The road to Damascus

In Doha, the message is relentless: all of a sudden, the problem is Syria and the man who took tea w

In a row of prefabricated warehouses on the road from Doha to the desert, George W Bush is opening a third front. The war on terror, which took American might to Afghanistan and then Iraq, is now being redirected against a new enemy, one conjured almost overnight - Syria.

Camp as-Sayliyah, the United States' forward military post in the Middle East, has been home to General Tommy Franks, the commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, his top military planners, and to hundreds of journalists who have scavenged for news far from the front.

Now, as the mopping-up of the remains of Saddam Hussein's regime is completed, attention has already turned elsewhere. The American media briefers, who have kept their charges underfed and eager to please, are pointing them in the direction of Damascus. The message is repeated in Washington and, alarmingly, in London: Syria must "behave". As ever, the goalposts are being moved. As ever, compliance is not what is really wanted.

The media war reflects the military war. It is unsubtle. It is simple. But its sheer power has ensured that it prevails. For weeks during the war, the world's media - from the preening US networks and the British tabloid hacks conferring on "the line" to the polite Japanese and the difficult customers of al-Jazeera - have been bused into the fortress camp, past the sniffer dogs, the body searches and the security people, to hang on every word uttered by Brigadier General Vince Brooks. Politely, methodically, monotonously, the Americans' chief spokesman and chief pin-up has repeated the mantra that the war was "on plan".

The view from inside the briefing room is even more incongruous than it appears on the small screen. The nearest anyone here has come to war was an explosion on one of the first days, urgently reported back to the world as an attack, which turned out to have come from the nearby car scrapyard, where someone had forgotten to take the petrol out of the tank. But this is Central Command and every day Brooks has done his turn. "The plan is sound. It is working, the operation remains on plan," he proclaimed by way of peroration at the one briefing I had the privilege to attend.

When I arrived in Doha a few days ago, the Brits were welcoming and forthcoming. The Americans were welcoming and less forthcoming. That is also the experience of people who have been here much longer. It is born of a cultural difference that the British military and civilian officials here acknowledge is chasmic. They did their best to paper over the cracks in the way the war was presented. Now they are having to do the same with the way things are being presented postwar.

As I sat at the back and observed Brooks in full swing, I could not but marvel at the opacity of the information and the obeisance of the journalists. They have no choice. A word spoken out of turn, and no more questions from you. Brooks speaks of happy, liberated Iraqi engineers working with happy, liberating American soldiers to reconnect the electricity supply. He speaks of happy, liberated Iraqi experts working with happy, liberating American soldiers purifying the water. He speaks of happy, liberated Iraqi doctors working with happy, liberating American soldiers getting medicines back into the hospitals. Each statement is uttered over still photographs or video snatches of the scene in question - always involving a handshake and a smile. Even a child with a bandage over a wound on its head is smiling.

The British officials watch this stuff and cringe, but publicly theirs is not to reason why. The same pattern is now emerging on the diplomacy. The American message over the past few days has been relentless. It has come from George W Bush, from Donald Rumsfeld, from Condoleezza Rice, from Colin Powell and all the way across to the spin-maestros of Qatar: Syria is a big problem. It sent weapons to Iraq. It exported jihadis to Iraq. It is harbouring Saddam Hussein's henchmen. And it has its own arsenal of chemical weapons. Such weapons - the casus belli for the war against Iraq - have yet to be found anywhere by US or British forces, but too bad; the message has moved on.

The message starts in the mid-morning huddles. The word from Navy Captain Frank Thorp was that pockets of resistance still exist and that numbers 51 and 55 on the "deck" of 55 cards issued to American soldiers of Saddam's henchmen wanted dead or alive have been seized. (The Americans refer to the numbers so that they don't have to pronounce the names).

The main reason why the fighting still continues, Thorp assures us, is because of the arrival in Iraqi cities of volunteer fighters from outside. He is asked where from. "Syria and a bunch of other countries," we are told. Which other countries? "We don't have information on the other countries," Thorp says. The intelligence, it seems, is good enough to spot the identity of the Syrians, but nobody else. The briefing ends, the network correspondents climb on to their live positions outside the hangar, in front of the Humvee helpfully placed to provide a military backdrop and a sign giving the distance to Baghdad, London - and Hollywood.

The message goes out to an eager world. From the television banks opposite the coffee stall, I can see that message beaming back at us straight away from BBC World, CNN, Sky, al-Jazeera and Fox News.

Two hours later, to get the message going again, Brooks does his daily turn on the "podium of truth", as it is affectionately known, telling us that the war is on track but isn't over, that the Iraqis are happy to be free, and that the Syrians are creating a big problem for the world. A few hours after that, Rumsfeld is at it: the Syrians "are associating with the wrong people". Twenty-four-hour news requires a 24-hour message.

Only a few months ago, Tony Blair ensured that Syria's president Bashar al-Assad was received by the Queen. It was the latest attempt at a charm offensive, which had achieved mixed results in the past. In Damascus in November 2001, Blair was harangued by al-Assad about double standards in the Middle East in a very public display of defiance, but the Prime Minister kept plugging away, convinced that engagement was more productive than confrontation. A year later his approach appeared vindicated when the Syrians did what few thought possible and backed Resolution 1441 against Iraq, giving the US and Britain a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council.

That was then. The British now talk of a "new reality" following the fall of Saddam. The US has a much lower tolerance for regimes that defy its will. The Brits comply with the American message, but they do it in their own way. Mike O'Brien, Jack Straw's junior minister, is despatched to Tehran and Damascus to deliver personally a message to the leaders of Iran and Syria to behave.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, makes clear that "there is no 'next list'" but that Syria must co-operate with the US to answer some "important questions". He said it in London. On a whistle-stop tour of the Gulf he said it in Bahrain, and again in Kuwait. At Central Command in Doha early in the morning on 15 April, after seeing General Tommy Franks, the US Commander, and Britain's top military man, Air Marshal Brian Burridge, Straw gives us the same message. But does he agree, he is asked, with the Americans that the Syrians really do have chemical weapons? After all, the two governments supposedly share the same intelligence. "Syria has important questions to answer," Straw repeats - because diplomatically he cannot answer the question. We don't usually entertain people at Buckingham Palace if we think they are manufacturing VX nerve gas.

The British are disconcerted by the American rhetoric, but they try to put a brave face on it. As long as it forces the Syrians to "see sense", then it is all to the good. Blair tells MPs in his Commons statement - carried live by the networks on our TV screens near the Centcom coffee shop - that there are "no plans whatsoever to invade Syria". He should know, he says, because he talks to Bush all the time.

Now, as American military planes rumble from al-Udeid airbase and over the skies of Doha, as-Sayliyah is growing. The camp's 33 warehouses, built in Florida and shipped over in segments, cost $100m. When the journalists go and the set is dismantled, the hangars will once again be home to the tanks and the heavy armour that thundered into Iraq. The place is adopting an air of permanence. It is joining the half-dozen five-star hotels and the giant shopping centre built around an ice-skating rink as the new landmarks in this rapidly expanding city state.

Apart from the presence of al-Jazeera, its unassuming headquarters belying its significance, the Americans like it here. The Amir, who ousted his father in a bloodless coup eight years ago, is accommodating and pro-western. The place is well organised, clean and, by the standards of the region, liberal. It is a perfect forward military base.

According to the CIA's World Factbook, Qatar is "slightly smaller than Connecticut". It has already become infinitely more important, as Bush's global adventure proceeds.

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The road to Damascus