Posted by Joshua on Saturday, November 11th, 2006
Britain Urges US Talk to Syria
Tony Blair, according to the Guardian, is to urge the US administration next week to open talks with its great adversaries Syria and Iran, as a way to break the impasse in Iraq and the wider middle east.
He is due to give video link-up evidence to the independent bipartisan panel in Washington headed by James Baker, seen as the vehicle whereby George Bush can change course on Iraq. The evidence, on Tuesday, is regarded as a vital opportunity for the prime minister to influence thinking in Washington at a rare time of flux….
Mr Blair's senior foreign policy advisor, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, travelled to Damascus three weeks ago. It is thought the US administration was supportive of his visit, and Downing Street awaits a fuller response from Syria.
Both Iran and Syria have an interest in preventing civil war in Iraq, since they oppose its break-up and do not want to see permanent sectarian warfare that might spread. Speaking separately to a British diplomat and a British business mission in recent weeks, Mr Assad affirmed that he wanted "to come in from the cold". But both sources formed a clear impression that, while this was what he personally would like to do, his freedom of action was limited by factions inside his government. One faction, emboldened by the success of the Lebanese-based Hizbullah militia against Israel this summer, argues this is a time to maintain pressure on Israel, not negotiate.
Mr Blair faces an uphill battle to persuade Mr Bush to include a big initiative on Palestine in any revised Iraq strategy. The resurgent Democrats are as supportive of Israel as the Republicans, and there is little support in Israel for talks with Syria, seen as Hamas puppet masters. Israel's prime minister Ehud Olmert is due in Washington next week. He rejected offers by Mr Assad after Israel's invasion of Lebanon to relaunch long-suspended peace talks…
Blanford's insights into the secretive, mercurial Syrian regime are intriguing. Contrary to expectation, Bashar al-Assad's rise to power created a more sectarian atmosphere among the ruling clique than had been the case under his father, Hafez.
The Syrian Baath Party has always been based on a nucleus of loyal Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect accounting for 11 to 15 percent of Syria's population and historically oppressed by the Sunni Muslim majority. Under Mr. Assad, the Baath regime has apparently further cemented its Alawite character. Hariri, a Sunni, was seen by the paranoid Assad and his acolytes as a threat not only to their control of Lebanon, but to Syria itself, where a Sunni majority chafes under minority Alawite rule.
Yet Blanford resists the temptation to depict Hariri as a saint, pointing out that "the trademark of the Hariri [prime ministerial] era was the domineering manner in which he ran the country as if it was an extension of his personal business empire."
According to Blanford, Hariri worked hard to accommodate Syria's demands, …. Try as he might to allay Syrian fears, Hariri was rebuffed at every turn. A severely blinkered Assad became convinced that the former Lebanese premier had enlisted the aid of the Americans and the French to eject Syria from Lebanon.
Here is an extract from Blanford's book that gives us a good idea of Syrian-Lebanese realations in 1997, well before Bashar al-Asad became president. The depth of hostility and mistrust between the coterie of family members and close Alawite supporters that Bashar al-Asad relied on and the "Old Guard" supporters of Hariri such as Kanaan, Khaddam, and Shehabi was already obvious and palpable. Blanford writes:
The depth of hostility among the Alawites for Hariri and the older Sunni leaders in Damascus was made clear to Fares Boueiz, the [Lebanese] foreign minister, during an incident at the Islamic Conference in Tehran in December 1997. Boueiz’ relationship with his prime minister [Hariri] was going through one of its periodic low points because of what he considered unwarranted meddling by Hariri in foreign affairs. Boueiz was in Tehran with Hariri and Hrawi. Assad and a large delegation of military officials was also attending. As Boueiz walked down a corridor past the large salons where delegations were gathered, he heard a voice call behind him, ‘You hero! You are the man of courage!’ He turned to see Adnan Makhlouf, the head of Syria’s Republican Guard and cousin of Bashar, striding towards him, his arms outstretched. Makhlouf grabbed the startled Boueiz, kissed him on both cheeks and congratulated him for standing up to Hariri.
‘That son of a bitch is buying up the regime around me,’ Makhlouf grumbled, referring to Hariri. ‘He’s bought Khaddam, Shehabi and his dog Ghazi Kanaan.’
Boueiz, stunned by the outburst from the Syrian general, mumbled that his problems with Hariri were different and walked away.
‘These men Makhlouf was talking about were just 50 metres away in the next room. It told me how much the Alawites really hated them,’ Boueiz says….
It was the younger Alawite component of the Syrian regime that tended to favour Lahoud. This group allegedly was centred around Basil al-Assad before his death and included his siblings, Bashar, Maher and Bushra, the headstrong daughter and Assad’s eldest and favorite child. Also part of the group was Assef Shawkat, an ambitious military intelligence officer who used his charm and good looks to court and then marry Bushra al-Assad, overcoming the initial objections of the Assad family. Others included Mohammed Nassif, a senior intelligence officer, known affectionately as ‘uncle’ by the Assad children, and the powerful Makhlouf family headed by Adnan Makhlouf, the then head of the Syrian Republican Guard and brother of Anissa Assad, the president’s wife. Adnan Makhlouf’s son, Rami, a cousin of the Assad children, would become the most powerful businessman in Syria. Then there were members of the Shaleesh family, related to the Assads, who would later be accused of earning millions of dollars in weapons and oil smuggling to and from Iraq respectively.
Ammar Abdulhamid, laments the collapse of the West's anti-Asad policy. He points to the ugly underbelly of the regime and the "mysterious death of Ali Kanaan, the brother of Ghazi Kanaan.
Meanwhile, and according to Syrian officials, the country has no prisoners of opinion, the mysterious death of Ali Kan’an, the brother of the late and very much suicided General Ghazi Kana’an, was just another suicide, and the cancellation of a public conference attended by American religious leaders critical of the Bush Administration, who went to Syria “bearing a message of peace to the Syrian people” was meant to actually “encourage deeper bilateral dialogue” with Syrian counterparts. Oh yeah, this lot is engageable.