Friday, March 28, 2008

Arab Summit Divided by No-Shows

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Top Arab leaders are boycotting this weekend's Arab summit in Damascus to protest Syria's hard-line stances in nearly every crisis in the Mideast.

The gathering has deepened the rift between the region's pro-U.S. camp and Iran's ally Damascus.

The no-shows by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon are an embarrassment to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government had hoped the summit on Saturday and Sunday - billed as "the summit of joint Arab action" - would boost its prestige.

By staying away, the countries aimed to show Damascus the diplomatic cost of its hard line on Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is likely instead to strengthen Damascus' alliance with Iran and the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups.

"There are now two axes - Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side and the rest are on the another," said Wahid Abdel-Meguid of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Arab summits are all about protocol and symbolism, and in that language, the show of disdain from top U.S.-allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan could not be more clear.

In an unprecedented move, they are sending minor officials rather than their heads of state - or even their prime ministers or foreign ministers. Egypt's delegation will be headed by its parliamentary affairs minister. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are sending their Arab League ambassadors.

Lebanon is boycotting the summit completely, the first time an Arab country has refused to send a delegation since Arab leaders began holding annual summits in 2000. The Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora accuses Syria of blocking attempts to elect a new Lebanese president.

Even Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh decided Friday not to come, sending his vice president in his place - perhaps to curry favor with its powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia or because the summit appeared unlikely to endorse a Yemeni proposal for reconciliation between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas.

"Syria is losing friends, one after the other," said Mansour Hayal, a Yemeni political analyst.

America's Arab allies are angry at Syria in particular over Lebanon, where they demand Damascus open the way to the election of a president. The two camps are in a yearlong struggle for control of Lebanon - the United States, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are strong supporters of Saniora's government, while Syria backs Hezbollah, the militant group that leads the Lebanese opposition.

The opposition has been boycotting Lebanon's parliament for months, preventing it from electing a president, a post that has been empty since pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended in November.

Arab countries, which are mostly Sunni-led, are also nervous about Syria's controversial alliance with Shiite Iran.

In all, nine heads of state from the Arab League's 22 members are not attending the Damascus gathering.

The annual summit is frequently plagued by no-shows, often because of personal disputes among leaders. But this year, the differences are sharper and the snubs even more pointed.

With the no-shows, the headliners at this year's summit are Assad, Libya's leader Moammar Gadhafi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who were arriving with other delegations Friday.

But Damascus may benefit from the absences, which ensure the summit will not pressure it to change its stances toward Lebanon or the Palestinians. Also, Syria showed it won't be forced to exchange its strong alliance with Iran for approval from Arabs.

"The Syrian axis is coherent and they have a clear objective and they are working in an organized way," said Abdel-Meguid, the analyst in Cairo.


I think the time for fences has long past.

This may turn out to be the most successful summit ever.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It appears to me that the Peace Conference has already been held by the no shows. Damascus and Iran got voted out!


6:18 PM  

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