DAMASCUS Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Damascus on Saturday, two days after Assad held talks with a U.S. envoy about the prospects of renewing peace negotiations with Israel.
The meeting suggested that Iran wants to keep close tabs on Syria's relations with the United States as Washington presses the secular ruling hierarchy in Damascus to distance itself from the Islamic Republic.
The United States started a rapprochement with Syria soon after U.S. President Barack Obama took office last year, and U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Assad in the Syrian capital on Thursday.
Mitchell said he had assured Assad that the U.S. focus on securing a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel would not distract Washington from seeking an Israeli-Syrian accord.
An official Syrian statement said Ahmadinejad and Assad discussed "a range of bilateral and international issues" and need to resolve the government crisis in neighboring Iraq.
Assad met on Wednesday an envoy of acting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, signaling that Syria's dissatisfaction with Maliki, who has links with Iran and is vying to hold on to power after inconclusive elections in March, may have lessened.
Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said Washington has been unable to drive a wedge between Ahmadinejad and Assad. "The Syrians have assured the Iranians that any progress in ties with the United States or in peace with Israel will not come on the expense of Tehran," he said.
The alliance between Syria and Iran started soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when Syria intensified its ties with Iranian backed clerics in Lebanon and supported Iran in its eight year war with Iraq that broke out in 1980.
Almost ten years of U.S. supervised talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000. Turkey mediated four rounds of inconclusive discussions between the countries in 2008.
At the center of the talks was the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. The strategic plateau, which overlooks Damascus and Israel's Galilee region, now has 20,000 Israeli settlers, as much as the Syrian population which remained in the territory.
Abdel Nour said Assad had stated publicly several times that he sees no prospects of peace with the current right leaning Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, but said the Syrian leader was willing to "play the game of negotiations."
Despite efforts at a rapprochement, the United States has kept up sanctions against Syria that were imposed in 2004 because of what Washington said was Syria's support for militant groups and unconstructive approach toward Iraq.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)