Assad's Warm Welcome into the Mutual Admiration Club

Article excerpt

"IN EUROPE we trust" - or maybe it's just "In Britain we trust". Whether the Syrians really believe Tony Blair can stop the invasion of Iraq, produce a just peace in the Middle East and secure the withdrawal of Israel from the Golan Heights, it says a lot that President Bashar al- Assad - after visiting France, Germany, Italy and Spain - should really believe that Britain, the hopeless mandate power in Palestine, can help his country.

You might have thought the Arabs would be as sick of Europe as many of them are of America. But no, the mutual admiration club goes on.

Britain believes that Mr Assad still wants to "liberalise" his country - and we'll forget the state security courts and the imprisonment of reformists in Damascus for the time being - while Syria believes that Britain struggles for a comprehensive Middle East peace and against an invasion of Iraq.

Mr Blair was the first British prime minister to visit Syria. So Mr Assad is the first Syrian president to visit Britain, albeit that his British training as an ophthalmologist means that he knows London rather well.

So over the coming two days, we are going to hear all about Mr Assad's familiarity with London, Britain's gratitude to Syria for voting in favour of the United Nations Iraqi-disarming Security Council resolution 1441 and the central role of Damascus in any future Middle East peace. President Assad's extremely well-educated young wife is a great credit to him - so we shall see her picture in the papers every day.

But real life has a habit of strolling on to the stage of the Middle East. So here's a bit of real life.

Syria is in great danger. Its renewed trade links with Iraq will be cut the moment the Americans invade. Israel is daily accusing Syria of involvement in "terror" - because it hosts nine Palestinian militant groups in Damascus and supports the Hizbollah in southern Lebanon - and the Americans, by courtesy of the Israeli lobby, are trying to turn Syria into a pariah state. …