Business as usual as Syria stands firm with Iran

Despite the Obama administration pushing hard on the diplomatic front, Damascus has refused to give in to US terms and distance itself from Ahmadinejad's regime.

DAMASCUS // If Washington was hoping Syria would sell out its alliance with Iran, it has now been shown in the starkest terms there are no cut-price political deals on offer.

The renewed diplomatic offensive by the Obama administration has been widely advertised of late; the recent announcement that a US ambassador would be returned to Damascus was much touted. Last Wednesday in a Senate hearing, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, made explicit the underlying rationale. The US, she said, was asking Syria to "generally move away from the relationship with Iran".

It didn't take long for Syria to respond: Bashar Assad, the president, met his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the following day. They signed an agreement ending visa restrictions, publicly reaffirmed the strength of their ties and, for good measure, Mr Assad sarcastically thanked Mrs Clinton for her advice on how to manage Syria's affairs. If that slap on the wrist was not clear enough, the message was rammed home that evening when the Syrian president hosted a dinner for Mr Ahmadinejad and none other than Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah. He rarely leaves secret locations in Lebanon to avoid Israeli assassination squads, but he made the trip to Damascus to break bread with his principal allies.

Hizbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by the United States and Israel, notwithstanding its electoral successes and the fact that across much of the Middle East it is considered a resistance movement locked in a justifiable war. The group has grown into one of the most influential political players in the region. Support for Hizbollah and, in similar fashion, Hamas, also happens to be a major way for Iran to project its power right up to Israel's doorstep.

These alliances have been brought into sharp focus with growing international concern over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, widely suspected of being directed towards making weapons, despite Iranian denials. With Iran defiant in the face of international pressure, Israel - the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East - has said it would consider military strikes to stop Tehran obtaining atomic weapons.

Such threats will be costly to enforce if Iran is able to call on Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas to help retaliate. That is what Thursday's Damascus summit between Hizbollah, Iran, Syria and Palestinian militant factions spelt out: if Iran is attacked, there will be a regional war. Not limited skirmishes, not a few unanswered air strikes - a Middle East war. Syria, as many here are keen to point out, is not a natural ally of Iran or a natural enemy of the United States. The regime is broadly secular and pragmatic, not ideological.

But neither is Syria's continued defiance of the United States and policy against Israel irrational. Just as Hizbollah and Hamas were born in response to Israeli policies and tactics, so has Syria's support for these groups been nourished by Israel's occupation of Syrian territory. Syria's relationship with Iran has, likewise, drawn strength from that same source; the relentless decades of failure to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace. The United States can send an ambassador to Syria. And Washington might even lift economic sanctions. But although important, such developments will not be enough for Syria to relinquish the leverage it gets from alliances with Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran.

The political price of that is much higher. For one, it will take a sincere effort by the United States to bring about a Middle East peace, and emphatically not yet another hollow "peace process". It means Washington taking a firm and visible step away from its role as Israel's lawyer and taking up the position of a genuinely neutral mediator. The United States refuses to allow Europe to sell civilian aircraft to Syria, but at the same time supplies Israel with the latest in jet fighter technology, which is then used to break UN resolutions in the skies above southern Lebanon.

Ending sanctions against Syria would not amount to neutrality. Ending offensive weapons sales to Israel, however, might. In her Senate testimony, Mrs Clinton said she had "laid out for the Syrians the need" for greater co-operation with the United States on Iraq, Lebanon and peace with Israel. Rather than a new, respectful dialogue between equals, that sounded very much like Washington laying down terms.

There had been a "slight opening" with Syria, Mrs Clinton said. For it to grow, Damascus will have to believe its interests have come to be aligned more closely with US interests. Syria has, for decades, refused to bend to the will of the United States, even under duress. Therefore, any shift will have to come from a US realisation that its best interests lie in a peaceful Middle East, not in Israeli dominance and Israeli occupation.

Barack Obama, the president, may understand this, but there is no sign it is something he is currently either willing or able to enact as a matter of policy. Which means only one thing: from both sides, business looks set to continue very much as usual.