The Role of the UK and the International
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 outit 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-runthe 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 SolanaSir 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
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 onare 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." 
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
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
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.