Blair's Syria visit dubbed a disaster

LONDON, NOV. 1. The ``very public rebuff'', as one newspaper put it, which the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, got from his Syrian host, the President, Mr. Bashar al-Assad, on Wednesday is seen here as by far the most serious setback to Britain's diplomatic efforts to get the Arab world's backing for the war in Afghanistan.

The British media was today awash with scorching headlines, and comment calling Mr. Blair's latest outing as a ``disaster'' and a ``blunder''. The carpeting he received at the hands of the youthful Syrian President was seen as particularly embarrassing after a huge media build-up in which his stint as a medical student in London and the fact that he is married to a British woman were highlighted to portray him as ``one of us''. He had been expected, naively it turned out, to understand the Western viewpoint better than his late father, a home-grown ``socialist dictator''. Observers said by hyping the visit - publicising it as the first by a British Prime Minister to Syria in many years - Downing Street had raised expectations and, in the end, became a victim of its own spin.

Mr. Blair's battle for the ``hearts and minds'' of the Muslim world took a beating at his very first public appearance with his host - a joint press conference at which Mr. Assad bluntly stated that the bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan was ``unacceptable'', and that his country's support for a campaign against terrorism should not be confused with the support for what was going on in Afghanistan. ``We did not say that we supported an international coalition for launching a war. We are always against war...We cannot accept what we see every day on the television screens: the killing of innocent civilians, hundreds of them dying every day,'' he said even as Mr. Robin Cook, leader of the Commons and a former Foreign Secretary, was telling foreign correspondents here that the Taliban had been ``lying'' about civilian casualties.

Mr. Assad's scathing remarks against the campaign in Afghanistan and the West's unwillingness to regard Israel's violence against Palestinians as terrorism were said to have taken Mr. Blair by surprise. ``The Prime Minister, whose expression darkened during Mr. Assad's denunciation of the conduct of the war, was surprised by what appeared to be an ambush by the President,'' The Times said in a front-page report headlined ``Assad Ambushes Blair''.

The Guardian said while Downing Street had not expected much in terms of concrete results they ``did not expect that Mr. Assad would reject Mr. Blair's overtures in such a public and abrupt way.'' It went to add that diplomatically it was a ``disaster'' for the British Prime Minister who had seldom ``looked as uncomfortable in the presence of a foreign leader'' as he did in Damascus on Wednesday.

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