When he came into office last year, the US president Barack Obama pledged, to the relief of many around the world, to rebuild strained relations with countries at odds with US interests, or at least to try. After a disappointing start with Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, the US administration has recently turned its attention to Syria. Earlier this month, Mr Obama nominated an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year diplomatic absence and sent a senior diplomat to meet with its president, Bashar al Assad. Mr Obama's strategy is predicated on the notion that a forceful engagement of Syria can strain its ties with Iran.
In all likelihood, it was that very US campaign to rally Arab countries against Iran, and its not-so-subtle attempts at wooing Syria, that prompted the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit the Syrian capital last week to hold a summit of the jabhat al mumana, the rejectionist front, which the leader of Hizbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, also attended. In comments to the international media made in the presence of Mr Ahmadinejad, Mr al Assad appeared to dash Mr Obama's hopes for engagement. Mr al Assad said that support for resistance movements "is a moral and national duty in every nation, and also a religious legal duty. We hope the day will come when we can celebrate our religious victories and [the opposing forces'] great loss. This day will come."
These remarks may show that Syria sees US overtures as a sign of weakness and an admission of failure. It is also possible that Mr al Assad needed to reassure his Iranian counterpart that his domestic troubles and US pressure have not changed Syria's rationale for this strategic partnership. Based on the long-standing ties between the two countries, many have argued that Damascus will never abandon an alliance that gives it incommensurate regional influence and strategic depth. Because of this, Mr Obama's outreach was destined to fail. Mr Ahmadinejad himself seems to agree: "Everyone must know that these relations are brotherly, deep, broad and everlasting. No factor can undermine these brotherly relations. These relations are becoming deeper, broader, and closer everyday," he said.
It is unreasonable to expect Syria to make a 180-degree policy shift in the short term, especially when it has legitimate demands against the US and Israel, including the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But it is also troubling that Syria is adopting the language of resistance at the very time it has been welcomed back into the international and Arab fold. Saudi Arabia and France have reopened channels to Damascus with the stated objective of moderating Syrian policy. Syria need not abandon a valued partner, but it must be more responsive to the concerns of Arab nations, not just the US, about Iranian influence.