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Syria's president sparked a wave of anger after he knocked Mideast leaders as "half men" in a televised speech, underlining the divisions as Arab nations try to form a unified front in the wake of the Lebanon crisis.
The bitterness over Bashar Assad's speech last week will likely stir up a gathering of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Sunday. The meeting is supposed to pave the way for a summit of heads of state later in the month that will draw up plans to help rebuild Lebanon - and try to launch a new Arab peace initiative with Israel.
So far governments have not commented on Assad's jibes - instead, the task has been left to newspapers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - some of which are state-guided - which have been sizzling with personal and direct attacks on Assad the like of which the region has not seen directed against an Arab leader in years.
One paper described the Syrian president as a rose that has failed to bloom. Another berated him for remaining silent throughout Israel's offensive on Lebanon. And a third mocked all his talk about resistance when not a single bullet has been fired from Syria toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Assad had been silent throughout the 34 days of fighting in Lebanon between Israel and Hizbullah, a Syrian ally. But the day after a cease-fire set in, he gave his speech.
He said the Lebanon war had "unveiled half men" - a reference to the opposition of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to Hizbullah's abduction of two IDF soldiers that triggered the July 12 fighting.
Assad's undiplomatic rhetoric, unusual for this Arab regime that has long seen itself as the champion of Arab nationalism, suggested he was deepening his move away from the Arab world's heavyweights allied to Washington and closer to Persian Iran.
If so, it could mean greater isolation for Damascus, which has been under intense international pressure since last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria has widely been blamed for the murder, but it has denied any link.
"Syria would've reaped benefits, including an easing of the pressure it's been under, had (Assad's) speech been more moderate," said Jamil Nimri, a prominent Jordanian analyst.
"But the speech has set things back and Syria has lost deep Arab solidarity," he added. "It is now in a worse situation that it was at the start of the war."
Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said Assad's words were a "reproach among brothers ... especially at a time of crisis," according to SANA, the official Syrian news agency.
Bilal said Assad enjoys "friendly and brotherly relations" with Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian officials have remained largely silent.
"I hope the Syrians will appreciate the advantage of maintaining a unified Arab stand," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud said in one of the few government reactions.
But media in those countries have been fierce in denouncing Assad.
"If you meant Arab leaders when you said half men, then please clarify what makes you different from them," wrote Salwa al-Sharafi in Elaph, a Saudi-owned online publication.
Aziz al-Haj, also writing in Elaph, said "Assad trembles at the thought of merely a bullet being fired from Syria on Israelis" in the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war. That front has been quiet for decades.
An editorial in Egypt's El-Akhbar daily titled "Half a decision for half an official" said many were surprised that Assad "remained silent during the war ... and didn't take half a decision to respond to the treacherous Israeli offensive on Lebanon."
"He didn't send half a soldier to participate in the fighting, he didn't fire half a gun or anti-aircraft missile," said the editorial. "But after the Israeli guns fell silent, he opened his own guns at Arab countries and leaders."
Nasr al-Qaffas, writing in Egypt's Al-Ahram paper, said he sees Assad as a rose "that has failed to bloom."
"He classifies men as half and quarter men, ignoring our hope to see him take manly stands," said al-Qaffas.
But Andrew Tabler, a Damascus-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, said Assad may have just been maneuvering.
"When you escalate the rhetoric to a high level, it's so when things calm down you negotiate yourself back down to where you are at the moment so you don't have to make any concessions," said Tabler, who is also editor-in-chief of Syria Today.
Tabler said Arab countries and the West will have to deal with Syria if they want to make any progress in disarming Hizbullah.
"The Arabs could defy Syria but then that would not allow them to really rein Hizbullah in," said Tabler. "It will allow Hizbullah to continue to be an actor."
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