The offices of the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are decorated with the artifacts of its faith. A tapestry and bust of Lenin. A poster honoring Che Guevara. A map with the Soviet Union still intact.
Advocates of a rejectionist philosophy
that opposes the peace talks underway between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the group exists here with the Syrian government's blessing.
But now that ground may, too, be shifting. Syria and Israel have entered high-level peace negotiations. A nascent Palestinian state exists under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, and even some onetime hard-liners have chosen to accept the "reality" of Israel, and work to shape that future Palestine.
In downtown Damascus, that reality is going to pose some tough choices for erstwhile radicals whose time may have passed.
"Syria will go on supporting the Palestinian struggle" even if it signs a peace treaty with Israel, said PFLP spokesman Maher Taher, who added that the group has no plans to soften its attitude toward Israel until all Palestinian lands are returned--essentially all of Israel.
"The Palestinian people will go on resisting occupation in many different ways--politically, diplomatically. They may make a new uprising."
Despite such talk, the past year has seen an intensification of efforts here and in other Arab states to knit the dissident threads of the Palestinian movement back into a whole whose efforts can be focused on the internal politics of the state emerging under Arafat, rather than on maintaining an active opposition in exile.
Many don't like it, regarding the territorial concessions Arafat has already made to Israel as a corruption of a movement they built hoping to regain all the land Israel seized through a series of wars starting 50 years ago.
Some of the groups, particularly those in Damascus, have already been marginalized in fact, their aging leaders sidelined by the youths' intifada uprising against Israeli rule, the rise of the militant Islamic Hamas group, and the military actions of Hezbollah, or Party of God, in southern Lebanon.
But, one by one, further restraints are appearing, and may extend to Hezbollah as its patrons in Syria, and, most likely Lebanon, are drawn into peace discussions.
The ramifications are important--for Israel's security, for Arafat's legitimacy as head of the Palestinian state, and for the peace process, subject as it is to disruption by any renewed violence.
In recent months, Jordan has shut down the local offices of Hamas and ordered its leaders to leave the country. Over the summer, Syria's vice president met with the PFLP, explaining his government's positive feelings toward newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the probability of a renewed dialogue about peace--a discussion that began last week and is to continue early in January. Although Taher denies that the group has been placed under any restrictions, Syrian analysts said it is untenable to think Syria could allow anything but a token rejectionist movement once it signs any peace deal.
In Lebanon, efforts have been made to limit political activity in several Palestinian refugee camps. In Egypt, according to a published letter allegedly sent to a Saudi newspaper by Palestinian terrorist and Arafat opponent Abu Nidal, security forces have put a tight lid on his dissident group, and even forced some members back to Palestinian-controlled Gaza, where Arafat had them arrested.
"The major actors on the Palestinian scene--the ones who appear could weaken Arafat--no effort will be spared to put them back into the fold," as final status talks approach, said Labib Kamhawi, a Palestinian businessman in Jordan who followed the Hamas shutdown closely.
From one perspective, such actions are understandable. Arab states have frequently opposed and undermined one another through subterfuge, and occasionally crossed the line to full-scale invasion, as Iraq did with Kuwait, and Egypt did with Yemen in the 1960s.
But particularly in recent years, it has been considered bad form to allow the political opponents of one government to operate openly on the soil of another. As Arafat assumes more of the trappings and substance of a national leader, he would have some claim to equal treatment, despite the antagonism that has existed between him and other Arab leaders such as Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The dynamic has led some of his opponents to offer to join him during final status talks with Israel, while others, including one PFLP deputy, have chosen to relocate to Palestinian Authority lands, breaking ranks with those whose families were displaced from territory now considered part of Israel.
The head of another Damascus-based group, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, opened talks with Arafat in the summer about mending rifts between them and said he is ready to support the peace talks.
"We are ready to participate," said Hawatmeh, whose group is blamed for terrorist acts in the 1970s, but who surprised many at the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein earlier this year by shaking hands with Israeli President Ezer Weizman. "Talks between us are continuing on how to solve the different points to agree on a minimum program together, so we can go together to the comprehensive negotiations."