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MAN WITH HIS OWN AXE TO GRIND

Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad is only a second-generation dictator, not the original, blood-stained model. Which may explain why he escaped inclusion in the “axis of evil”. But he is, like Saddam Hussein, a member of the Baath Party. He gives office-space in Damascus to various Palestinian and Lebanese organizations — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah — that the Americans define terrorist. So senior American government officials cannot be seen talking to President Assad.

Somebody in the so-called coalition that the United States of America is putting together for an attack on Iraq has to talk to Assad, however, since Syria has a common border with Iraq and is the only Arab neighbour of Israel with major military forces that has not yet signed a peace treaty with Jerusalem. The coalition actually has only two avowed members, the US and Britain, which means it is up to Tony Blair.

Assad gave Tony Blair a very rough time when he visited Damascus last year. For all that Assad is a British-trained eye doctor with a British wife (he was not expected to succeed to the presidency until his elder brother died in 1994), he berated Blair in public for Britain’s unquestioning support of Israel, defended Palestinian suicide bombings as legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation, and indulged in some openly anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Local fears

As the insecure heir of his father’s dictatorship, Assad’s priority was to establish his credibility with his Syrian audience, not to please the West. Blair is not under similar pressure, so he will not embarrass Assad publicly on his current visit to London. But London has its priorities too and Washington is a great deal more important than Damascus.

Blair told Assad that Syria must stop supporting Palestinian groups that use terrorist tactics. Nonsense, replied Assad: the Palestinian representatives in Syria are merely “press officers”. Blair also urged Assad to stop helping Iraq smuggle oil and other goods through sanctions and to end the country’s long-standing chemical and biological weapons programmes. But it was a hopeless dialogue, for Assad’s actions are ruled by the sheer need to survive, and Britain cannot deviate very far from American positions.

The US is almost completely oblivious to the fears of west Asian governments that an unjustified “pre-emptive” attack on Iraq will unleash a cataclysm in the region. This is partly because Washington discounts local fears of a savage domestic backlash against pro-Western governments, and partly because it is confident that the war to destroy Saddam will be as brief and relatively low in casualties as were the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Play your game

But Arab governments are acutely aware of the double standards that are being applied, and that these contradictions are visible to every Arab in the street. (Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and is seething with Islamist extremist groups, is a US ally; Iraq, which represses all Islamist groups and does not have nukes, gets the full treatment.)

That is why Arab leaders keep making these futile visits to the West. In Assad’s case, the visit can’t be to Washington, so he has gone to the capital of America’s chief supporter in this enterprise. Like every other Arab leader, he is convinced that an American attack on Iraq will threaten every established regime in the region. “The consequences are not going to be contained within Iraq,” he warned, “The entire region will enter into the unknown.”

Maybe Blair sees that too, but there is no sign that he is able to get the message through to the White House. As for Assad, he should stop trying to build new ties with the West until this blows over. The US will punish Syria economically if it does not play ball, but the Syrian economy is still so isolated and self-sufficient that Assad could probably ride out the damage. If he plays the West’s game, the Arab on the street could kill him.

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