Arab leaders turn away from Syria before the Arab Summit

Syria hosts its first Arab summit this weekend facing a boycott by heads of state from a number of regional heavyweights, which blame Damascus for the political crisis gripping Lebanon.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia will send only low-level delegations to the meeting in Damascus on Saturday and Sunday, while diplomatic sources said Jordan and Morocco would also be represented by lower-level officials.

The snubs underscore the anger with Syria over the protracted political crisis in Lebanon, which has left the country without a president since November amid accusations Damascus has blocked efforts to elect a successor.

Foreign ministers from the 22-member Arab League will meet in Damascus on Thursday to prepare for the summit, with heads of state or their representatives expected to arrive on Friday.

Lebanon said on Tuesday it would refuse to take part because of what it termed Syria's negative role in Beirut's protracted crisis, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia said they blamed Damascus for obstructing the election in Lebanon.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem said Lebanon has “lost a golden opportunity to discuss the crisis and strengthen the Arab initiative for solution.”

Syria, which held sway in Lebanese affairs for decades before it was forced to withdraw its troops from the country in 2005, is accused of blocking the election of a successor to former president Emile Lahoud.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which back the Lebanese government, already announced their leaders would boycott the summit.

Egypt will be represented by State Minister for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Chehab, while oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, a major supporter of the Lebanese government, is sending Arab League ambassador Ahmad Qattan.

Iran, also accused by the West of meddling in Lebanon's affairs, is sending Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to the summit. Tehran denies the claims and says it is making efforts to boost fragile relations with neighbors.

The United States, which also backs Siniora, last week called for Arab countries to reflect before deciding to participate in the summit and also accused Damascus of paralyzing Lebanese politics.

London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat on Wednesday quoted Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa as saying that “countries that do not attend the summit will regret it,” without elaborating.

Lebanon is in the midst of a standoff between the government and the Hezbollah-led opposition after Lahoud stepped down at the end of his mandate on November 23.

The Lebanese crisis, the worst since the end of the country's 1975-1990 civil war, is widely seen as an extension of the conflict pitting the United States and its regional allies against Syria and Iran.

On Monday, a 17th parliamentary session to elect a successor to Lahoud was postponed. A new session has been set for April 22.

Analysts predicted a weak turnout and few results by the end of the summit.

“No one expects much from this summit,” Mohammed Sayyed Said, editor in chief of Egyptian daily Al-Badeel, told AFP. He added he anticipated little more than a broad final statement calling for “Lebanon's national unity or some such.”
Egypt's state-owned daily Al-Ahram said in an editorial on Sunday that the Lebanese crisis seems to have polarized member states.

“This summit will be one that confirms Arab differences instead of being a summit of Arab unity in these times.”

-AFP/NOW Staff