Even a month ago, few believed that Syria would make a definitive switch over to Iran in the current struggle over reshaping the Middle East. We had it from well-placed Syrian sources that the leadership in Damascus, debating the wisdom of throwing in its lot with the Khomeinists in Tehran, might end up joining the new Arab bloc of moderate states.
And yet, the switch over to Tehran came last weekend in a dramatic way when President Bashar Al Assad paid his sixth visit to the Islamic republic and was received by the Khomeinist "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Bashar's visit came just nine months after Tehran and Damascus signed a military treaty, sealing an alliance that started 27 years ago. The switch over emphasises Syria's isolation from Arab states.
It comes just a week after the six member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plus Jordan and Egypt, announced the creation of a new bloc to help stabilise the Middle East.
What we now witness is the clash of two visions for the Middle East, one represented by the 6+2 bloc, the other by the Islamic Republic in Iran and Syria.
The 6+2 bloc hopes to stabilise the region in cooperation with the US and its principal Western allies. The Tehran-Damascus axis, on the other hand, hopes to exclude the US in the context of a broader strategy aimed at turning the Middle East into a base for challenging the American-dominated global system.
It is too early to predict which of the blocs has a better chance of imposing its agenda.
At first glance, the Iran-Syria axis might appear the weaker side. Moreover, it has little chance of finding new allies. Iran has some clients in the region, including the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and Moqtada Al Sadr and his shrinking Mehdi Army in Iraq.
Syria has the support of the Amal movement and a faction of the Maronites in Lebanon and may have forged links with neo-Baathist insurgents in Iraq.
The 6+2 bloc, however, has many potential allies, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. More importantly, it enjoys the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) that has already established a special relationship with 10 moderate Arab states.
The 6+2 bloc can also play the oil card by reducing prices to a level that could push the Iranian economy to the edge of bankruptcy.
The Iran-Syria axis suffers from another weakness.
In terms of ideology and political culture, the two regimes are worlds apart.
The Syrian Baathist leadership is deeply secular with a built-in dislike of mixing religion and politics. In fact, Sunni religious groups represent the bulk of the opposition to the Baathist regime dominated by the Alawite minority.
Many Syrians, including some within the ruling elite, fear that their alliance with the Khomeinists may be a Faustian pact leading to Iranian domination. Iran's reported campaign to convert poor peasants in the Syrian heartland is already a source of concern for many secular figures in Damascus.
The kind of Middle East that Khomeinists want is one in which religion is transformed into a political ideology and an instrument of power for the ruling clergy. In a Khomeinist Middle East, there would be no place for a regime like Syria's.
So, why did Bashar embark on a policy that could prove suicidal for his regime?
The answer is that he had few options.
We know that he tried hard to open a dialogue with some moderate Arab states and the US, but met with cold disdain.
The moderate Arabs, the US, and the European Union have all cut off their aid to Syria, leaving Iran as its sugar daddy. However, the main stumbling block was Bashar's demand that the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri be re-designed to protect himself and his brother and brother-in-law from prosecution.
In a sense, the moderate Arab states and their American and European allies pushed Bashar into Iranian arms by refusing to even consider a face-saving formula.
Both the Khomeinist leadership in Tehran and its Baathist counterpart in Damascus are convinced they are targeted for regime change. This is why they have been forced to come together to prepare for the worst.
Bashar seems to have bought Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's analysis that US President George W. Bush is an atypical American leader and that whoever succeeds him will organise a strategic American retreat.
This is why, in their various statements during the Tehran visit, both Bashar and Ahmadinejad insisted that the next year or two would be "especially difficult".
The Tehran-Damascus axis's strategy could be described as one of "waiting Bush out".
This means a policy of cheat and retreat in which concessions are offered, then withdrawn, negotiations are started with the object of dragging them on and terrorist pressure maintained in the context of low intensity warfare.
Ahmadinejad has called the US "a sunset power" and is convinced that most Americans lack the perseverance to stabilise and reshape the Middle East as they did in Europe during the Cold War. He also says that even if Bush wanted to take action against Tehran or Damascus, "wiser heads", meaning the Democrats' majority in the US Congress, would not allow it.
According to Ahmadinejad's analysis, the Bush administration, under Democrats' pressure, will start withdrawing from Iraq before the end of the year, allowing Iran and Syria to fill the gap and create a bloc spanning the strategic region between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.
Bashar appears to have bought into that analysis. And that means the Middle East may be heading for fresh conflict.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author based in Europe.