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SYRIA: Report says Britain hammers out Damascus intelligence agreement

November 19, 2008 |  3:31 pm

Milliband

It’s another effort by a Western power to draw Syria out of its international isolation in hopes Damascus would loosen its strong ties with Tehran and groups such as Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions.

The U.K.’s Foreign Minister, David Miliband, made a landmark visit to Damascus on Tuesday. He's the first British top diplomat to visit Damascus since 2001.

Before heading to Beirut, Miliband said that Syria had an "essential role" to play in the stability of the Middle East. This move might be seen as a sign that the U.K., after France, is warming up to the Syrians.

Milliband said that Syria had responsibilities in the region "in respect of counter-terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process." He urged Syria to resume talks with Israel.

Last May, Syria and Israel started indirect peace talks mediated by Turkey, but observers say that Damascus is not likely to accept anytime soon Israeli conditions, which include cutting ties with Tehran as well as Hezbollah and other Palestinian factions.

Apparently, the main focus of the visit was the reestablishment of high-level intelligence cooperation between the Brits and the Syrians.

London's Times newspaper quotes senior Syrian officials in its edition today:

“The newly revived intelligence relationship could be hugely beneficial to Britain. Syria is known to have one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around the region.”

One blogger, Joshua Landis, an American expert on Syria, wrote that the U.S. refused a similar Syrian offer to combine efforts on intelligence matters when Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year.

He said that the U.S. preferred to deal militarily with fighters crossing into Iraq across the Syrian border, citing the October U.S. raid in Syria that allegedly killed a key smuggler of Al Qaeda insurgents:

“Just as the Syrians talk to the Israelis through the Turks, the U.S. will talk to the Syrians through the British. The silliness of this will strengthen the Defense Department’s hand in insisting that Washington politicians do the right thing and grow up. It is just plain silly. Syria wants to help the US kill al-Qaida types, but the U.S. refuses to say yes. How goofey is that? If Obama doesn’t send someone of stature to Damascus to fix this, I will eat my hat.”

Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, Syria’s intelligence services cooperated with the U.S. in fighting Islamic extremists.

But things soon went sour. The U.S. imposed international isolation on Syria, accusing it of fostering terrorism in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. A new administration under President-elect Barack Obama might adopt a different attitude toward Syria and its president, Bashar Assad.

The West is apparently aware of Syria’s central role as an arbiter in the region’s jigsaw puzzle, said Sune Haugbolle, a Danish Middle East expert, in a recent report posted on CUMINet, a blog created by Copenhagen University specializing in the Islamic world.

She said that Assad has in part derived his strength from the “defeat of Bushism” in the Middle East and the rise of Hezbollah after their “steadfast resistance” to Israel in the summer 2006 war:

“Bashar is exactly where he wants to be, because Western diplomats increasingly see him as he wants to be seen: as a man in control of a country that would be chaotic without him, and with fingers in every regional pie of any importance, from Iran to Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon."

-- Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photo: In this picture released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, shakes hands with British Foreign Minister David Milliband, left, in Damascus. Credit: AP

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