Mideast rift upstages Arab League summit
This weekend's Arab League gathering of Middle East and North African countries in Syria is expected to be a display in regional divisions.
Proclamations of a "united Arab effort" are inescapable on the streets of Damascus today. But as Syria prepares to host its first-ever Arab League summit, the gathering of states across the Middle East and North Africa has become an expression of division, rather than unity.Skip to next paragraph
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Syria is more isolated now than at any moment in recent history, publicly spurned by Egypt and Saudi Arabia – the traditional big Arab players – who are only sending low-level delegations to the prestigious gathering that opens Saturday. Lebanon is boycotting altogether.
The United States and its allies in Riyadh and Cairo accuse Syria of using its influence in Lebanon – particularly with the Hizbullah militant group – to block its adversaries next door from coming to power, and thus scuttling any political solution to that country's deepening factional crisis.
Syria is also spurned for its ongoing support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and for standing shoulder to shoulder with Iran as the Persian Shiite nation grows increasingly assertive across the Middle East.
"It would have been unheard of a few years ago to imagine a summit where the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not only boycott, but would make it very public that they are not coming because of Syrian meddling in Lebanon," says Rime Allaf of Chatham House, the London think tank.
Syria, which has called on Arab states to attend the meeting in order to discuss the various regional problems, places the blame for the pre-summit spat between nations squarely on American shoulders.
"The United States has been at a loss as to how to put pressure on this summit," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. "These are all attempts to torpedo the summit because it is a summit that the US has nothing to do with, neither in its agenda nor in the decisions it will take."
Even as the summit threatens to be an embarrassing failure, Syria has refused to disown its allies, projecting itself as the leader of an alliance that is countering US and Israeli interests in the Middle East.