DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Saturday, two days after Assad held talks with a U.S. envoy about the prospects of renewing peace negotiations with Israel.
The meeting suggests that Iran wants to keep close tabs on Syria’s relations with the United States as Washington presses the secular ruling hierarchy in Damascus to distance itself from the Islamic Republic.
The United States started a rapprochement with Syria soon after U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Assad in the Syrian capital on Thursday.
Mitchell said he had assured Assad that the U.S. focus on securing a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel would not distract Washington from pushing for an Israeli-Syrian agreement.
The official Syrian news agency did not give any details of the meeting between Ahmadinejad and Assad, but Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said Washington had been unsuccessful so far in driving a wedge between the leaders.
“The Syrians have assured the Iranians that any progress in ties with the United States or in peace with Israel will not come on the expense of Tehran,” he said.
The alliance between Syria and Iran started soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Syria intensified its ties with Iranian backed clerics in Lebanon and supported Iran in its eight year war with Iraq that broke out in 1980.
Almost ten years of U.S. supervised talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000. Turkey mediated four rounds of inconclusive discussions between the countries in 2008.
At the center of the talks was the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. The strategic territory, which overlooks Damascus and Israel’s Galilee region, now has 20,000 Israeli settlers, as much as the Syrian population which remained in the area.
Abdel Nour noted that Assad has stated publicly several times that he sees no prospects of peace with the current right leaning Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but said the Syrian leader was willing to “play the game of negotiations.”
Despite efforts at a rapprochement, the United States has kept up sanctions against Syria that were imposed in 2004 because of what Washington said was Syria’s support for militant groups and unconstructive approach toward Iraq.