DAMASCUS // The rivalry between the United States and Iran for Syria's affections appears to have stepped up a gear. As Washington pushes for a Middle East peace deal and Tehran seeks to weather growing international pressure over its nuclear programme, both are hoping Syria will provide them with the leverage they need to put through their plans.
The United States made its latest move on Thursday, dispatching its special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, to meet the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, in an attempt to nudge Damascus into taking part in the latest incarnation of the peace process. A new round of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has not, so far, been matched by contacts, even mediated, between Israel and Syria, something the United States sees as crucial if its goal of achieving a peace settlement within one year is to succeed.
Less than 48 hours after the US effort to coax Damascus back to the negotiating table, Tehran had made its counter-move. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en route to New York where he is due to address the UN General Assembly this week, stopped at Damascus airport on Saturday for a rapid consultation with his main ally, Mr Assad. The Iranian president was characteristically bellicose, promising that Middle Eastern powers would "disrupt" efforts to end the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict according to US designs.
"Those who want to change the political geography of the region must know that they will have no place in the future of the region," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "The waves of free nations to join this resistance is spreading every day." Mr Mitchell's remarks after his meetings in Syria, long at loggerheads with Washington, had been the polar opposite. He made the optimistic prediction that "comprehensive peace will travel the full distance from hope to reality", although he acknowledged "there are some who are determined to disrupt this process", an apparent reference to Iran that Mr Ahmadinejad was only too happy to confirm.
In the middle of this diplomatic flurry, Syria has maintained an unflustered, enigmatic pose. An official Syrian statement on the Iranian talks made non-committal reference to a "range of bilateral and international issues" and stressed Damascus's preference for upgrading economic ties with Tehran. It mentioned the crisis over forming a new government in Iraq. There was no comment on the current peace process at all, a stark contrast to the Iranian proclamations.
Syria's response to the US overtures was similarly more measured than Mr Mitchell's hopeful reaction. Reiterating Damascus's desire for a peace settlement, official statements stressed a deal will only be struck if Israel returns, in full, the Syrian territory it has illegally occupied since 1967, with US complicity. Washington policymakers, hoping to peel Damascus away from Tehran's orbit, might see positive signs in this. Mr Ahmadinejad's quick reaction to Mr Mitchell's visit appears to signal Iran's deep unease about the renewed peace talks, which Syria has pointedly not joined Tehran in flatly rejecting.
There is also a marked contrast between Saturday's Iranian-Syrian summit and the previous visit by Mr Ahmadinejad in February. At the time, the United States had just made clear its aspiration to weaken the Damascus-Tehran alliance and the response was unequivocal. The Iranian leader and Syrian president had sat down for dinner with Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, and with top officials from Palestinian militant factions, including Hamas, presenting a united front of opposition to Israel.
If that were not a clear enough sleight, there was also a very frank public rebuke, with Syria telling Washington to stop interfering in the region's affairs. That sort of open defiance was not repeated last week and, instead, Syrian officials talked of the need for continuous "serious and constructive" dialogue to further improve relations with the United States. Despite that shift in tone however, there is little reason to believe Damascus is changing its basic positions, either with respect to the Washington or Tehran.
Syria has long maintained its willingness to conclude a peace agreement with Israel, as long as it is fair and comprehensive, regardless of the fact Mr Ahmadinejad believes no deal should ever be done. And, although the US has softened its openly hostile stance towards Syria since Barack Obama has been president, the thawing of icy relations is far from complete. Syria remains under US sanctions, in a state of war with Israel, and - as a result of long, bitter experience - highly suspicious of US claims to be an impartial mediator on the matter of regional peace.
Damascus has not moved to block Washington's latest interest in a peace process, but does expect the effort to fail in the face of a hardline Israeli government, Palestinian divisions and the US's own unwillingness to put real pressure on Israel. That means the tug of war between Tehran and Washington over Syria remains firmly stacked against the US. For the past three decades, Syria has been closely tied with Iran, the alliance enduring ups and downs and seismic regional events. With both countries still facing a hostile West, neither has been given a persuasive incentive to change that status quo.