officials – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and UN ambassador John Bolton – who accused Damascus of plotting not only to oust Siniora but to murder him.
The chorus was orchestrated after Lebanon’s anti-Syrian Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in secret talks with Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 31, provided chapter and verse for his charge that Syria and Hizballah were conspiring to liquidate the Lebanese prime minister, politically and physically.
Deeply impressed by this report, Cheney instructed Rice to step up the pressure on Syria. Sheinwald’s Damascus mission – and Blair’s hopes of using the British withdrawal from Basra to lever the UK back into the Levant – fell by the wayside.