Syria and Iran affirm ties, rebuff Washington

The Iranian president and his Syrian counterpart promise increased co-operation in the face of US pressure on Tehran.

DAMASCUS // Syria and Iran reaffirmed their close alliance yesterday, publicly rebuffing recent attempts by the United States to drive a wedge between them. The Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al Assad, promised increased co-operation in the face of US pressure on Tehran and a new American diplomatic offensive aimed at Damascus. Mr al Assad pointedly rejected Washington's goal of weakening the Syrian-Iranian alliance, and accused the US of following a new colonial agenda in the Middle East.

"We hope that others don't give us lessons about our region and our history," he said after meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad in the Syrian capital. "We are the ones who decide how matters will go and we know our interests. We thank them for their advice." His remarks were a direct response to comments made the previous day by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who said the Americans were asking Syria to "generally move away from the relationship with Iran".

Mrs Clinton told the US Senate Wednesday she had also "laid out for the Syrians the need for greater co-operation" with American interests on Iraq, Lebanon and Israel. Senior US officials were in Damascus last week for talks on intelligence matters, part of a renewed programme of dialogue after years of frozen US-Syrian relations. Iran has come under intense and growing pressure from the international community over a controversial nuclear project that it insists is civilian, not military. That claim has not convinced the United Nations which has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran, with a fourth currently under consideration.

Mr al Assad, however, said Syria supported Iran's right to enrich uranium, apparently dashing European hopes Damascus would play a mediating role on the issue. Israel has warned it will consider military strikes against Tehran unless the project is halted before Iran develops nuclear weapons. Syria and Israel, which remain at war over the occupied Golan Heights, have recently traded a string of threats, raising the spectre of another outbreak of hostilities in the region. Mr Ahmadinejad yesterday weighed in on the subject, saying Iran, Syria and Lebanon would be unified against any Israeli attack and that the time was coming when the Middle East would no longer have "Zionists and colonialists".

"If the Zionist entity wants to repeat its past errors, its death will be inevitable," he said. As well as being long-time allies, Syria and Iran are key supporters of Hizbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement, and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, both of which have powerful military wings. Washington and Tel Aviv consider Hamas and Hizbollah terrorist organisations, despite their widespread grassroots support in the region and mainstream political activity.

After meeting with the Syrian president yesterday, Mr Ahmadinejad was due to hold discussions with Hizbollah and Hamas officials, including Khalid Meshaal, the exiled leader of Hamas who is based in Damascus. According to a number of Syrian political analysts, underpinning yesterday's public display of unity is Syria's belief that, regardless of slowly improving relations with the US, Iran remains central to its interests.

"Syria is not a natural ally to Iran but is not going to walk away from that relationship just because the Americans want it to," said one analyst, on condition of anonymity. "There is a deal to be done between Syria and America but it would need firm, concrete steps towards reining in Israel. Until that happens, and we see no sign it is coming anytime soon, Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas are vital parts of Syrian policy."

Washington accuses Syria and Iran of providing weapons to Palestinian and Lebanese militants, allegations Damascus and Tehran deny. "All countries are pragmatic in their foreign policy and Syria is no different," said another analyst in Damascus, also on condition of anonymity. "The alliance between Syria and Iran is not automatic or eternal but the Americans have certainly done nothing yet to make Syria reassess its position."

The US announced the return of an ambassador to Damascus this year, after five years in which the post was left empty. The former US president, George W Bush, recalled the previous ambassador after the assassination of the Lebanese billionaire Rafik Hariri. That murder ushered in years of estrangement between Syria and the West, a period that only cemented ties between Damascus and Tehran. Syria's diplomatic isolation has largely ended in the past year, prompting hopes of a renewed drive for peace in the Middle East.

Such hopes remain unrealised however, with the Palestinians divided and under an ongoing Israeli siege and with a hardline government in Tel Aviv insisting that the occupied Golan, seized from Syria in 1967, will always remain part of Israel. US attempts to foster an improved climate for peace talks have so far failed to yield anything like a breakthrough, with critics saying Barack Obama, the US president, failed a major test when he backed down in a confrontation with Israel over the issue of illegal settlement construction.