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.

Summit row: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, right, spoke with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, left, on Thursday.

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.

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.

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.

"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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