- The Washington Times - Friday, February 26, 2010

DAMASCUS, Syria | Syrian President Bashar Assad defied U.S. calls to loosen ties with Iran Thursday, saying his long-standing alliance with Tehran remains strong despite overtures from Washington intended to shift his loyalties.

The U.S. has reached out to Syria in recent months by nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with Mr. Assad. Washington is hoping to draw Syria away from Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

But with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by his side in Damascus, Mr. Assad said Thursday that America should not dictate relationships in the Middle East.

“I find it strange how they talk about Middle East stability and at the same time talk about dividing two countries,” Mr. Assad told reporters when asked about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s call Wednesday for Syria to move away from Iran.

Mr. Assad took a swipe at Mrs. Clinton for making such a suggestion, saying he and Mr. Ahmadinejad “misunderstood, maybe because of translation error or limited understanding.” In a show of unity, the two signed an agreement canceling travel visas between the their countries.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington Thursday, said Mr. Assad “need only look around the region and recognize that Syria is increasingly an outlier.”

“We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region and one step would be to make clear what Iran needs to do differently. And unfortunately, there was no evidence of that today,” he said.

President Obama is determined to engage with Syria, a country seen as key to peace in the region but which the State Department considers a sponsor of terrorism.

Former President George W. Bush withdrew the last U.S. ambassador to Syria in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which his supporters blamed on Syria. Syria denies any links.

Mr. Assad’s strong words Thursday indicate that America does not have the kind of leverage it thought it had over Syria, said Joshua Landis, an American professor and Syria expert who runs a popular blog called Syria Comment. Syria “can’t survive cutting ties with Iran,” he said.

Still, there are signs Mr. Assad could be open to a breakthrough with the U.S.

Mr. Assad, who has begun to dismantle his father’s socialist legacy since he rose to office in 2000, is hoping for U.S. help in boosting the Syrian economy and U.S. mediation in direct peace talks with Israel - a recognition that he needs U.S. help to reach his goal of winning the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

But Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday that the recent decision to send an ambassador to Syria did not mean U.S. concerns about the country have been addressed.

Speaking to lawmakers in Washington, Mrs. Clinton said the nomination of career diplomat Robert Ford signaled a “slight opening” with Syria. But she said Washington remained troubled by suspected Syrian support for militant groups in Iraq and elsewhere, interference in Lebanon and Syria’s close relationship with Iran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip comes amid rising U.S. tension with Iran over its nuclear program. The U.S. and others think Iran is hiding nuclear weapons development under the guise of a civilian energy program. Iran insist its intentions are peaceful.

Mr. Assad called the U.S. stance toward Iran “a new situation of colonialism in the region.”

Despite its efforts to woo Syria, Washington has not lifted sanctions on Damascus. First imposed by Mr. Bush and renewed by Mr. Obama in May, the sanctions cite Syria’s support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.

Iran’s economic and political support has enabled Syria to survive those sanctions and international isolation.

Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed that Syria and Iran are partners with a long history.

“There is nothing that could harm these brotherly relations,” he said. “With each passing day, these relations will improve and deepen.”

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