LONDON // The British foreign secretary David Miliband said he would use talks with the Syrian president Bashar al Assad today to highlight the potentially major part Damascus could play in stabilising the Middle East. Mr Miliband, whose talks in Damascus are the first by British foreign secretary since 2000, said Syria had a choice about which path to take. "It is very important to understand that Syria has a big potential role to play in stability in the Middle East," he said. "It can be a force for stability or it can be a force for instability."
Relations between the West and Damascus have been strained by US accusations that Syria turned a blind eye to fighters infiltrating Iraq, but diplomatic efforts between Europe - particularly France and Britain - and Damascus have increased in recent months. "Over the last 18 months, I have been talking with the Syrian foreign minister about... Syria's responsibilities in the region in respect of counter-terrorism, in respect of Iraq, in respect of the Middle East peace process," Mr Miliband said.
The outgoing US administration of George W Bush imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004 for its support of Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah Shiite movement. The European Union has also been urging Damascus to end its support for Hezbollah. "Syria certainly has, and has had, some big questions to answer about the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, about the situation in the Lebanon, about its contribution to the stability of the region," said Mr Miliband, whose Middle East trip has included talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
"We have been taking up those issues, and...there have been some important signs of Syria understanding a degree of concern and seeking to change some of its actions." Mr Miliband also said he expected to discuss the issue of human rights with Damascus. "This is a dialogue that covers a range of issues that are of a British national interest, of a regional interest and of global interest," he said.