Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Friday, 13 June 2008 12:58 UK

The view from Damascus

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Damascus

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas political leader based in Damascus
Hamas militants in Gaza have killed another civilian - a man in a kibbutz. The Israeli Defence Forces have killed another civilian - a six-year-old Palestinian girl.

Here in Damascus, I asked the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal if killing people, like the man on the kibbutz, was "part of legitimate resistance".

"You have to look at the action first, before looking at the reaction," he said.

"The action is the Israeli occupation, and the aggression against Gaza. And the Gazans are entitled to protect themselves."

I suggested to Mr Meshaal that "the key to everything" is Israeli security - that there will never be peace with Palestinians until Israel feels safe from attack.

"This feeling of being threatened is because of Israel's aggressive policies," he replied, "and the solution is for Israel to end its occupation".

Even after more than 60 years, he pointed out, Israel still has no sense of security. And it never will, he added, if it continues with the occupation - and if it continues to build settlements.

Question of recognition

In Beirut recently, the Hezbollah member of the Lebanese parliament Nawar al-Sahili told me: "Israel is a fact. Our border is the Lebanese border."

Does Hamas agree that "Israel is a fact"?

Oil is already more than $140 a barrel - so an Israeli attack on Iran would be an attack on Europe, which depends on oil from this region
Elias Murad
Syria newspaper editor

"Occupation does not gain legitimacy through the passing of time," Mr Meshaal replied.

I repeated the question, with careful emphasis: "Does Hamas recognise that Israel is a fact?"

Khaled Meshaal's reply suggests that Hamas may recognise Israel in the future, but only on condition that Israel recognises the right of Palestinians to exist as a state within the pre-occupation 1967 borders.

"When Israel recognises the rights of Palestinian people - when a state is established - then the forces in that [new state] will decide on the next step."

Iran ties

Another key question for Mr Meshaal - does he think Iran should be allowed to have nuclear weapons?

"If Israel possesses nuclear weapons, then every country in the world has the right to possess nuclear weapons," he said.

Elias Murad, editor al-Baath newspaper
Syrian editor Elias Murad proudly shows off his wartime picture

I pointed out that Israeli Jews feel not only locally threatened by Hamas rocket attacks, but existentially threatened by the rhetoric from Tehran - especially when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly says he wants to see the end of Israel. And that fear is rooted in their experience of the Holocaust.

Mr Meshaal said the Holocaust does not give Israel the right to "impose its own holocaust" on Palestinians.

Hamas has received funding from Iran. But unlike Hezbollah, which was established mostly with Iranian money, Hamas is not dependent on Iran and receives support from several Arab countries.

Khaled Meshaal lives with his wife and seven children in a safe-house in Damascus.

Syria-Israel talks

Turkey is currently mediating talks between Israel and Syria for a peace treaty and the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

Wondering if Syria might no longer extend its hospitality to the leader of Hamas if it makes peace with Israel, I called on Elias Murad - editor of the Syrian government newspaper, al-Baath.

He proudly showed me a photograph of himself as a soldier, posing next to an Israeli jet-fighter shot down by Syrian forces during their unsuccessful attempt to recover the Golan Heights in 1973.

Mr Murad believes Syria would not "abandon its friends," certainly not because of a peace deal with Israel.

Court yard of the Umayyad mosque, Damascus

And he agrees with Mr Meshaal about Iran - that Tehran should be allowed nuclear weapons if Israel has them.

And Elias Murad predicts economic and military catastrophe if Israel attacks Iran to halt its nuclear programme.

"Oil is already more than $140 a barrel," he observed, "so an Israeli attack on Iran would be an attack on Europe, which depends on oil from this region".

And he said Iran would respond to an Israeli attack by bombing US bases in Iraq and the Gulf.

The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said that direct talks between Israel and Syria are unlikely before 2009 - after the result of the US presidential election.

But if it reaches agreement with Israel, Syria will keep its strategic alliances. It has good relations with Iran, India, China and Turkey.

Turkey is also an ally of Israel.

Two analysts used the same phrase when I asked about Syrian foreign policy: "Syria is good at zig-zag."

For example, Syria supported the United States coalition in the Gulf War after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Waddah Abd Rabbuh, editor-in-chief and 55% owner of the independent daily newspaper, al-Watan (the Nation) told me: "Syria has no allies - only interests."

'Common interest'

Ironically, Syria also a common interest with the United States in the so-called war on terror.

Syria is an energetically secular state, and the previous regime of President Hafez al-Assad responded to the violent Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982 with spectacular force, killing at least 30,000 people. Some estimates say 40,000 died.

But this is also a calm country, with freedom to practise religion devoutly.

And Syria is opening up to the West. Tourists come here, and many remark how safe they feel - "safer than in London," one man said to me. Alcohol is widely available.

There are stunning historical sites: Palmyra, Aleppo, and the great Umayyad Mosque in the Old City in Damascus - where visitors from Europe stroll through narrow mediaeval cobbled streets alongside Shia pilgrims from Iran.

Human Rights organisations complain that there is still widespread imprisonment without trial in Syria, of suspected Islamists, and of protestors who break the law by holding public demonstrations.

Waddah Abd Rabbuh believes some freedoms have to be sacrificed in order to achieve stability and security.

And at al-Baath newspaper, Elias Murad observed, wryly: "The United States wants everyone to fight terrorism. So what is wrong with imprisoning suspected Islamic fundamentalists?"

He added, forcefully: "Like Guantanamo!"

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