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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.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dubs his country the heart of this "axis of resistance" that unifies Damascus, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Tehran in its defiance of Western and Israeli interests in the region. Representing part of this union, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is one of the more notable dignitaries to have already confirmed his attendance at the summit.

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"We do not care what others say about us," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the Syrian Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Haddad says Syria represents the true majority in Lebanon and that it will continue supporting the "resistance" in the Palestinian territories.

Analysts, however, say Syria's position of opposition to Washington is dictated more by practical realism than ideological fervor. From its perspective, Lebanon is seen as the back door into Syria that cannot be left in the hands of a pro-American, anti-Syria government while a hostile administration remains in the White House.

"When you want to threaten Syria, when you want to create problems for Syria, you begin in Lebanon," says Samir Altaqi, head of the Orient Center for Studies in Damascus, pointing to the recent deployment of US Navy warships off the Lebanese coast.

Syria's influence over militant groups in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is also considered leverage in its struggle to regain control of the Golan Heights territory, which was occupied by Israel in 1967.

But while Syria says it is part of an opposition axis, the country remains ready to cut a deal, too, says Chatham House's Ms. Allaf.

She points to Syria's willingness to attend the recent Annapolis, Md., peace conference hosted by President Bush as a clear sign that Syria is ready to negotiate. "There is no carrot for the Syrians at the moment," she says. "Clearly the Syrians are not just going to dump their allies."

For the moment, however, deadlock rather than dialogue is seen as the most likely scenario in Damascus.

"Syria thinks that being stubborn will pay off and that the US effort in Lebanon will collapse," says Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert at the University of Oklahoma.

He compares the situation to the long Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. After the Americans and other regional players withdrew, Syria was the last country standing.

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