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U.K.: London Adopts Softer Line Than U.S. On Syria, Iran

In recent days, U.S. officials have been turning up the heat on Syria for allegedly testing chemical weapons and harboring fleeing members of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. But while the United States is warning of sanctions, British officials have been more cautious. They want "dialogue and partnership" and don't agree with Washington's description of Syria as a "rogue state." Britain has been treading a softer line than the U.S. on Iran as well. Are these signs of a growing divergence of views between the two main allies in the Iraqi war?

Prague, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- America sees a rogue state headed by an "untested leader" while Britain wants dialogue and says the country is led by intelligent people with their nation's interests at heart.

Can they really be talking about the same place?

The answer, of course, is "yes" -- Syria, which is trying to head off American accusations it has tested chemical weapons and is sheltering members of the ousted Iraqi regime.

The U.S. has warned it may impose sanctions on Damascus for these alleged misdeeds. Such warnings have led to fears -- dismissed by the U.S. -- that Syria could be Washington's next target after Iraq.

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair said this week he wants "dialogue and partnership" with Syria.

And Britain's foreign secretary, Jack Straw, gave only partial support to Washington's tough talk. He declined yesterday to put Syria in the "rogue state" category, but said Syria must be cooperative.

"There are some important questions for Syria to answer and to deal with. And it's very important that Syria accepts the new reality and operates in a constructive, cooperative way with us and the United States, and in particular deals with all these questions of whether they have taken in fugitives from the Saddam [Hussein] regime and so on. But there is an opportunity here for an important new beginning."

Syria isn't the only country in question. In recent weeks, Britain also has softened its tone on Iran, one of the three states named in U.S. President George W. Bush's original "axis of evil."

The two allies may see eye-to-eye on Iraq. But British and American views on the two other key Middle Eastern states look decidedly different.

"There are signs of a divergence becoming visible. The divergence has been there all along," says Gerd Nonneman, a Middle East specialist at Britain's Lancaster University.

"Britain -- in particular with Iran, for instance -- has always been part of the European camp, which was for a kind of critical dialogue. Whereas in the U.S., of course, that was never quite the case. The British position by and large [on Syria] is that, well, there are problems with Syria but this is not a true rogue state at all. This is a regime that has all sorts of difficulties with a new, not quite fully tested president, but that is by-and-large a pragmatic actor that is not going to do crazy things or go for mass terrorism or anything like that. [Britain is] quite convinced of that, and I think rightly so."

Nonneman says Britain's approach reflects the belief that engagement and dialogue are better than isolation or threats at encouraging change in these two countries.

Several events point to Britain's warmer relations with Syria and Iran.

Straw says he maintained dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, throughout the Iraq war. He's visited Tehran three times and Kharrazi visited London in February. More recently, Britain relaxed export controls on dual-use civilian and military equipment for Iran.

Blair hosted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last December, the first official visit by a Syrian leader to the U.K. That meeting appeared to be cordial, in contrast to the frosty atmosphere when Blair visited Damascus a year earlier.

Ahmad Lutfi is a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He says Straw's remarks on Syria were "very intelligently put."

He said Straw is "opening the door to dialogue, he's inviting the Syrians to step in and provide their own part of the story. And that's a very smart move, because it's always better to dry up any source of resentment, make clear that the other side -- in this case Syria -- understands that it's not a threat. It's a strong and an open invitation."

Lutfi says Britain doesn't want to put too much heat on Syria, as this could complicate efforts to rebuild Iraq -- as well as Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Any move against Syria, he says, would fuel Arab resentment even further.

"It's a very thin line on which the UK and the U.S. officials are walking and it's definitely a hard course. But I think so far what's coming from London has been hitting the right mark on the Syrian front, and hopefully that would continue to bear fruit."

That's not to say that Britain is letting Syria off the hook. It's likely to keep up diplomatic pressure. Mike O'Brien, a deputy foreign minister responsible for the Middle East, is said to have brought up the charges against Syria during a meeting with al-Assad in Damascus this week.

"The Guardian" newspaper reported that O'Brien is understood to have challenged al-Assad to sign conventions banning the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons.

The paper quotes a source as saying there are signs that Syria "is thinking seriously" about the challenge.

Today, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said his government is willing to sign a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.