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Richard Spring MP: Syria is key to Middle East strategising

Richard_spring_mp Richard Spring is Member of Parliament for West Suffolk

Ahead of Tony Blair’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, there was much spinning about getting Iran and Syria involved in helping to resolve the situation in Iraq – a very tall order indeed.  Syria, for all its ambiguities, has no interest in radicalised Islamic rivalry and mayhem in Iraq – it is a secular society where even membership of the Moslem Brotherhood is illegal. 

Fundamentalist Iran, by contrast, is openly supplying weapons and materiel to fellow Shiite Iraqis with all the terrible consequences.  The frequent bracketing of Syria and Iran together is a complete misjudgement.  Their relationship of over 25 years arose out of their shared fear of Saddam Hussein.   Their latter day support for Hizbollah arises out of entirely different interests – even if the consequences are regrettably the same.

The pre-speech spinning proved to be wrong.  Tony Blair quite correctly called for a “whole Middle East” strategy.  But at least he recognised the distinction between Iran and Syria – it should be a key policy objective to try to separate the two, and have two actively different approaches.   He was quite right to return to the core issue of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Britain’s role in the region is now so diminished, so for us to orchestrate a “whole Middle East” strategy would be impossible. Equally, there is no Western country, singly or collectively, that in current circumstances can now front such a strategy.  However, there is now real urgency. The daily catalogue of murder and destruction in Iraq needs no elaboration.

The breakdown of relationships in Lebanon between Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbollah and Prime Minister Sinoria is now threatening the very stability of the country.  There are even rumours of a possible coup. Equally, the situation in Gaza has become explosive.

The first step to breaking through this terrible impasse is to open a dialogue with Syria.   There is a debate about this in Israel, but in the very difficult post-conflict atmosphere there, it would now be very difficult for Mr Olmert to be engaged directly in such a dialogue.  The main sticking point is Syria’s claim to the Golan Heights, which ultimately has to be resolved.  Syria has called for talks without pre-conditions, but the calls have been quite muted. So proper preparatory work needs to be done.   

Any way forward lies with the moderate Arab countries.  King Abdullah of Jordan recently spoke in London very passionately about the appalling consequences of the situation in the region continuing to deteriorate so fast.  He in particular, but with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, should be encouraged to lead an urgent exercise to bring the players together.  They should be supported by ourselves and the Americans, and other Europeans.   

Syria is an essential part of this.  At least this is now recognised in London, and by some in Washington and Jerusalem.

We simply have to try.  The consequences of failure in the region are unimaginable, and we too will pay a heavy price.


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