Setting up a Blair Visit to Damascus

Hectic preparations are going ahead in Washington, London and Damascus to arrange an official visit by British prime minister Tony Blair to Damascus between December 17 and 24 when he will be traveling around the Middle East.

This is disclosed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources.

The plan took form after Blair’s senior political adviser Nigel Sheinwald heard from Syrian President Bashar Asad in Damascus in late October that Syria and Iran do not share the same interests in Iraq. The Syrian leader added that his government is under no compulsion to follow Iran’s military and diplomatic policies in Iraq.

(See first disclosure of the Sheinwald mission to Damascus in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 276 on Nov. 3).

The plan, according to our sources, also entails a visit to Damascus by the former US ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobie, straight after the British premier.

Scobie, who is now stationed in Iraq, was withdrawn from Damascus in 2005, since when there is no US ambassador in the Syrian capital. Her return there for a visit, designated as a gesture of farewell from old friends in the Syrian hierarchy, is also designed to elicit a meeting with the Syrian president.

The two visits are intended as the opening chord for American-British interchanges with Syria on Iraq, to lead on from there to moves to start a dialogue with Tehran.

Wednesday, Nov. 15, the state department’s coordinator for Iraq, David Satterfield, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Washington was looking at the timing for a dialogue with Iran. He said America was prepared in principle to re-enter such negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s London sources reveal that Asad explained to Sheinwald that he had parted ways with Tehran on Iraq when the fighting there evolved into a dangerous sectarian conflict from its former war of resistance against foreign occupation. He also assured his British visitor that any cooperation he extended to the Unite States and Britain on Iraq would not be contingent on any other Middle East issues, such as Lebanon, Hizballah, or the outcome of the UN inquiry on the Rafiq Hariri murder.

Our sources add that three Bush administration officials are especially keen on the Blair visit to Damascus. They are J.D. Crouch, deputy national security adviser, US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, David Welch, and David Satterfield.

There is still a month to go before the British prime minister’s projected mission to Damascus. There is time enough for the winds to change in Damascus, for Asad to change his mind or for the Iranians to derail the plan.

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