Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Blair in Secret Overture to Damascus

Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, has launched a secret diplomatic move to prise Syria away from its support for radical Middle East groups and policies.

In an initiative that departs from the US policy of isolating Syria, Mr Blair this week sent Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his most senior foreign policy adviser, to Damascus where he met Bashar al-Assad, the president, and other senior figures in the regime.

Downing Street and the Syrian government confirmed on Tuesday night that Sir Nigel, one of Mr Blair's closest aides, met Mr Assad on Monday.

The UK and Syria have maintained diplomatic relations but Sir Nigel's visit is the most high-level encounter between the UK government and the Assad regime since the Iraq war in 2003. The mission precedes a visit to the region that Mr Blair hopes to make before the year's end.

Downing Street insisted the visit did not mark any change of strategy by the UK towards Syria. The US and the UK continue to believe Mr Assad is backing insurgent groups in Iraq, and meddling in Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories -- charges Syria denies.

However, Mr Blair -- now in the final months of his premiership -- wishes to use these "back channel" talks to test whether the Syrian regime is serious about seeking to play a constructive role in Middle East peace negotiations with Israel. Britain would also like to see Syria rethink its close alliance with Iran.

Mr Blair once placed high hopes on the British-educated Mr Assad but the UK has found Syria an unwilling ally in its Middle East goals. ...

The initiative puts Britain out of step with current Bush administration thinking, though the US said it had been advised in advance of Mr Sheinwald's visit.


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