By Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News
When he arrives in Damascus for what he has described as "an historic visit" tomorrow, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be bearing a variety of gifts. And this is precisely when his Syrian counterpart Bashar Al Assad must be wary.
The visit comes 48 hours after Bashar takes the oath of office at the start of his second term as president of Syria.
The original idea had been that Ahmadinejad would be one of more than a dozen foreign presidents who come to Damascus to congratulate Bashar at the start of his second term.
As things turned out, however, all those approached for making the trip found some excuse to decline the Syrian invitation. Ahamdinejad's solitary appearance in Damascus symbolises a degree of isolation that no Syrian regime has experienced since the darker days of the 1960s.
Within the past three years, the leadership in Damascus has wrecked Syria's traditionally close relations with key moderate Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan. It has also dissipated the goodwill that Syria won in Turkey years ago by arranging the capture of the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan by the Turkish security.
Next, Syria quarrelled with both the United States and France, managing the rare feat of putting Washington and Paris on the same side on a Middle East issue.
The late Hafez Al Assad, the father of the current Syrian president, had learned at least two lessons from Machiavelli on politics. The first was not to put all his eggs in one basket. The second was not to become involved in a fight between powers too big to care what happens to Syria.
Bashar, however, has ended up with a basket whose bottom has fallen away, breaking whatever egg there once was in it. He has also drawn Syria into the conflict between Iran and the US over who should shape the future of the Middle East.
The Syrian media see their nation's relationship with Iran as an alliance. The media in the Islamic Republic, however, see it as a reliance of Syria on Iran.
Syria has no interest in becoming involved in what is not its fight. If the Americans win, Syria will end up with the losers and pay a heavy price. If Khomeinists win, Syria will pay an even heavier price because it would have to conform to an Islamist ideology that the ruling Ba'ath Party has always regarded as mortal enemy.
Now let us turn to the "gifts" that Ahmadinejad will bring to Damascus tomorrow. One is the draft of a trade and economic cooperation treaty that will give the two sides priority in investment and exchanges in each other's markets.
It is not hard to imagine who would benefit most from such an accord. Syria has no money to invest in Iran and few products to offer in the Iranian market.
Bashar may not know this. But 57 of Iran's most distinguished economists have already written to Ahmadinejad to warn him against the disastrous effects of his economic philosophy. Based on the concept of "autarchy", this philosophy is inspired by the North Korean model of a peasant economy combined with a nuclear capacity.
The draft treaty that Ahmadinejad is bringing is supposed to complete the defence pact the two sides signed in June 2006. In that context, Iran is offering to train Syrian military personnel in Iran and a number of "academies" in Syria itself.
The ultimate effect of such a programme would be the creation of a network of pro-Iranian officers throughout the Syrian military apparatus, the backbone of the Ba'athist regime. It would also make the Syrian armed forces dependent on Iranian weapons' systems, military culture and strategic outlook.
Ahmadinejad is also offering "a broad programme of cultural exchanges". This will include scholarships for thousands of Syrians to attend Iranian universities and religious seminaries. But it also envisages a free hand for Iranian and Lebanese missionaries seeking to covert Syrians to the Khomeinist brand of Shiism.
Abandoned by Arabs and shunned by Europe and the US, Bashar may feel that he has no choice but to attach his wagon to Ahamdinejad's brake-less locomotive. Many Syrians, including some within Bashar's entourage, do not agree. They believe that Syria is still able to think again before it takes the plunge.
Rather than becoming involved in a regional rivalry that it cannot control, Syria should focus on its national interests. Most Syrians agree that the return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967, should be the goal their government must focus upon.
A strategy based on the illusion that the Islamic Republic will drive the US out of the Middle East, wipe Israel off the map and, along the line, return the Golan to Syria, can only lead to greater isolation for the Syrian regime.
It is no accident that as the Arab League prepares to open negotiations with Israel on a comprehensive peace settlements, Syria is not even consulted.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.