There is something provocative in Syria's behavior over the last few weeks. Compared with Iran, the messages coming out of Damascus are still moderate. But the Syrians certainly seem attracted by the Iranian strategy of baiting the West.

Precisely as the United States strives to buy good will by returning an ambassador, Robert Ford, to Damascus; and just after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned to Syria with a request to curb arms smuggling to Hezbollah - Syria has responded by convening an 'Axis of Evil' summit at the presidential palace in Damascus.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, and Khaled Meshal, head of the Hamas politburo, were the star guests at the meeting last week. The message was clear. Efforts by the Americans and Europeans to cozy up to Damascus are all very well; but in Syrian eyes, the real strategic partnership remains in the east. To emphasize the solidity of ties between them, Iran and Syria announced at the summit that their citizens would no longer need visas to visit each other.

And in terms of intimacy with Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Assad is outdoing even his father. Hafez Assad always remained wary of the Lebanese group and in the 1990s even dispatched forces to Lebanon to fight it. Bashar, in contrast, has supplied Hezbollah with weapons more deadly than any it had in the past - weapons which threaten to ignite the entire region.

It is true that overtures from the West could keep Syria from giving itself wholly to Iran. And persuading Syria to negotiate with Israel could even significantly weaken its axis with Tehran and might neutralize the threat of regional war. But with the Damascus summit, Assad is signaling unease over American and French attempts to woo him and, moreover, that he has no interest in reopening talks with Israel. Ahmadinejad has been to Damascus before, of course, and Bashar has visited Tehran. But the presence this time of Hamas and Hezbollah hints at more than the usual show of deterrence to Israel and the West.

America appears to understand this: in the last 24 hours there have been reports Washington has urged both Israel and Syria to calm tensions between them, as well as stepping up pressure on Syria over the transfer of sensitive weapons to Hezbollah.

Hamas becoming more extreme

On Saturday, two days after the Damascus summit, a conference on 'Islamic and National Solidarity with the Palestinian People' opened in Iran. All the confident predictions of the Zionist entity's demise aired in Damascus were repeated, largely by the same cast of characters (Nasrallah excepted). Meshal, a guest of honor, denounced Israel from the podium.

While the rhetoric is not new, Hamas' growing loyalty to Iran is worrying. Until just a few years ago, before the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Palestinians were on the whole suspicious of the Iranians and the group tried to keep its links with Tehran inconspicuous.

But power in Hamas has since shifted from the West Bank and Gaza to the organization's political leadership in Damascus. The now dominant Syrian branch has crept gradually closer to Iran and Hamas policy has hardened accordingly. Its leaders, especially in Damascus, show no sign of softening their stance and have time and again scorned attempts to reconcile them with Fatah. Relations between Meshal and Gaza are increasingly febrile, to the point where one of the group's Gaza chiefs, Mahmoud Zahar, resigned last week from a team negotiating the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Zahar's departure is unprecedented and it can only be wondered just how deeply the the Hamas elite is split - and how far the moderate faction in Gaza has been swept aside to leave control in the hands of Ahmadinejad.

Posted by Avi Issacharoff on March 1, 2010

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