Blair dispatches senior diplomat to Syria to press Damascus to play key Mideast role
LONDON – Britain held official talks with Syria for the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in an effort to press Damascus to support U.S.-led coalition attempts to quash sectarian violence in the neighboring state, officials said Wednesday.Prime Minister Tony Blair sent his top foreign policy adviser, Nigel Sheinwald, for the talks Monday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and senior ministers, said Nicola Davies, the British Embassy spokeswoman in Damascus.The visit comes as the United States and Britain seek ways to reduce bloodshed in Iraq.Blair’s Downing Street office rejected suggestions the overture was part of a coordinated effort by the United States and Britain aimed at pressing Iraq’s neighbors to assist with security duties, allowing coalition troops to withdraw.”That is not part of the thinking,” said Blair’s official spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.”We are very serious about revitalizing the Middle East peace process, therefore it is the right thing to do to talk to all those who in some way have an influence. It is up to others to decide what role they play,” he said.Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Mideast envoy, said the talks were a significant step, but cautioned against exaggerated hopes of a shift in relations between Syria and the West.Blair’s spokesman said Britain hoped Syria would decide to play a constructive role in building regional stability, but declined to discuss details of the talks.Syria is a major player in the Palestinian conflict and in Lebanon since it hosts exiled militant Hamas leaders and supports the Lebanon-based guerrilla group Hezbollah.Sheinwald’s mission was aimed at determining whether Syria can be persuaded to help calm sectarian tensions in Iraq and at conveying British concerns that Damascus is backing Iraqi militias.”Syria had always faced a choice: It can play a constructive role in international affairs or it can continue to support terrorism,” Blair’s official spokesman said. “The key question is what choice does it make?”The United States and Iraq accuse Syria of giving support to the Iraqi insurgency and not doing enough to stop would-be fighters from crossing from Syria into Iraq.Key members of Saddam Hussein’s regime also took refuge in Syria after the Iraqi leader was overthrown.Syria rejects allegations it is backing the insurgency, saying U.S. and Iraqi government forces fail to police the Syrian-Iraqi border.The talks were held as the Syrian regime is being snubbed not only by the West but by traditional Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.Saudi King Abdullah recently met with exiled former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam, who is wanted in Syria on treason charges and who has been calling for the Syrian regime’s overthrow.Relations soured after Assad, in a speech following the Israel-Hezbollah war, described leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as “half men” because they opposed Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers. The capture triggered Israel’s 34-day offensive in Lebanon.–AP writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this story.