Once again British Prime Minister Tony Blair is betting on Bashar Assad, perhaps hoping the Syrian president's previous stay in Britain as a budding ophthalmologist means the two can see eye-to-eye on the Middle East's perils.
Assad's visit to London, the first by a Syrian president since independence, is front-page material in many Arab newspapers. Ironically, when Blair visited Syria in October 2001, Assad sternly rebuffed him by criticizing the U.S. bombings in Afghanistan and reaffirming Syria's support for Palestinian groups that Britain considers terrorist. At the time, even London's Guardian, normally sympathetic to the Arabs, described Blair's trip as a "blunder," huffing that "Mr Assad is no respecter of visitors."
This was all forgotten when, in an effort to shape the mood of the London meetings, a British Foreign Office official told the London-based Al-Hayat last week that there had been "many positive developments in Syria." These included collaborating on fighting al-Qaida, voting in favor of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 on Iraq, and approving the Arab peace initiative presented in Beirut last March that offered Israel peace in exchange for land. Given that Syrian opposition figures, including two parliamentarians, were locked up in the past year, the official was less persuasive when pointing to "the general improvement in the human rights situation in Syria, and the numbers of prisoners released by President Bashar Assad."
Iraq will almost certainly dominate the British-Syrian agenda. Assad sounded grim in an interview in the London Times last week, when he said of a possible war: "The consequences are not going to be contained within Iraq. The entire region will enter into the unknown," creating "fertile soil for terrorism." According to Britain's ambassador in Damascus, cited by Al-Hayat, Britain "isn't a bridge between Damascus and Washington," but it hopes "to exploit its good relations with the United States to bring their points of view closer together" on Iraq. As the United States and Britain contemplate war, they want Syria (the Arab representative in the U.N. Security Council) on board. The Syrians may oppose a war if no new Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq is forthcoming, though they quietly admit that if there is a consensus on a new resolution, they will go along with it.
Also on Assad's and Blair's plate will be the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For the Syrians this remains the paramount issue, as a Dec. 3 Los Angeles Times op-ed by Bouthaina Shaaban, the director of foreign media at Syria's foreign ministry, emphasized. Shaaban, who is close to Assad and far more influential than her title suggests, chided the United States for focusing on Iraq when Arabs are outraged by the fate of the Palestinians: "At this particular time, Iraq is only a diversion that may allow [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to flex his muscles and use his hundreds of tanks and missiles on unarmed Palestinians."
In an editorial, Beirut's Daily Star accepts this logic, if somewhat less combatively, by noting that "whatever London and Washington decide to do about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, their plans will count for naught if they forget about the issue at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Palestine." The paper points out that Assad is the ideal spokesman for the Arab peace initiative presented in Beirut, "precisely because of his country's status as one of Israel's most implacable foes."
Several papers mention Ariel Sharon's decision to bar Yasser Arafat from attending Christmas mass in Bethlehem for a second year running. Despite everything, Arafat remains. That is, at least, the title of an op-ed by Danny Rubinstein in Israel's Ha'aretz. Rubinstein ridicules the notion that there is an alternative Palestinian leadership to Arafat—especially that darling of the West Mahmoud Abbas, who signed the Oslo accords. Abbas is in poor health and is "temperamental" and, most important, "In the eyes of the Palestinians, the entire world can do somersaults, but as long as Arafat is in office, there is to be no talk of his replacement."
Israeli recognition of Arafat's, and indeed the intifada's durability, is the topic of an article in Sunday's Al-Hayat by the paper's Jerusalem correspondent. She writes that some circles in the Israeli security establishment consider "political negotiations" with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary, "inevitable." Military and intelligence reports sent to the Knesset's security and foreign affairs committee and to Sharon's "security Cabinet" suggest there is a growing feeling that "the elimination of the Palestinian 'terrorist infrastructure,' especially the bomb and suicide attacks organized by Hamas and other Palestinian organizations, is 'an illusion.' "
Negotiations between Israel and Hamas may not be as outlandish as they sound. Two weeks ago, Israel's chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that Hamas had months ago accepted key concessions during secret talks with Palestinian officials, namely Abbas and the influential Muhammad Dahlan. These included "no longer demanding either an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders as a precondition for a ceasefire [with Israel], or a withdrawal to the September 2000 lines." Hamas' only condition was that Israel stop killing its officials.
Yaalon blamed Arafat and Hamas' Damascus-based leadership for the collapse of the agreement. However, he also plainly implied that there were those in Hamas who could be flexible. Can Bashar Assad be too?