Syria summit spotlights Arab disunity

Syria calls it the summit of “joint Arab effort,” the message printed on hoardings in Damascus. But it is likely that the Arab League meeting in the Syrian capital this weekend will be remembered for its display of Arab disunity.

Ishmael

“And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
—Genesis 16:12

Perplexity

“…upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…”
—Luke 21:25

The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt – two heavyweights in the region – will be staying away, sending low-level officials instead in deliberate protest against Syria’s alleged refusal to defuse the political crisis in neighbouring Lebanon.

“It’s a political message,” says an Egyptian official. “The Syrians are making choices that are not in sync with others in the region.”

The summit was preceded by weeks of manoeuvring. Threats of an outright boycott were made; warnings that the Saudis and Egyptians would work for a postponement were issued.

Syria, however, refused to budge by facilitating the election of a Lebanese president, which has been blocked by its allies in Beirut since November. Its Lebanese friends, it insisted, do not take its instructions.

While the Saudis lobbied for pressure on Syria, Damascus waged a counter-offensive to persuade other leaders to attend. Diplomacy surrounding the summit was thus reduced to a numbers game over attendance.

Syrian officials say they are pleased with the outcome and expect at least 10 to 12 heads of state (out of 22 Arab League members) to participate, including Kuw­ait and the United Arab Emirates, both Saudi allies. Damascus describes the boycott of the event by Lebanon, whose prime minister was invited, as the loss of “a golden opportunity”.

The tensions reflect broader inter-Arab conflict that has pitted Syria against pro-western states. The differences are largely over Damascus’s support for radicals in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and the alignment of its policies with Iran, which Arab states are desperate to contain.

“Syria is holding the summit while keeping the alliance with Iran – and that’s a double gain,” says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst.

Samir Altaqi, chairman of the Orient Centre for Studies in Damascus, says Syria can also now use the summit to its advantage, highlighting the idea that Arabs are in confrontation with Israel and not with Iran, as the US likes to claim. Analysts say the assumption that Syria would make concessions to secure Saudi and Egyptian attendance at the summit was misplaced.

Summits rarely produce memorable resolutions. Syria’s need to protect its allies – most importantly Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Shia militant group that fought Israel in the 2006 war – is a strategic goal.

However, the summit could have offered an opportunity to stem the deterioration in relations with the Saudis, which deepened after the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister and ally of the Saudi monarchy.

The killing was blamed by many Lebanese on Damascus – a charge it denies – and led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, a country it had controlled for decades. Since then, Riyadh has backed the anti-Syrian government that took over, while Syria has continued to support its allies, now in opposition.

Tensions between the Saudis and the Syrians were exacerbated in 2006, after President Bashar al-Assad derided Arab leaders for failing to stand with Hizbollah during the month-long Israeli offensive.

In an attempt to turn a page, Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, travelled to Damascus a few weeks ago, carrying a firm message on Lebanon but also dangling a carrot. His meeting with Mr Assad, however, was said to have ended in a clash.

Many Arab officials say Damascus is determined to have a docile Lebanese regime. Syrian analysts say Damascus’s goal is clear and reasonable: all it seeks is a friendly government in Beirut that does not work against its interests.

Syria’s strategy also looks clear. The government is now waiting for the next US administration, hoping it will offer a deal settling all outstanding disputes.

“After [George W.] Bush, we hope that unilateralism won’t prevail and conflict resolution will be attempted through a more fair approach,” says Mr Altaqi.

Syria’s opponents, however, say the strategy is a gamble. “The recent history of people who have arrived into office and tried to engage with Syria is that by the time they get to Damascus, they find out there is no point to it and they don’t come back,” says a western diplomat in Damascus.

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