German minister cancels Syria trip

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, on Tuesday abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Syria after President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, delivered a hard-hitting speech that ridiculed Israel’s military offensive in Lebanon and warned against disarming Hizbollah.

Mr Steinmeier, who had already boarded his aircraft in Jordan, en route for Syria, when he cancelled his trip, criticised the speech as “going in completely the wrong direction” on the need for regional peace and containing no constructive references to the United Nations ceasefire resolution.

Despite warnings from Paris and Washington against trying to enrol Syria’s support, Mr Steinmeier has led European efforts to draw the Assad regime into plans to end the Lebanon-Israel crisis, giving Damascus an opportunity to break out of its international isolation.

His spokesman said Germany’s view – that Syria could not be excluded from long-term peace efforts – had not changed, but Berlin’s overtures would be suspended “for the foreseeable future”.

German officials hinted that the minister was particularly upset because Berlin believed it had received positive signals from Damascus in recent days that suggested that the country was ready to play a more moderate and constructive role.

The German spokesman said the incident did not reflect badly on Mr Steinmeier. “If he had only been interested in saving face he would have gone ahead with the visit” he said.

Damascus and Tehran – the main backers of Hizbollah – yesterday sought to reap political capital from Israel’s failure to destroy the Lebanese Shia militant movement after weeks of fighting.

Both governments celebrated the end of the Lebanon war as a defeat of US policy in the region, focused on isolating them and weakening Arab militant groups allied to them.

Speaking to a journalists’ association conference, Mr Assad said US plans for a “new Middle East” had collapsed in light of Hizbollah’s defiance against Israel. The Middle East the US was hoping to create, he said, “has become an illusion.”

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad said in a speech broadcast on state television that the US and Britain, which he described as the “main associates of the Zionist regime in its offensive in Lebanon”, should compensate the country for the damage and answer “for their crimes”.

The Syrian president also criticised moderate Arab regimes, which had blamed the start of the conflicton Hizbollah, and insisted that Israel had emerged from the war “a subject of ridicule”. He portrayed the Lebanon war as a campaign that had long been planned by Israel and was part of the US strategy of pre-emptive war.

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