CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERRORISM: Diplomacy - Blair's Mission to Woo Syria Is Key to Arab Support

Article excerpt

THE TRANSFORMATION from "pariah state" to potential friend is like shedding a snake skin. Two months ago, Syria was regarded by the United States as a rogue nation, a sponsor of "terrorists". Then came 11 September, a secret visit from what The New York Times called a "senior" CIA official, and - yesterday - a house call from Tony Blair.

The US and Britain know that without Syria's cooperation, its efforts in building consensus among Arab governments not to oppose the Allies' war on Afghanistan could be wasted. They want to be sure the Israel-Arab conflict does not spin out of control, filling television screens with images of dead and maimed Arabs when they are struggling to persuade the world of the justice of their strikes.

Syria is crucial. Damascus funds the Islamic fundamentalist guerrilla group Hizbollah, not least to maintain pressure on Israel to end its 34- year illegal occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. Hizbollah is based in Lebanon, where Syria has 20,000 troops and exerts huge influence. Encouraged by Iran, Hizbollah continues intermittently to bomb and fire Katyusha rockets at the Israeli troops along Israel's northern border on the pretext that Israel's withdrawal from south Lebanon last year was incomplete, because it kept a pocket of land over which Lebanon claims sovereignty.

The conflict sputters along, but it has the potential to explode. In April, Israel bombed a Syrian radar position in Lebanon, killing three soldiers. Another bout of attack and counter-attack could cause the conflict to rear up anew. That would bring the risk of another atrocity - such as the 1996 Qana massacre, when Israel killed more than 100 people by shelling a UN compound in south Lebanon. Messrs Bush and Blair know only too well that such scenes would be disastrous in keeping the so-called "coalition" intact.

Mr Blair is sure to press Bashar al-Assad, the 36-year-old President - who took over last year after the death of his notoriously ruthless father, Hafez al-Assad - to rein in Hizbollah, and also several Palestinian militant groups with offices in Damascus, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who have strong support in the hopeless streets of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. …