Back-slapping in Damascus

President al-Assad Receives  leader of Al-Sadr Movement in Iraq , Muqtada al-Sadr

Moqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing Iraqi cleric, visited President Assad in Damascus earlier this week to discuss “brotherly and friendly relations and mutual interests”.

The Syrian president underlined “the importance of strengthening national unity among the Iraqi people, and Syria's care for extending support to any effort that would help achieve that goal and preserve the security and stability of Iraq”.

Sadr, in turn, “expressed high appreciation of Syria's supportive stances to the interests of the Iraqi people and care for the unity of the Iraqi people and land”.

At least, that’s what the official Syrian news agency says – which makes you wonder why they didn’t just have a friendly natter on the phone.

Syria watcher Joshua Landis has a theory about the meeting: Assad was signalling to the west that even after losing most of his political leverage in Lebanon he still has cards to play.

Landis may be right. Guess who turns up four days later for talks in Damascus … Obama’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 July 2009