Neither rain, nor snow nor sleet from a huge storm the night before could dampen the militancy of the aging all-stars of 60 years of Arab conflict with Israel gathered at a trade union resort hotel outside Damascus on Wednesday. It was the biggest gathering of radical Palestinian factions since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command attending along with the Lebanese Hizballah organization an all-star cast of organizations branded as terrorist by the U.S.
Beneath portraits of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his late father, Hafez, one speaker after another called for an end to peace negotiations with Israel, demanded a lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza, and urged Palestinians and Arabs to unite against Israel. "Zionists are bastards, and will always be bastards," said Hamas chief Khaled Meshal. "They will never be legitimate."
With melted snow dripping into the conference hall, decorated in burlap sacking to evoke the inside of a bedouin tent, the setting could hardly have born less resemblence to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, scene of the U.S. sponsored Middle East peace conference last November. That, of course, was the point.
By hosting this belligerent, anti-Annapolis conference, the Assad regime seemed to be symbolically turning its back on the U.S.-led peace effort. For over a year, Damascus had been calling for a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel, not least at the Annapolis meeting itself. But though a brief thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations ensued, the resumption of hard-line posturing seems to suggest that Syria wanted more than the Bush Administration was willing to deliver. Syria's main beef with Israel is the occupation of the Golan Heights (captured by Israel in 1967), but the Assad regime has long been concerned that the U.S. is trying to isolate or even topple it.
Still, it's not clear that that Syria's rejection of Annapolis means it seeks confrontation with Israel. Despite the presence of Meshal and a few other leaders, a look at the graying conference attendees mostly third-tier political cadres sporting corduroy suits, leather trench coats, and other 70s fashion statements suggests that the best minds of the resistance are busy elsewhere.
Syria may be betting that after President Bush's lackluster tour of the Middle East, the Annapolis process will simply die a natural death. Or perhaps Damascus believes it can cut a better deal after Bush leaves office. Already there are whispers in Washington that an incoming Democratic administration might be willing to allow Syria to return to Lebanon which it occupied until forced out in 2005 in return for peace with Israel.
In the mean time, of course, Damascus can bask in the accolades of its more militant allies. "Syria is a partner of the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon, and it can get a share of the victories in Palestine in Lebanon," said Ibrahim Amin Sayeed, chairman of the political council of Hizballah, which gets its weapons from Syria and Iran. "And there are many victories ahead."