Analyze This: Tomorrow's no-show Arab Summit is a slap in the face for Syria's Bashar Assad

By
March 28, 2008 01:33

Will the humiliation push him deeper into Teheran's arms?

3 minute read.



The Arab Summit will officially open tomorrow in Damascus without any high-level diplomatic representation from Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan - but with the esteemed presence of Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of non-Arab Iran, at the invitation of the host nation. That fact alone pretty much sums up the nature of this gathering. This is the first of the so-far 20 annual Arab summits to be held in Damascus. It was supposed to be a showcase for President Bashar Assad's regime, which reportedly has invested heavily to upgrade the Syrian capital's tourist facilities in recent months. His government has also noticeably cracked down on even the slightest signs of dissent over the past year, imprisoning several journalists and human rights activists, tightening restrictions on Internet use, and presumably ensuring nothing would mar the pictures and stories written and broadcast for the outside world this weekend. What Assad cannot do, though, is quell dissent outside his borders, among his fellow Arab rulers; the fact that at least half of the 22 Arab League members will not be represented by their leadership is a distinct blow to the prestige of the Syrian ruler. The primary cause of this summit boycott is the continuing presidential succession stalemate in Lebanon, whose chair at the meeting will remain empty. Interference from Damascus is seen as the key factor behind efforts to block any choice even remotely sympathetic to the line of Prime Minister Fuad Sanoria and other leaders of the Cedar Revolution three years ago that finally led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese soil. Opposition from Syrian-Iranian-backed Lebanese proxies such as Hizbullah, together with a wave of assassinations and intimidation, have been the tools that Damascus and Teheran have used to deadlock the political process in Beirut for months now. The situation has gone on long enough to finally stretch the patience of more Western-aligned Arab leaders to the point that they are ready to dispense with the shibboleths of "Arab unity" and very publicly express their anger at Assad. Behind all this is less altruistic interest in the sovereign rights of Lebanon, and more concern over Syria's increasingly slavish tendency to align itself with Iran's regional hegemonic ambitions. Damascus has in recent years tried to have it both ways, strengthening its military and economic ties with Teheran, while maintaining good relations with neighboring states that feel increasingly threatened by the belligerent rhetoric and nuclear ambitions of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and the Gulf states have made their displeasure with Damascus on this point known in the past - but as the saying goes, this time it's personal. Other Arab summits have certainly seen their share of contentious disagreement, and other leaders have been the subject of approbation there, especially Anwar Sadat after making his separate peace with Israel. But that was a price Sadat expected to pay - while Assad was planning for this weekend's summit to serve as an affirmation of his leadership role in the region, a chance for him to take the starring role on an international platform and inveigh against the insidious menace of the Zionist enemy to the south. Instead, this summit will be remembered as a slap in the face to the Syrian dictator from his fellow Arab leaders, a gesture of disrespect that is hard to imagine would ever have been paid under almost any circumstances to his feared and respected father. The question now is whether such a development will only help push Assad deeper into an Iranian embrace, or make him better understand the growing price he (and his country) will pay for that alliance. Nobody now expects the Syrian president to make any dramatic turns in his nation's foreign policy, and many increasingly wonder if he lacks not only the will, but even the capability, to do so. However, one Arab leader who is expected to spend the weekend in Damascus should offer Assad an interesting example to ponder - Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, once deeply entrenched in the Arab world's most radical ranks, and now profiting in many ways from his shift to a more pro-Western stance. Of course, in reaching this point Gaddafi had to count on considerable good fortune along the way, such as his surviving the 1986 US aerial attack on his palace. As Bashar Assad looks around at some of the minor cabinet officials from major Arab states gathered around him at this weekend's summit, he might well ponder whether the time has come for him to understand that aligning himself with Iran's interests - and against those of every nation bordering his own - is really the wisest course to pursue for his own survival.

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