January 7, 2004
By Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor
America and Britain rebuffed President Bashar Assad of Syria yesterday, telling him bluntly that Damascus must give up its weapons of mass destruction or face ostracism - even if neighbouring Israel keeps its nuclear arms.
"Israel is in a unique position as the only state whose very existence is threatened," said a senior British Government source yesterday. "There is no point in asking for a WMD-free Middle East while there are countries parading missiles with a sign up the side saying Death to Israel."
Isolated since the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mr Assad is under strong pressure to follow the lead given by Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi, who last month announced the dismantling of his secret non-conventional weapons.
But the Syrian leader told The Telegraph this week that he would not agree to destroy his chemical weapons unless Israel abandoned its undeclared nuclear arsenal, estimated at between 100 and 200 warheads. "Unless this applies to all countries, we are wasting our time," he said.
Washington and London have told Damascus that giving up its well-developed chemical arsenal and its embryonic biological programme agents is the price for better relations with America.
They say they support the idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction but have all but abandoned the pretence of an even-handed policy. They believe that "rogue" states such as Syria must disarm first, and, by implication, Israel will be last.
A senior western diplomatic source said: "They [the Syrians] have to make a decision about whether the chemical weapons will make much of a difference against the Israelis, or whether they would not be in a better position by saying, 'We're giving it up and now we want a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction'.
"The pressure will rise on the Israelis as Arab states give up their weapons of mass destruction."
Despite the new attempt by Mr Assad to charm the West - which included a ground-breaking trip yesterday to Turkey, a close American ally - there is a growing sense of frustration with his failure to reform the country since taking over after his father's death in 2000.
Syria has caused particular anger by criticising the war in Iraq, hailing the resistance by Saddam loyalists, and failing to prevent extremists from crossing the border into Iraq to fight US-led forces.
Moreover, Britain believes Syria not only harbours Palestinian extremist groups, but is actively preventing them from agreeing to an Egyptian-mediated Palestinian ceasefire.
Copyright Telegraph Group Limited