By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 26, 2010; A13
JERUSALEM -- The presidents of Iran and Syria on Thursday ridiculed U.S. policy in the region and pledged to create a Middle East "without Zionists," combining a slap at recent U.S. overtures and a threat to Israel with an endorsement of one of the region's defining alliances.
The Obama administration is trying to build an international coalition behind economic sanctions aimed at curbing Iran's uranium-enrichment program, which the United States and others fear is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. The United States also recently announced that it will send an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year absence, part of an effort to weaken Syria's relations with Iran and discourage the country's support for militant groups antagonistic to Israel.
But the message delivered by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a joint news conference was sharp and spoke to a shared sense that Iran is gaining influence in the region despite U.S. efforts. Until the outcome of the broader struggle over Iran's nuclear program becomes clear, analysts here say, it is unlikely Syria will change direction -- or that progress can be made toward an Israel-Syria peace agreement.
The United States wants "to dominate the region, but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that," Ahmadinejad said. "We tell them that instead of interfering in the region's affairs, to pack their things and leave."
Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier, spoke of Israel's eventual "demise and annihilation" and said the countries of the region could create a future "without Zionists and without colonialists."
Assad criticized what he regarded as the United States' "new situation of colonialism" in the region, with troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and pressure on Syria to split from Iran, a friendship Assad emphasized was secure even given Syria's faltering economy.
The joint appearance and tone of the remarks come as an answer of sorts to the U.S. decision to send an ambassador, Robert Ford, to Damascus after pulling its representative in protest over the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Hariri's killing was among a wave of assassinations in Lebanon attributed to Syria and its allies.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the return of an ambassador marked a "slight opening" toward Syria but that ultimately the United States expects Assad to curb his ties with Iran and his support for militant groups like the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and Hamas, based in the Gaza Strip.
But Assad and Ahmadinejad on Thursday emphasized that their countries' relationship had deepened with the signing of an agreement waiving visa restrictions for travel.
The relationship between Iran and Syria has become one of the central alliances in the region, of particular interest now as a barometer of the success of U.S. policy toward Iran and of whether a larger Arab-Israeli peace deal is possible.
Nowhere is concern over Iranian nuclear ambitions more pointed than in Israel, where officials argue that a nuclear-armed Iran will become even more influential over countries like Syria and will embolden radical groups to take a harder line with Israel.
"If Iran is seen as being on the ascent, that strengthens all those people that oppose peace in the Middle East," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "Those who are on the fence will come off the fence on the wrong side, and those who are in the peace camp will be playing defense."
Israel and Syria have held several rounds of peace talks and until late 2008 were talking indirectly through Turkish mediators.
The outline of a deal, both sides say, is well known and in some ways simple: Israel's full surrender of the Golan Heights territory it seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and Syria's end of the strategy of "resistance" and support for militant groups that has defined the rule of Assad and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
Netanyahu and Assad have said they are willing to reopen peace talks but have disagreed over who, if anyone, should mediate. More recently, their countries traded barbs that included threats by the Israeli foreign minister to topple Assad and threats by the Syrian foreign minister to target Israeli cities in any war.
Israeli officials say they still believe that a deal with Syria is possible but less so if President Obama fails with Iran.
"The question is, where is Syria going to locate itself?" asked Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The alliance with Iran, he said, "gives them less reason to be pragmatic."