Britain this week will be rolling out the red carpet for an unusual visitor - a dictator straight out of central casting. Tony Blair's guest of honor is a man who harbors terrorist groups, suppresses human rights, threatens his neighbors, and refuses to allow free and fair elections. He spends vast sums of money on developing ballistic-missile technology and non-conventional weapons, and his country is on the United States State Department list of countries supporting terror.



No, it isn't Saddam Hussein ? though the description certainly fits ? it is his neighbor and cohort Bashar al-Assad, the despot of Damascus. Assad arrived in London on Monday for a three-day visit, where his busy schedule includes a meeting with Blair, a banquet hosted by the mayor of London, and even an audience with the Queen.



The last time Blair and Assad met was in Syria, in late October 2001, when the British premier made his way to Damascus to plead for Syrian help in the war on terror. But instead of cooperation, what Blair got was humiliation. At a joint press conference following their meeting, Assad proceeded to defend Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel and lambasted American air strikes on Taliban positions in Afghanistan.



Blair, of course, has come under pressure at home for his unswerving support for America's stance on the war on terror. Undoubtedly, by inviting Assad, he is seeking to show that he is his own man, with his own policy, even if it may conflict with that of Washington. But his choice of guests nevertheless remains baffling. On Sunday, the United Kingdom Daily Telegraph reported that, "Syria is secretly helping Saddam Hussein to prepare for a United Stated-led attack by smuggling vital arms supplies to Baghdad." Citing Western intelligence officials, the paper said at least 52 crates of new, Russian-made air-defense systems and spare parts have been smuggled into Iraq from Syria since the beginning of December, for which the Assad regime receives a commission of 20 percent. Those very same supplies will presumably be deployed against American, as well as British, pilots once the war in Iraq starts. And, as the London Times noted last Friday, Syria is actively helping Saddam to violate U.N. sanctions by smuggling as much as 150,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil across its borders for sale abroad. The profits, of course, are undoubtedly going to line Saddam's pockets and those of his cronies, as well as to upgrade Iraq's defenses for its upcoming battle with the US.



What's more, the Syrian government-controlled press is replete with harsh anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric. On Monday, an article in the English-language Syria Times said that Israel is an "alien body" in the Middle East, one which is "characterized chiefly by its racist, terrorist, aggressive and expansionist nature... Zionism, like Nazism, is a creed without future. It will face the same fate that Nazism had." On December 5, the paper ran an article accusing the United States of being one of the "hypocrites of the new world order," asserting that America was using the "pretext of disarming" Iraq so as to mass its military forces in the region. Indeed, Syrian officials, such as Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, who is accompanying Assad on his London outing, have repeatedly come out against American policy on Iraq, reinforcing Arab suspicions about American intentions and further eroding its support throughout the Arab world.



It is therefore inexplicable that Blair would see fit to host the likes of Assad, whose words and deeds would seem more deserving of an ultimatum rather than a visit to 10 Downing Street. And so, while Saddam prepares for an audience with the Royal Marines, Assad will be having tea with the royal family. London's skyline, it seems, is not the only thing that is cloudy these days ? apparently Tony Blair's moral compass is starting to fog up a little, too.

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Michael Freund served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Israeli Prime Minister's office from 1996 to 1999. He is currently an editorial writer and columnist for the Jerusalem Post.



[This article originally appeared on National Review Online.]