Delegates, including George Habash's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) met in Syria's biggest Palestinian camp, at Yarmuk, to arrange a boycott of the West Bank and Gaza elections to be held in nine months.
A communique today is likely to call for a renewal of the intifada and a condemnation of Yasser Arafat for 'betraying' the Palestinian cause. Plans for a formal split from the Palestine Liberation Organisation by Dr Habash and others have been abandoned in favour of a more pragmatic policy. Instead, the groups will claim that they are the PLO and that it is Mr Arafat who has, in effect, left them by ignoring the PLO's constitution.
Syria is in no sense formally hosting the conference but it has done nothing to prevent it. If the resolutions begin to have any negative effects on the accord, President Hafez al-Assad is sure to come under tremendous pressure from the US and European nations to shut them up. Western governments have made no comment on the Damascus conference, although European embassies here have been inviting Palestinians from the less unsavoury movements to visit their compounds to explain Palestinian objections.
'We want to set up a series of separate committees which will operate in the occupied territories as well as here in Syria, in Lebanon and in Jordan, to explain what is wrong with the plan,' one of the delegates said before setting out to Yarmuk, where the largest number of Syria's estimated 402,000 Palestinian refugees live. 'Palestinians have to understand that these elections in nine months are not to decide how we run our country, just to elect an executive committee. There are no guarantees, there is no sovereignty, no promises about Jerusalem.
'There are no references to the Jewish settlements, just a complete abandonment of the right of return of the 1948 refugees, enshrined in UN Resolution 194.'
The Palestinians meeting in Damascus may seem a lonely and destructive voice but there can be little doubting their seriousness. A member of Nayef Hawatmeh's leftist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in whose offices the conference is being held, claimed that if all supporters of the Palestinian opposition boycotted the poll, Mr Arafat would receive between 20 and 25 per cent of the Palestinian vote.
'On Israel radio today Rabin was saying again that all talk of the Palestinians having a capital at Jerusalem was 'illusions',' said another Palestinian attending the talks. The Israeli government has said again that not even 1967 refugees (those who fled the 1967 Arab-Israel war) let alone the 1948 Palestinians (those who fled Palestine at the creation of the state of Israel) will be able to go back. The Israelis keep talking about our 'illusions' on these matters.'
However accurately, or inaccurately, reported, Israel radio's Arabic-language service is now required listening for the Palestinian opposition.
So what of the Syrian press? No mention was made yesterday of the conference. Nor of the report from Western journalists in Washington that Mr Assad wished to hold a summit with President Clinton.
Suspicion of Israeli intentions and further expressions of trust in the United States dominated the government-controlled press. A statement by Farooq ash-Shar, the Syrian Foreign Minister, that a Clinton-Assad meeting 'if it happened, will very much help the peace process' was explained privately as the answer to a reporter's question rather than a request for such a summit.
Yet Mr Assad could scarcely object to a meeting and might well wish to talk to Mr Clinton. State Department briefings had suggested that there could be no such summit as long as Syria remained on the US list of states that 'sponsor terrorism'.
Syrian journalists were therefore surprised to read that Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, thought an Assad-Clinton meeting would be 'appropriate and natural'. Perhaps in return for these comments, the Damascus press has been trumpeting Washington's good intentions and thanking the State Department for promising to adhere to the terms of the original Madrid peace conference; that is, for keeping to UN Security Council resolutions as the basis for the talks.
The question remains: if Syria wishes to encourage closer relations with the US, how long can it allow the Palestinian rejection of the Arafat-Rabin accord to have a voice in Damascus?