Iran TerrorismArab leaders, angry at Syrian president, threaten boycott of...

Arab leaders, angry at Syrian president, threaten boycott of summit meeting


New York Times: Several Arab leaders say they may boycott the annual Arab summit meeting scheduled for this month in Damascus, the Syrian capital, because of anger at Syria over its role in Lebanon and its continuing links to Iran. The New York Times

Published: March 8, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Several Arab leaders say they may boycott the annual Arab summit meeting scheduled for this month in Damascus, the Syrian capital, because of anger at Syria over its role in Lebanon and its continuing links to Iran.

The measures are part of an intensified campaign against Syria that comes alongside similar moves by the United States, which recently added several new financial sanctions against Syria and sent warships to cruise off the Lebanese coast — a gesture aimed directly at the Syrian government.

“There’s a new initiative to completely isolate Syria and weaken its destructive influence in Lebanon,” said an adviser to the Saudi government, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue. “We’re not going to pull them away from Iran by talking to them. We’re going to take them away from Iran by making them feel the pressure and making them understand that this time it’s as real as it can get.”

In the past week, Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Damascus, and urged all its citizens to leave Lebanon as soon as possible — indicating that it believes any Saudi here is now a target for Syria or its allies. Last month the Saudi government deposited $1 billion into Lebanon’s central bank in a show of support for Lebanon’s government.

Syria’s role in Lebanon is rooted in its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, which it views as crucial weapons against Israel and the West. But most Arab nations, led by Sunni Muslims, view Iran, a Shiite-dominated nation, as a dangerous and implacable foe, and they appear to have given up on luring Syria back into the Arab fold through diplomacy.

The conflict has grown increasingly bitter, with officials of Saudi Arabia and Egypt — with Jordan on board — complaining that Syria was deliberately prolonging the political vacuum in Lebanon through its support for Hezbollah, which opposes the Western-backed government majority. Lebanon has been without a president since late November.

Syria, committed to maintaining its course in Lebanon, has derided the arrival of American warships as an empty gesture and says it would rather have a meeting without major Arab leaders present than give in to intimidation.

“They do not know us,” said Samir Taqi, the director of the Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus. “Syria doesn’t need approval from anyone, and this is not the way to approach us.”

Even the recent violence in Gaza, in which more than 120 Palestinians were killed, did not force a show of Arab unity, as such violence sometimes has in the past. It is still possible that Saudi Arabia and Egypt will try to paper over the feud by sending high-level ministers to the meeting, particularly if there is more violence in Gaza, analysts say.

But for the Saudi and Egyptian rulers to stay away from the meeting to punish Syria would be an extraordinary gesture, rare in the history of the Arab League.

The dispute has a personal element, in the steadily worsening relationship between Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

“The king really hates Assad, and he is looking to punish him, because Assad allegedly insulted him on a couple of occasions,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University who specializes in Saudi affairs.

The animosity began in 2005 when Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was a Saudi citizen and an intimate Saudi ally, was killed in a car bombing. The Saudis, like much of the world, blame Syria, and the king is said to have been furious at Mr. Assad, whose father, Hafez al-Assad, protected Mr. Hariri.

The king is also said to have been seriously offended when Mr. Assad, during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, referred to other Arab leaders as “half men.” On that occasion and others, the Syrian president has used the broad popularity of Hezbollah’s armed struggle with Israel to burnish his own image, and to denigrate those of other Arab leaders.

There have been a number of attempts to mend the relationship in the name of Arab unity. At last year’s Arab meeting in Riyadh, King Abdullah publicly embraced Mr. Assad. But more recently, those efforts appear to have soured, helping bring Saudi-Syrian relations to what many observers call a new low.

Each country views Lebanon as a fundamental battleground on which it cannot afford to lose. The Saudis have longstanding ties to the country, particularly its Sunni community. The new threat of a nuclear Iran wielding its influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah has unnerved them.

“They have a historical relationship with Lebanon, and I think they have just decided they are not going to let go,” Professor Haykel said.

With oil reaching $105 a barrel, the Saudis are richer than ever, and they feel confident in their ability to use their money to press Syria for concessions in Lebanon, Professor Haykel said.

But the Syrians are equally committed to maintaining their historic influence in Lebanon.

“At the end of the day it’s about security,” said Mr. Taqi, the Syrian analyst. “Syria has often been threatened by Israel through Lebanon.”

It is also partly a matter of honor and family tradition. Under Hafez al-Assad, Syria occupied Lebanon for most of three decades. His son Bashar withdrew Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, under pressure from huge popular demonstrations after the killing of Mr. Hariri.

Now, under threat of possible indictments by the international tribunal investigating the killings of Mr. Hariri and other prominent Lebanese figures, the Syrians apparently feel that maintaining some power over Lebanon is a matter of self-defense.

“I think Syria has taken its position: they need to make sure that Lebanon cannot be used against them,” said Prof. Joshua M. Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. Its strategy, he added, is based in large part on countering the enormous financial power of Saudi Arabia and its allies.

“This is Syria’s game: keep Lebanon paralyzed, and Saudi has to subsidize everything,” Professor Landis said. “That’s going to take billions of dollars, and where does it end? Syria thinks they can outlast them.”

Michael Slackman contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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