Syria's President Bashar Assad defended its long-standing alliance with Iran on Tuesday and said a "strategic" relationship between the two countries contributed to Middle East stability.
Syria has re-enforced its alliance with Iran in recent years after they came under pressure from the United States for suspected nuclear programs and providing backing for militant groups in the Middle East.
"We have strategic ties ... which don't constitute an axis as some suggest, but serve the stability and strength of this region," said Assad, after meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Syrian capital.
"Our duty is to strengthen these kinds of ties."
The two countries, which are under different levels of U.S. sanctions, support the Lebanese movement Hezbollah and the Palestinian movement Hamas, whose exiled leaders live in Syria.
Hezbollah, the lynchpin of the relationship between Tehran and Damascus, is also the main opposition party contesting Lebanon's parliamentary elections next month. The two countries want to see the Shi'ite group fare well in the poll.
Ahmadinejad said Tuesday after the meeting with Assad that Tehran and Damascus are united behind Palestinian resistance to Israel.
Sitting alongside Assad at a press conference, Ahmadinejad also said that the relations between the two countries were "deepening and developing on various levels... There are no obstacles before their development."
"Syria and Iran have been from the very beginning united and in agreement to stand on the side of the Palestinian resistance," Ahmadinejad said. "They will continue to do so. We see that the resistance will continue until all occupied territories are liberated."
Ahmadinejad is planning to meet the heads of 10 hard-line Palestinian groups including Hamas during his visit to Syria's capital Tuesday, sending what one of the Palestinians leaders said would be a message to the new right-wing Israeli government.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Syria comes as the U.S. is trying to improve strained ties with the two longtime adversaries. But it could turn out to be another reminder of what a divisive role he plays on the world stage.
"Iran and Syria are more powerful than before the [2003 U.S.] invasion of Iraq," the Iranian president said during the Damascus press conference.
"It is time to evict the foreign presence, which has caused so many problems for the people, from the region," Ahmadinejad said. "We did not invite them, they are uninvited guests."
Ahmadinejad arrived in Damascus early Tuesday afternoon and went to the People's Palace, where he was given a red carpet welcome by Assad followed by a closed-door meeting. It was his first visit to Syria since July 2007.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad will be among the Damascus-based Palestinian groups represented at a meeting later in the day, Khaled Abdul-Majid of the Popular Struggle Front said. Iran is a strong supporter of militant Islamic groups in the region, including Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Abdul-Majid said the meeting with the Palestinian factions is a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and what he called the racist steps it is taking, such as settlement expansion in areas where Palestinians want a future state.
"It is a message to strengthen the coalition of resistance forces in the region," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
While the Obama administration supports a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Netanyahu, who took office in March, has so far refused to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state.
Hamas' top political leader Khaled Mashaal, who is based in Syria, was quoted by the New York Times on Tuesday as saying that Hamas is willing to support a two-state solution. But he also said Hamas would not renounce violence against Israel or recognize it.
Syria is Iran's closest Arab ally. The two countries have had warm relations since 1980, when Syria sided with Persian Iran against Iraq in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is currently visiting the Middle East, said Tuesday the U.S. is still waiting to see how the Iranians respond to President Barack Obama's outreach, but so far the rhetoric from Ahmadinejad has been not very encouraging.
Gates sought to reassure U.S. Arab allies, who are worried that their rival Iran will be boosted by a U.S. dialogue or that any U.S.-Iranian reconciliation will ignore their interests. He also said a grand bargain between Tehran and Washington was unlikely.
There has been widespread speculation in the region that the Obama administration would try a grand bargain with Iran, in which Washington would press Israel for concessions in the peace process with the Palestinians in exchange for Tehran ratcheting back its nuclear program.
"The United States will be very open and transparent about these contacts, and we will keep our friends informed of what is going on so nobody gets surprised," Gates said at a press conference in Egypt before heading to the Saudi capital.
Meanwhile, two senior U.S. officials will leave for Syria later on Tuesday, the State Department announced, in another sign of U.S. efforts to improve ties between the two countries.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, will discuss issues of mutual and regional concern during the visit to Damascus, said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.
"This trip will further advance the U.S. commitment to direct diplomacy with Syria and continue discussions from his previous trip," said Wood of Feltman's visit.
Senior White House official Daniel Shapiro will accompany Feltman as he did when the two visited Syria in March.
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