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Blair in Damascus: Syria in Coalition Despite Differences - 2001-10-31

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met in Damascus Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on the first stop of a Middle East tour aimed at shoring up support for the war against terrorism. Mr. Blair is also pushing for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Mr. Blair is attempting to build Arab support for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism, while hoping to revive Middle East peace talks.

During a joint news conference, Mr. Blair emphasized the need for a solid international coalition against terrorism, and said Syria was part of it. But differences of opinion were apparent.

Mr. Assad said it is necessary to differentiate between fighting terrorism and resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian-controlled land, which he called "an international right." He accused Israel of practicing "state terrorism."

Syria is on the U.S. list of "state sponsors of terrorism" because it hosts Palestinian and Lebanese organizations that attack Israel.

Despite their differences, Mr. Blair said he and Mr. Assad both understood the importance of restarting the Middle East peace process, and called for an end to all violence. "And the objective that we seek - and I believe, again, this is shared by you and shared by people in this region - is a situation where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in peace together," he said. "That in the end is the only possible long-term solution."

Both leaders welcomed the opportunity for a "candid dialogue," which Mr. Blair said he hoped could be strengthened over time to help overcome what he called "huge differences in understanding" between the West and Islam and between the West and the Arab world. "And so, I hope that the dialogue we have begun today can continue over time," said Tony Blair. "So that we achieve the objectives we both want to achieve, which is an end to terrorism in all its forms, wherever it exists, and a proper and lasting peace and solution to the problems of the Middle East."

From Damascus, Mr. Blair traveled to Saudi Arabia. He is also expected to visit Jordan and to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials.