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Syria: Ties with Iran still strong, despite U.S. efforts

DAMASCUS, Syria - President Bashar Assad defied U.S. calls to loosen ties with Iran yesterday, saying his long-standing alliance with Tehran remains strong despite overtures from Washington intended to shift his loyalties.

The United States has reached out to Syria in recent months by nominating the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sending top diplomats to meet with President Bashar Assad. Washington is hoping to draw Syria away from Iran and the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.

But with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by his side in Damascus, Assad said yesterday that America should not dictate relationships in the Middle East. "I find it strange how they talk about Middle East stability and at the same time talk about dividing two countries," Assad said when asked about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's call Wednesday for Syria to move away from Iran.

Assad took a swipe at Clinton for making such a suggestion, saying he and Ahmadinejad "misunderstood, maybe because of translation error or limited understanding."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington, said Assad "need only look around the region and recognize that Syria is increasingly an outlier."

"We want to see Syria play a more constructive role in the region and one step would be to make clear what Iran needs to do differently. . . . There was no evidence of that today," he said.

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