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Kissing Cousins: Assad Hangs Tough With Ahmadinejad

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Syrian President Bashar Assad rewarded the Obama administration's decision to re-establish normal relations with Syria a few days ago by laying out the red carpet in Damascus today for Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While taking in Damascus' sights Ahmadinejad also intends to break bread with the leadership of Hamas and Hezbollah -- Iran's terrorist proxies whose military wings are based in the Syrian capital.

After all, its important to visit the family.

If anyone at the State Department or the White House is surprised that Assad barely missed beating a hasty retreat into Ahmadinejad's arms after getting an ambassador from Washington, they should not be. After all, Syria has perfected a penchant for having it both ways when it comes to dealing with United States.

At their joint press conference today in his presidential palace, Assad and Ahmadinejad went to great lengths to scuttle any notion that a year's worth of carefully orchestrated American and French diplomacy designed to wean Syria away from Iran has had any visible, much less, tangible affect.

To the contrary, Assad reassured his hosts that Iran is entitled to its nuclear ambitions, deeming U.S. efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons program (don't blame me, call the IAEA) as an anti-Islamic western conspiracy.

It is entirely conceivable that in the Middle East diplomacy bazaar Assad's reassuring gesture to Iran is just part of the game of keeping Tehran at bay while Syria slowly files away at Iran's shackles.

That, I am afraid, remains wishful thinking.

Syria's straight-jacketed dependency on Iran is permanently fixated on regional, ideological, military and economic foundations, which date back decades. Indeed, Syria was the first nation to recognize the Islamic Republic in 1979 and has been rewarded ever since with Iranian largess that has taken the form of military, nuclear, intelligence and financial aid.

These ties will not be easily severed merely to accommodate a major diplomatic goal of the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Given Syria's institutionalized ties to Tehran, is it important to play this diplomatic minuet with Assad to keep trying to convince him to substantially reduce Syria's dependency on Iran?

What, after all, does Iran need from Syria that the U.S. would like to deny it?

First, Iran needs Syria to remain quartermaster for Iran's military and financial pipeline to its Hezbollah pawns in Lebanon.

Second, Syria's ties to Iran is extraordinarily unsettling to other Sunni Arab states allied with the U.S., who do not underestimate Syria's capacity to serve as a junior partner to Iran's regional hegemonic goals against them.

Third, Syria shares Iran's strategic long-term goal of installing a Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, which would constitute a direct military threat to Israel.

Fourth, within the byzantine framework of Sunni-Shiite politics, Sunni-dominated Syria's deep and abiding friendship with Iran lessens Shiite Iran's bogeyman image in the Arab world.

And perhaps most important of all, Syria's continued validation of Iran's nuclear weapons program (a program Syria secretly coveted until Israel blew that dream up a few years ago) reduces Iran's regional and international isolation, which is crucial to the atomic ayatollahs.

While I fully support the Obama administration's decision to re-establish ambassadorial level diplomatic relations with Syria a few days ago, the question I have is whether there was any quid pro quo? Did the Obama administration extract any concession from Assad on a long list of issues that have torpedoed relations in the past; namely removing Syria's welcome mat for Hamas' military wing, or preventing Hezbollah from rearming in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, or ending its interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. How about coming clean on who in the Syrian government ordered the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri.

Doesn't look like Assad tossed any bone our way other than politely receiving Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri recently without personally threatening him like he threatened his father.

For its part, the Obama administration recently renewed Bush-era economic sanctions on Syria evidently since there is no real evidence that Assad has moved in any positive direction to end his government's state sponsorship of terror. That alone was the best evidence to date that Assad is talking with us, but not walking anywhere toward us.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi once mistakenly proclaimed while visiting Syria a few years ago that all roads to peace in the Middle East lead through Damascus. A gross overstatement to say the least. But Bashar Assad, like his father Hafez before him, has shown a duplicitous capacity to navigate from safe harbor to save harbor with an admirable dexterity that has a "like father like son" quality to it. Meanwhile, he remains Ahmadinejad's kissing cousin.