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Syria's participation in Annapolis conference could damage relations with Iran

Syria could find profit in participation in the Annapolis peace conference – an end to its isolation among Arabs, maybe even movement on the Golan Heights. But also it could lead to losing an ally – Iran.

U.S. officials are hoping Annapolis could mark a start to moving Syria out of its alliance with Iran and the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups. But Syria is being cautious, probing how much it can get before it goes too far, observers said Monday.

Syria is sending its deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mikdad, rather than the full minister as other Arab nations are doing. This is perhaps a show of dissatisfaction that the issue of the Golan Heights is not more firmly on Annapolis' agenda or an attempt to play down expectations - while stopping short of a boycott that would make Damascus look like a spoiler.

It also signals to Damascus' allies that it is not throwing itself whole-heartedly into a U.S. plan. On Sunday, Syrian President Bashar Assad spoke by telephone with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the two agreed that Annapolis "was destined in advance to failure," the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported.

Any resentment from Iran or Hamas - whose top leadership is based in Damascus - will likely be kept quiet. Iran did not react to Syria's announcement. On Monday, its supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech that the conference "has already failed" and that the U.S. was only trying to preserve its reputation.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, meanwhile, criticized the collective Arab decision to attend but said Syria had to act "the way it sees fit."

The Syrian participation is already seen in Washington as a success for U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

Edward Djerejian, founding director of Rice University's Baker Institute and former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, said engaging the Syrians "will make them have to think twice about playing a spoiler role, if indeed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations move forward."

But Syria also sees gains. Although Washington has kept it on a list of terror-sponsoring countries and has pulled its ambassador out of Damascus since 2005, Syria was invited as recognition of its regional standing.

Syria also broke its isolation among Arab countries, which largely oppose its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its closeness to Iran. Before Syria's announcement to participate, King Abdullah II of Jordan made the first trip to Damascus in four years to lobby Assad, who is to host an Arab summit in Damascus early next year.

"The Syrians don't stand to lose anything. They've taken a decision (to go) knowing in advance that it's all a win for them," said Sateh Nourreddine, managing editor of Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, which is close to the pro-Syrian opposition.

The greatest lure for Syria is the hope of new negotiations with Israel that it wants to lead to the return of the Golan Heights, seized by the Jewish state in 1967.

Damascus had insisted it would not attend Annapolis unless the Golan was on the agenda. But then the United States took a step, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying Washington will give room for those other conflicts to be aired at Annapolis, including the Golan.

That appeared to be enough for Damascus, though the conference focus is squarely on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

At the conference, both sides will be sounding each other out, Noureddine said. The Syrians "are going to be tested (by the Americans), not to be rewarded. They are going to be told 'Are you staying in the Iranian axis or you want to come over to us?"' he said.

"They (Syrians) have an opportunity and they've decided to use it to keep a distance from Iran," he said. "Going there to a certain extent puts an end to the idea that Syria is part of the Iranian orbit, particularly that a large part of the conference is directed against Iran."

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem underlined on Sunday on Al-Jazeera television that Syria's ties with Iran "are strategic and distinguished" and attempted to allay concerns of hard-line allies that this week's conference could amount to recognition of Israel.

Ibrahim al-Darraji, a professor of international law at Damascus University, noted that Syria held direct talks with Israel in the past and "its relations with Iran were very good and close and this did not change."

"Syria is not going to give concessions or replace one ally with another. It is going to negotiate to regain its legitimate rights. I don't think Iran could feel angry about it," he said.