Saudis lead boycott of Syrian summit

Assad faces blow as several Arab heads of state are expected to follow suit, Arab diplomats say.

saudi abdullah 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
saudi abdullah 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Syria's hopes of hosting an Arab summit in Damascus next week suffered a major setback Monday with Saudi Arabia's announcement that King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz would boycott the gathering. Arab diplomats in Cairo and Amman said several Arab heads of state were expected to follow suit and stay away from the summit. "If the Saudi monarch isn't going, that means that many other leaders won't go," one diplomat told The Jerusalem Post. Another diplomat said he would not be surprised if the Syrians decided in the last minute to call off the summit to avoid embarrassment. Noting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II and the leaders of the Gulf states were also considering boycotting, the diplomat said, "Syria is facing increased isolation in the Arab world because of its alliance with Iran and its meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs." He added that Washington's allies in the Arab world were also worried by Syria's continued support for Hamas, Hizbullah and other radical groups in the Middle East. "Together with his friends in Teheran, Bashar al-Assad is trying to become a major player in the region," he said. "They want to undermine Washington's allies not only in Lebanon, but also in the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf." Many Arabs hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responsible for the ongoing deadlock surrounding the election of a new president in Lebanon. Lebanon has been without a president since November 24, 2007, when the term of President Emile Lahoud expired. Under pressure and threats from Damascus, the Lebanese parliament has since been forced to delay the elections for a new president 16 times. The Syrians are also accused of standing behind a string of assassinations targeting numerous anti-Syrian political figures in Lebanon, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri, over the past few years. The Lebanese Prime Minister is also set to boycott the summit, according to reports in a number of Beirut-based newspapers. The reports said that Prime Minister Fuad Signora, who is not on good terms with Syria, was offended by the manner in which the Syrians chose to invite him to the summit. The invitation was sent to Signora through his pro-Syrian Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh. "This step shows that the Syrians don't have good intentions toward Lebanon," a senior government official in Beirut told the daily Al-Balad newspaper. Another daily, An-Nahar, said that the "ambiguous invitation" will likely reinforce the Lebanese government's decision to boycott the summit. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit was quoted earlier this week as saying that if no Lebanese president is elected before the summit, as is likely, participation will be weak. "I'm afraid that the Lebanese issue will reflect negatively on this summit," he said. Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the Arab League said he will represent his country at the upcoming summit. "I will represent King Abdullah, and Saudi Arabia will abide by decisions" taken at the summit, Ahmed Kattan told reporters in Damascus, where he is attending preparatory meetings for the March 29-30 summit. "I hope that the strain between Damascus and Riyadh will end," he said. "We hope that the ice will melt between Syria and Saudi Arabia." The majority of the Arab governments have decided against a complete boycott of the summit because they can't afford not to have some kind of presence at such an important gathering. "Their major concern is that a total boycott would only escalate the crisis [in Lebanon] and push Bashar al-Assad closer to Teheran," said a Cairo-based political analyst. "In any case, Assad is about to suffer a blow to his standing because it appears that he will be sitting with low- level officials and not Arab monarchs and presidents." Lebanese opposition parliamentarian Wael Faour called on the Arabs not to be lenient with Syria because of its negative role in Lebanon. "If the Arabs overlook the Syrian regime's obstructionist policies in Lebanon, they will loose this country," he said. "We and the Syrian people are victims of the same regime. The day will come when the battle of the Lebanese and Syrian people will be united against this regime in Damascus."