Last updated: November 1, 2006 1:34 am

Blair in secret overture to Damascus

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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. Damascus has backed the Hamas leaders who have been accused of obstructing plans for a Palestinian national unity government.

In Beirut, Lebanese officials say Syria is supplying arms to Lebanon’s Hizbollah and working to undermine its government.

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.

The US pulled its ambassador out of Damascus last year. But a congressional committee headed by James Baker, a former secretary of state, is now looking at US options in Iraq and may recommend renewed contact with Syria over Iraq’s future.

Engagement with Syria became fashionable again this summer during the month-long conflict between Israel and Hizbollah. European officials have been arguing for engagement to try to move Damascus away from its alliance with Tehran.

Western relations with Syria reached a new low last year after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and an opponent of Syria. A United Nations probe is looking at Syria’s alleged role in the killing.

International pressure forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and left it isolated, even within the Arab world.

Politicians in Beirut say Damascus will demand the dropping of the UN investigation in return for changing its foreign policies – a price the west may find too high.

The US and UK continue to insist that Syria live up to its obligations under three UN Security Council resolutions concerning Lebanon, a US official said.

“We remain deeply concerned by indications that Syria is seeking to destabilise Lebanon’s democratically elected government,” the official added.

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