Saudi Arabia, Egypt Accuse Syria of Blocking Peace Efforts

DAMASCUS, Syria — Saudi Arabia slammed Syria as a deeply divided Arab summit opened here Saturday, accusing Damascus of blocking Lebanese peace efforts and calling on the Arab League to punish members that don’t honor its consensus decisions.

“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.”
—Isaiah 17:1

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are boycotting the two-day summit to protest Syria’s stances on Lebanon — a move that has deepened the rift between U.S. Arab allies and Damascus, a close ally of Iran and Palestinian militant groups.

Further highlighting the rift, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to the region over the weekend for talks on the peace process and was expected to meet with some of the boycotting leaders.

The countries accuse Damascus of preventing the election of a new president in Lebanon, where they believe Syria is trying to re-establish its domination. Syrian President Bashar Assad denied interfering in Lebanon in his opening speech to the summit.

To add to their snub to Syria, the three countries sent only minor officials to represent them at the summit. Lebanon did not send any delegation at all, the first country to completely boycott since annual summits began in 2000.

In Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said the kingdom’s top leaders were boycotting the summit because of Syria, which he blamed for blocking an Arab League compromise aimed at resolving the Lebanon presidential crisis.

“The problem is that what had been agreed by consensus in the Arab League, including by Syria, wasn’t implemented in reality,” Saud said.

He called for the Arab League to punish member states that breach a common resolution. “Call it punishment or countermeasures,” he said. “There must be a deterrent action.”

Saud also blamed Damascus for worsening Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts and the situation in Iraq.

“Attempts to hinder the (Arab) initiative in Lebanon are clearly the same attempts (as those) that deepened the Palestinian rift and hindered the political solution in Iraq and Arab issues in general,” he said.

Lebanon has been the scene of a long power struggle between the anti-Syrian government — backed by the West, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — and the pro-Syrian opposition. The opposition has boycotted parliament to prevent it from electing a new president since November.

The Arab League compromise called for Lebanese army chief Michel Suleiman to be elected president, then for a national unity government to be formed. But the opposition has demanded that the makeup of the government first be determined.

In his speech, Assad denied that Syria was interfering in Lebanon. “The key to a solution is in the hands of the Lebanese. They have their country, constitution and institutions,” he said.

Egypt also accused Syria’s stances of wrecking the summit. “Our hope was that a long-awaited solution to the political crisis threatening Lebanon’s stability would precede this summit,” a message from President Hosni Mubarak to the gathering said. “Unfortunately, this did not occur.”

The U.S.’ Arab allies are also deeply bitter over Syria’s support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which they blame for damaging the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They are also worried about Syria’s close alliance with Iran.

Ten heads of state from the Arab League’s 22 members did not attend the two-day Damascus summit — though most were for separate reasons rather than anger at Syria.

In the absence of U.S.-allied countries, the summit took on a sharp tone against Israel.

In his opening speech to the summit, Assad accused Israel of committing “massacres” against the Palestinians and rejecting peace offers.

He warned that Arab countries may have to seek alternatives to a 2002 Arab peace plan if Israel continues to refuse to accept it. The proposal offers Israel full peace with Arab nations if it withdraws from Arab lands and allows the creation of a Palestinian state.

“The question is: Do we leave the peace process and initiatives hostage to the whims of successive Israeli governments, or do we search for choices and substitutes that can achieve a just and comprehensive peace?” Assad said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa proposed that Arab foreign ministers meet in mid-2008 to evaluate the Israeli-Arab peace process. He warned that if they found no progress, they may have to take “painful positions.”

Copyright © In The Days