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theater of the absurd assad in london

  1. Snooker

    5,748 Posts.

    Dec. 17, 2002
    Theater of the absurd Assad in London

    A bizarre dialogue of the deaf is underway here this week, but despite the dissonance, the visit is replete with all the pomp and circumstance that befits a very British state occasion.

    There was the obligatory visit to 10 Downing Street for lunch with the prime minister, to be followed by tea with the queen, and then a medieval-style banquet hosted by the lord mayor in the presence of the captains of industry. All the elements are in place for yet another exquisitely choreographed drama in the theater of British diplomacy.

    Except this is the theater of the absurd. For the principal guest at the high table of liberal European democracy is none other than Bashar Assad, the London-trained ophthalmologist who slipped seamlessly into the shoes of his father two years ago to become the despotic ruler of a profoundly opaque, awesomely brutal, and deeply corrupt Syria.

    The man who is being feted, charmed, and honored by Britain's highly manicured political leaders and financial elites rules a state that hosts a slew of terror organizations, facilitates the drug trade, jails political opponents, abuses human rights, subjugates a neighboring state, espouses anti-Semitism, pursues weapons of mass destruction, offers a smuggling route for illicit Iraqi oil exports, and provides military equipment for the pariah regime of Saddam Hussein.

    But while there is likely to be tough talking in private between Assad and his British interlocutors, the seamy side of Syria is unlikely to form part of the public discourse - even though Syria is an accredited sponsor of terror and Britain is standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Washington in the war on terrorism; even though Britain is dispatching troops who will be confronted with weapons that Syria has so generously, and so illegally, provided to Saddam for the upcoming conflict.

    To some it is ironic; to others, it is simply a very European phenomenon. While the Americans are unequivocal in their opposition to terrorism and their determination to disarm Iraq, Europe is following its tradition of playing both sides against the middle. Call it appeasement.

    Tony Blair remains the most robust European supporter of Washington's strategic objectives, but he does not want to lose ground in the Arab world or allow his more "conciliatory" European partners to steal a march on him, in terms of either diplomacy or trade.

    He also needs to demonstrate his concern for Arab sensibilities at home, where a significant and vocal minority within his own Labor Party, animated by deep anti-American sentiment, rails against war with Iraq and passionately advocates the Palestinian cause.

    So Blair and Assad performed their dysfunctional diplomatic dance in hope rather than promise. They said their pieces in private, and Blair no doubt prayed that Assad does not embarrass him in public, as he did when Blair visited Damascus late last year.

    British officials will privately urge Assad to cease his covert support for Saddam; Assad will dissemble and prevaricate. British officials will urge Assad to join the coalition against Saddam, as his father had done in 1991; Assad will respond with warnings of Armageddon if there is another war. British officials will urge Assad to cease his support for terrorism; Assad will defend the right of Palestinians to self-defense in the struggle for national liberation. British officials will talk about UN resolutions against Iraq (which Syria supported); Assad will talk about non-enforcement when UN resolutions apply to Israel.

    Ludicrous as the comparison is between UN resolutions that apply to Iraq and to Israel (and Blair knows it is nonsense), it is the issue of Israel and the peace process that offers the British leader the most promising scope for compromise and conciliation, sympathy and understanding. He no doubt promised Assad, as he had already promised dissidents in his party, to throw the full weight of his office (and whatever little leverage he has in Washington) behind a swift resumption of peace talks.

    Blair had, somewhat naively, promised to bang Israeli and Palestinian heads together and get to grips with final-status issues before the end of the year. With less than two weeks to go, that deadline now appears unrealistic, if it ever was.

    More likely, Blair will pledge to pursue his grand ambition just as soon as the Iraqi issue is settled and, ready or not, summon the parties to a full-blown peace conference in London with the Quartet.

    The prospect of being paid in Israeli currency for a war to topple Saddam and his Ba'athist regime, which rivals the Ba'athists in Damascus, might hold a delicious appeal for the young Assad, just as it did for his father.

    After all, Hafez Assad took the surprising decision to fight against Iraq, albeit symbolically, with obsolete equipment and far, far, far from the front lines. And he was first to respond positively when the then-US secretary of state James Baker announced on the day after hostilities ceased in March 1991 that he was convening a Middle East peace conference. Yitzhak Shamir was rewarded for his "restraint" in not responding to 39 Scud attacks by being dragged unwillingly to Madrid.

    The difference between Hafez and Bashar is all but invisible to the naked eye, for despite Bashar's bold vision of reform and modernization when he assumed power, the old guard that was molded by, and in the image of, his father remains as firmly entrenched as ever. Bashar will do what they tell him to do.

    So why did young Assad, the first Syrian leader to visit Britain, make the journey? On a strictly pragmatic level, Assad does not want to join the axis of evil and find Syria, already on the State Department's list of terrorist sponsors, more sharply fixed in the cross-hairs of American anger.

    At the same time, though, Assad wants to exact a price for his support, or at least acquiescence, in the war on Iraq. A dozen years down the line, Syria, like other Arab regimes, is still stuck in the Cold War time-warp and is still seeking to replace its indulgent old Soviet patron. Europe could fill this role.

    While Tony Blair sees the European Union as a bridge between the Arab world and the US, Assad and his cronies see it as a buffer, the last best hope of replacing its defunct Soviet champion and protector.

    And he might be right. If Europeans can transform suicide bombers into "militants," it should not take an expensive reeducation program to transform the terrorist centers in Damascus into what Bashar Assad prefers to call "press offices." Hold the front page.

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