Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

4  Syria


121. Syria has enjoyed a mixed relationship with the UK in recent years. Its President, Bashar Assad, has been received by former Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street but has also faced isolation following claims of unhelpful Syrian activity in the Middle East (most notably in Lebanon, as discussed above). Syria's importance is in part geographic: it neighbours all three of the key political crises in the Middle East region, namely Israel-Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. A consideration of relations with Syria is key towards analysing and assessing British foreign policy towards the Middle East as a whole. This chapter outlines recent developments within Syria and in its role in the region before looking at British policy towards Damascus.

Syria's Internal Situation

122. The main political power in Syria is the Ba'ath party, which is controlled by President Bashar Assad, his family and his close allies. The President is selected through a referendum (held every seven years), in which there is only one candidate. The most recent referendum was in May 2007, in which President Assad won 97% of the vote according to Syria's Interior Ministry.[221]

123. Patrick Seale told the Committee that President Assad heads an "autocratic regime" with "several centres of power", including the security services and business figures close to the President.[222] Nadim Shehadi commented that the Syrian Government is "clamping down very heavily on any political reform or civil liberties".[223] The FCO's Annual Human Rights Report 2006 noted that the human rights situation in Syria had worsened over the past year.[224]

124. When the Committee visited Damascus, we were concerned by the lack of reference to any upcoming political reforms. However, the Syrian Government was keen to emphasise the work it was carrying out with regards to economic reform in the country. This reform focuses on moving away from a centralised towards a more market-based economy. However, when he gave evidence to us, Nadim Shehadi argued that discussing the role of the President's family, in particular his cousin, in the economy is a "red line" in Damascus.[225] These vested interests raise serious concerns about the extent to which economic reform in Syria will be possible, even if desired by the President himself.

Syria's Relations in the Region

125. This section presents a brief overview of Syria's role in the Middle East. Where these issues (e.g. Lebanon) are dealt with in detail elsewhere in this Report, they are not fully expanded on in this section. Instead, our purpose here is to move towards a broad understanding of how Syria sees its role in the region and its underlying motivations. This will help to draw out lessons that can be used when we later consider the Government's relationship with Syria.


126. In our chapter on Lebanon, we noted the current influence of Syria on its politics, particularly with regard to the Hariri tribunal and in the funding and arming of Hezbollah. Here, we explore Syria's motivations. Patrick Seale told the Committee that the Syrian capital Damascus is about 20km from the Lebanese border.[226] He argued that "with Damascus being so close to the border, any hostile power achieving a dominant position in the Lebanon would be like a gun at the head of Syria." Mr Seale argued that this helped to explain why Syria is supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon.[227]

127. Syria has attempted to block the international tribunal for the death of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Nadim Shehadi told the Committee that the investigation is "a matter absolutely of regime security", remarking that "it is the only thing threatening the Syrian regime's security at the moment." This threat would particularly manifest itself by heightening suspicions within the regime that a scapegoat would be found and handed over to the tribunal. He added that "the regime's and its allies' opposition to the investigation and tribunal is almost like a confession of guilt."[228] Patrick Seale observed that the Syrians were worried that the tribunal "might increase their international isolation."[229]

128. Dr Peter Gooderham provided us with the FCO's assessment of Syria's involvement in Lebanon:

On the Lebanon front, if we were doing a scorecard, this would be the one on which we would have to give the lowest marks to the Syrians [as compared to Iraq and Israel-Palestine]. We have not seen the kind of evidence that […] would suggest to us that Syria is playing a constructive role in respect of the very fragile situation in Lebanon. The international community is working very hard to support the democratically elected Government in Lebanon, which has been in crisis for some months. We believe that Syria is contributing to that crisis, and we would like to see it play a much more positive role.[230]

129. Patrick Seale told the Committee that he believed the Syrians are now militarily out of Lebanon "for good," although he said its relationship with Beirut has now degenerated into "criminality." He argued that "they have got to put their relationship with Lebanon on a sound and healthy basis. It does not mean that they can be excluded from Lebanese affairs, but they do not need their army there."[231] We found broad agreement with this view when we visited the region, although it was suggested that Syria would become militarily anxious if Israel were to invade Lebanon again.


130. Syria has a close relationship with Palestinian Islamist groups. The head of Hamas' political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, lives in Damascus. Syria does not officially recognise Israel as a state. Israel has now occupied the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights for over forty years. Patrick Seale told the Committee that Syria has established a link "with more radical Islamic groups", so that they can be used as "their Palestinian cards" in its dealing with Israel.[232] Dr Peter Gooderham told the Committee that the Government believed Syria had "considerable influence" over both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.[233] He said the FCO had,

appealed to the Syrians to use their influence in a constructive way to bring Hamas to reconcile itself to the three Quartet principles. I cannot say that we have got any explicit evidence yet that that is the case, but we shall keep trying.[234]

131. Mr Seale noted that the Syrian position is that the Syria-Lebanese track and the Palestinian track of the Middle East Peace Process should proceed simultaneously (the Roadmap for Peace emphasises the Palestinian track).[235] He observed that:

President Bashar has called repeatedly, in recent months and years, for formal negotiations to begin with Israel. The Israelis have shown no interest; in fact, Prime Minister Olmert declared that, during his premiership, Israel would never return the Golan Heights to Syria. The United States has also taken that line, and has told the Israelis that they should not engage in negotiations with the Syrians. The Syrian position is that they do not want back-channel deals […] They want formal negotiations with Israel, in which they would hope to recover the Golan Heights.[236]

132. Nadim Shehadi suggested that Syria's call for peace with Israel was "not credible in the eyes of the world" because it looks "opportunistic." He argued that:

The regime looks squeezed. It is threatened by the [Hariri] tribunal. Regime security is at stake, and one big carrot that it can present to the international community is that it is willing to make peace with Israel. Regardless of whether peace is reached or not in the end, the process of re-engagement will end the regime's isolation and will also give regime security a boost in that sense.[237]

133. In January 2007, a former Israeli diplomat, Alon Liel, revealed that he had been holding secret talks with Syrians over the Golan Heights. A possible solution involved Israel formally ceding sovereignty over the Golan Heights, whilst maintaining its presence in practice for a number of years to ensure Syria discontinued its support for Palestinian Islamist groups. Mr Liel stated that these talks had collapsed in the summer of 2006 following United States pressure on Israel not to deal with Syria in any way. When the story broke, both Israel and Syria publicly denied their official involvement in these discussions.[238] However, in July 2007, Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that he was "ready for direct talks" with President Assad, although, at the time of preparing this Report, it is unknown how seriously this offer is being taken.[239]


134. Syria was opposed to the 2003 intervention in Iraq. Since that time, it has been accused of helping to create or sustain the insurgency in the country. The US Iraq Study Group Report, published in December 2006, argued that Syria was playing a "counterproductive role" in Iraq. Its role was "not so much to take active measures as to countenance malign neglect: the Syrians look the other way as arms and foreign fighters flow across their border into Iraq."[240] Patrick Seale argued in front of the Committee that Syria had allowed "a few Jihadists" to "go across that territory" because "the Syrians do not want the Americans to have too easy a time in Iraq, because they think that the Americans will win there and they will be next."[241]

135. On 30 October 2006, the then Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald went to Damascus to visit President Assad (we consider this visit in more detail in the section on the role of the UK below). Simon McDonald told the Committee that it was the FCO's view that "since that visit, relations between Syria and Iraq have improved somewhat":

The first evidence of that was that they re-established diplomatic relations. Secondly, Muallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister, visited Baghdad and reopened the Syrian embassy. Since then, there has been a series of high level visits between the two capitals. Most importantly, Bulani, the Iraqi Interior Minister, went to Damascus and they agreed a memorandum of understanding covering sensitive border issues.[242]

136. In a statement to the House of Commons on Iraq and the Middle East in February 2007, the then Prime Minister remarked that "there is evidence recently that Syria has realised the threat that al-Qaeda poses and is acting against it."[243] The Committee had the opportunity to raise the issue of Syria's relationship with Iraq on our visit to Damascus. We noted the insistence of Syrians that they were looking to develop this relationship in a more constructive manner and we were told that Syria had deployed thousands of troops on the border with Iraq. Our visit left us in broad agreement with Mr Blair's view. Whilst in Syria, we learnt more about two important aspects of Syria's relationship with Iraq. The first is that some tribes live on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, complicating border control. The second is that up to 1.3 million refugees from Iraq have resettled in Syria, with most living in and around Damascus. We deal with the crucial issue of the impact of Iraqi refugees on neighbouring states in the chapter on Iraq below.


137. Iran is Syria's only strategic partner amongst the states in the Middle East. They both support Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and both have been accused of causing instability in Iraq. Professor Anoush Ehteshami told the Committee that President Assad "regards Iran as Syria's only reliable partner in the region." The Iranians "have been very good partners to Syria" in a number of areas, including hydrocarbons, and the two countries also share some cultural links.[244] The relationship between Syria and Iran has been strengthened recently. Syria signed a memorandum of understanding on defence issues with Iran in June 2006. At the time, Dr Howells said that "further military co-operation between Syria and Iran is unlikely to build international confidence."[245]

138. Professor Ehteshami highlighted the peculiarity of a secular Arab nationalist Syria having, as its closest ally, a non-Arab Islamist Iran:

Frankly, that is not a happy situation for Syria to be in, because its natural home is with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, not with Iran […] But Syria is with Iran, because it has very little else to rely on.[246]

139. We conclude that Syria plays a significant role in most of the key areas in the Middle East and that this role may slowly be changing for the better. The support of Syria will be of great assistance to efforts to promote stability in the Middle East, in Lebanon and in Iraq in particular. This cannot be ignored when the Government and the international community engage in diplomacy with the Syrian authorities.

The Role of the UK and the International Community

140. The section above set out Syria's approach towards the Middle East in general terms. Whilst Syria's policy towards Iraq appears to be changing in a positive way, concerns remain about its role in Lebanon and its support for Islamist groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This section assesses the policy of the UK and the international community in their bid to alter Syria's behaviour in the region, and reflects on whether more can be done to achieve this outcome.

141. As noted above, Syria has recently experienced a spell of isolation in the international community, in particular following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. On our return from Damascus, we wrote to Dr Howells, reflecting comments made to us in Damascus that whilst the UK had agreed with its EU partners an 'understanding' that no ministerial visits to Syria were to be carried out, this 'understanding' was now 'evolving'. Dr Howells replied:

UK and EU policy towards Syria in recent years has reflected the concern of the international community at the unhelpful role that Syria has been playing in the region. The UK continues to have full diplomatic relations with Syria and has contact with Syrian ministers when we deem it will usefully advance our interests […] We continue to calibrate the extent of our contacts against Syria's behaviour in the region and based on an assessment of whether such contact will advance our interests.[247]

Although he did not refer directly to the freeze on ministerial visits, Dr Howells did indicate that there was a debate within the EU as to how this policy should move forward:

Within the EU there has been a discussion about the extent to which Syria might be ready to change its policies and how the EU might help bring this about. As a result of this debate, the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, visited Damascus in March to articulate to Syria what needs to happen for Syria to progress its relations with the EU. With EU partners we will continue to keep under review the case for further discussions.[248]

The Guardian reported that Mr Solana was mandated to visit Damascus by all 27 EU states after France "lifted the veto imposed by Jacques Chirac following the murder of Hariri". Comments made by Mr Solana at the time of the visit suggest that the focus of the meeting was to persuade President Assad to modify Syria's behaviour towards Lebanon.[249]

142. Mr Solana's visit appears to follow on from the trip made by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus in October 2006. As noted above, this visit appeared to have generated some movement on Syria's policy towards Iraq. Although the UK and the EU have shown enthusiasm for engagement with Syria, this approach has not been shared by President Bush. Commenting on a visit to Damascus by the US House Majority Leader, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, President Bush argued that going to Syria "sends mixed signals" to a "state sponsor of terror" and that European efforts to meet President Assad have "simply been counterproductive" because of his failure to modify Syria's policies.[250]

143. President Bush presents a view that needs to be considered carefully when assessing the effectiveness of the Government's moves to engage Syria, both unilaterally through Sir Nigel Sheinwald and as part of the EU through Javier Solana. We are minded to reject the US argument for three principle reasons. First, such efforts at engagement will only succeed through a series of steps that will take time to play out—it is impossible to come to a definitive conclusion on their merits in a matter of months. Second, there is little initial basis to suggest that the visits of Sir Nigel and Mr Solana have been counter-productive in the short-run—the fact that the Government supported Mr Solana's mission hints that it was at least partially satisfied with the product of Sir Nigel's meeting. Third, given the importance of Syria's support on a range of issues from Lebanon to Iraq, critics of the strategy of sending delegations to Damascus fail to provide a convincing alternative account as to how President Assad can be persuaded to modify his country's behaviour. That said, President Bush does make an important point that engagement with Syria need not entail the high levels of media coverage generated by Ms Pelosi and Mr Solana—Sir Nigel's 'behind closed doors' visit is a case in point.

144. We conclude that the Government's decision to send Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus in October 2006 was the correct one. In our view, the EU ban on ministerial contact with Syria is not helpful in the context of engaging constructively with the Syrian Government. We recommend that the Government resume such contacts without delay. We further recommend that the Government continue to support the work of Javier Solana as part of the EU's engagement with Syria.

145. Having considered whether the Government has taken the right approach in engaging with Syria, we need to address the difficult policy decisions that will need to be taken in any effort to persuade President Assad to take a more constructive approach to the region. Professor Anoush Ehteshami told the Committee how Syria might be persuaded to change its relationship with Iran:

I would say that it would change if Syria was given incentives by either Arab states or the west to change direction and move away from Iran. Syria needs tangible results on the Golan Heights and discussions with Israel, it needs to be sure that Lebanon will not become a backyard for Israel and the west, and it needs to be sure that the sanctions that are now in place— for instance from the US and so on—are lifted, so that it can survive in this very competitive international environment.

However, he warned that "at present I see no signs of any of those coming to fruition." [251]

146. Nadim Shehadi presented his view of the Government's policy options with respect to Syria:

[T]he UK should not do a backroom deal again with the Syrian regime in the interests of stability in the region. It has been tried before and it worries the Lebanese a lot that the Syrian regime could offer the UK a lot of incentives in Palestine, where it is blocking progress, in Iraq and in relation to Iran. The only concession that the Syrian regime wants is a very minor one: 'Please forget about the tribunal and give us back our influence in Lebanon […]' That should be an absolute red line for British policy.[252]

147. Whilst in Syria, we heard that the EU had agreed an Association Agreement with Syria in 2004, but that this had not yet been signed due to a 'go slow' policy. We raised this with Dr Howells, who wrote back, stating that "more constructive Syrian policy in the region is a pre-requisite for progressing its relations with the EU" and that Mr Solana had "set out what Syria would need to do in order for such progress to be made" during his visit to Damascus. We also heard concerns in Syria that the United States is blocking Syria's application to the World Trade Organisation. Dr Howells told us that "the WTO is a largely apolitical body" and that neither the EU nor the UK "has political reservations about Syria's application to become a member of the WTO." He did not discuss any specific economic reservations, although he did note that "countries who apply to join must make commitments to open their markets and to abide by the WTO's trading rules."

148. On the basis of the evidence presented in this chapter and elsewhere in this Report, the situation in Lebanon appears to be the most difficult obstacle to Syria's reintegration into the international community. There is no excuse for Syria not to co-operate fully with the international tribunal over the death of Rafik Hariri and in no circumstances should this be negotiated away. However, we conclude that more can be done to reassure Syria that efforts to build a workable democratic state in Lebanon are not aimed at destabilising the regime in Damascus.

149. We conclude that the European Union Association Agreement with Syria presents a powerful incentive for President Assad to remedy his country's political behaviour, particularly given Syria's current efforts towards economic reform. We recommend that in its response to this Report, the Government set out the list of conditions that Syria would have to fulfil if the European Union is to ratify the Agreement.

150. We conclude that a peace settlement between Israel and Syria would help to transform the political dynamics of the region. We recommend that the Government place much greater emphasis than at present on finding a settlement that will end Syrian support for Palestinian Islamist groups and the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights.

221   "Syria's Assad wins another term", BBC News Online, 29 March 2007, Back

222   Q 86 Back

223   Q 85 Back

224   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Human Rights Annual Report 2006, CM 6916, October 2006, p 104 Back

225   Q 85 Back

226   Q 84 Back

227   Q 90 Back

228   Q 87 Back

229   Q 84 Back

230   Q 45 Back

231   Q 101 Back

232   Q 97 Back

233   Q 45 Back

234   Q 37 Back

235   Q 97 Back

236   Q 98 Back

237   Q 98 Back

238   "My secret talks with Syria, by Israel envoy", Daily Telegraph, 1 February 2007 Back

239   "Israel offers Syria direct talks", BBC News Online, 10 July 2007, Back

240   The Iraq Study Group, The Way Forward - A New Approach, 6 December 2006, p 25, Back

241   Q 99 Back

242   Q 38 Back

243   HC Deb, 21 February 2007, col 265 Back

244   Q 127 Back

245   HC Deb, 26 June 2006, col 184W Back

246   Q 127 Back

247   Ev 124-125, para 2 Back

248   Ev 125, para 2 Back

249   "Europe leads bid to lure Syria in from the cold", The Guardian, 14 March 2007 Back

250   "President Bush makes remarks on the Emergency Supplemental", 3 April 2007, Back

251   Q 127 Back

252   Q 104 Back

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