Syria invites Lebanon to Arab summit in Damascus

Syria says any representative of Beirut welcome, including pro-Westerner.

lebanon fm salloukh 224 (photo credit: AP)
lebanon fm salloukh 224
(photo credit: AP)
Syria on Thursday formally invited Lebanon to this month's Arab summit in Damascus and even though it staunchly opposes Lebanon's pro-Western government, said it would welcome any representative chosen by Beirut to represent the Lebanese. The development, amid increased tensions between the two neighbors, ended weeks of speculations over which of the rival Lebanese factions Syria would ask to the gathering - Damascus's opposition allies or pro-Western Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's group. The invitation came during a meeting between visiting Syria's Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnous and outgoing Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh. It was not clear if the visit by Arnous - the first Syrian official in Lebanon in 18 months - was timed to avoid contacts with Saniora, who is attending an Islamic summit in Senegal. Saloukh, allied with the Syrian-backed opposition, is one of six pro-Syrian Cabinet ministers who resigned in November 2006 as part of the ongoing power struggle in Lebanon between the Syrian-backed opposition and Saniora's US-backed government. Despite his resignation, Salloukh has been showing up for work. Salloukh told reporters after his meeting with Arnous that the invitation was from Syria's Prime Minister Naji Otari to Saniora. "The ministry will hand over this invitation to his excellency (Saniora) after he returns to Lebanon," Salloukh said. Arnous is the first Syrian official to visit here since Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem came to Beirut during the 34-day war in the summer of 2006 between Israel and the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group. Saniora and the anti-Syrian parliament majority accuse Damascus of meddling in Lebanese affairs by obstructing the election in parliament of army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman as a consensus president. Syria holds sway over some Lebanese opposition lawmakers who have boycotted assembly sessions since former President Emile Lahoud's term ended last November, thereby leaving the legislature short of a quorum needed for the election. The opposition is conditioning Suleiman's election with its demands on a future power-sharing Cabinet and the oppositions right to veto power in the government. For its part, the anti-Syrian majority accuses Damascus of being behind explosions and assassination of anti-Syrian figures, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who was killed in a massive truck bomb in 2005. Syria denies the charges. Arnous did not speak to reporters but a statement released by Syria's Foreign Ministry in Damascus on Thursday quoted him as saying that "because of the constitutional vacuum in the presidential post in Lebanon, Syria will welcome whoever Lebanon chooses to represent it in the summit." However, it was not clear if Saniora would attend. Later Thursday, two of Saniora's ministers criticized the way the invitation was made. Marwan Hamadeh, telecommunications minister, told local LBC television it shouldn't have been addressed to Saniora, but to the non-existent president. Social Affairs Minister Nayla Mouawad said the invitation shouldn't have been handed to Salloukh, but to the president, and since "there is no president now," to the head of Cabinet. The United States and some Arab states blame Syria and its Lebanese opposition allies for the presidential deadlock. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which back Saniora's government, have earlier threatened to boycott the March 29-30 summit in Syria but now they say they will take part, although it is not clear if their heads of state will attend. Syria seeks to boost its Mideast role with a successful summit and fears a poor showing at the gathering, the first such in Damascus, could further isolate President Bashar Assad's regime. Syria has rejected the accusations it was obstructing Lebanon's presidential election, while its Lebanese allies have accused Washington of torpedoing a solution to the country's 16-month political crisis.