Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 27th, 2008
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
DAMASCUS, March 26 (Reuters) – Emboldened by its alliance with Iran, Syria has put its interests in Lebanon above the prestige of hosting an Arab summit that will open on Saturday with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt conspicuously absent.
President Bashar al-Assad has dismissed demands to push Syria's Lebanese allies to abandon their quest for a larger share of power in Beirut, prompting the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both U.S. allies, to stay away from the summit.
Their absence is intended to embarrass Damascus, the target of revived Western pressure in recent weeks.
Saudi Arabia and the United States accuse Syria of prolonging the crisis between the Western-backed Beirut government and pro-Syrian opposition that has kept Lebanon without a president since November.
Saudi Arabia opted to send only a junior official to the summit after mediation efforts with Syria over Lebanon failed.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal urged tough action against Syria during a tour of the United States and Europe in February, days after he made a secret visit to Damascus that failed to produce an agreement, diplomats said.
Egypt will be represented by a junior minister at the March 29-30 meeting. Lebanon will boycott the summit altogether.
Syria supports demands by the Hezbollah-led opposition for veto power in the cabinet. One Syrian source said Damascus was being asked to sell out Hezbollah by accepting formation of a Lebanese government free to "do Israel's bidding".
"The list of demands on Syria will not stop at solving the political crisis. There will be the issue of Hezbollah's weapons and Iran's influence in Lebanon," he said.
To Riyadh's dismay, Syria has been reinforcing its alliance with the Islamic Republic, which also supports Hezbollah, as Iran's regional influence rose after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
An Arab politician in touch with Syrian officials said coordination between Syria and Iran remained close despite the assassination of a Hezbollah commander in Damascus in February.
The politician, who asked not to be identified, said Syria believed the Lebanon crisis could drag on until November's U.S. presidential election or beyond, carrying with it the risk of a new Israeli-Hezbollah war, which could this time involve Syria.
Lebanon has been a battleground for Syria in its struggle with Israel for decades. Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in 2005 under international pressure following the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. A deal between France and Syria for a solution in Lebanon collapsed in mutual acrimony at the end of last year.
Syria's isolation, which had been eroding, has deepened again. Washington has expanded sanctions on Syria this year and deployed warships off Lebanon, partly to show impatience with Damascus.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana this month called for greater pressure on Syria. He said it was using proxies in Lebanon to prevent the election of army chief General Michel Suleiman as president, while the parliamentary majority was shrinking as lawmakers were assassinated.
Syrian officials deny playing a blocking role. They said Syria supported Suleiman as consensus candidate and worked through Hezbollah to convince opposition leader Michel Aoun — no ally of Syria — to forgo his own candidacy.
Syrian political commentator Ibrahim al-Daraji said even if Syria accepted Saudi and U.S. demands, it could not force Hezbollah to accept political solutions it did not want.
A diplomat in Damascus said Syria's focus on its perceived interests in Lebanon could cost it dear.
"The Syrians are paying a huge price for a single-minded policy," the diplomat said. "They have lost goodwill in the West, went out of their way to pick a fight with Saudi Arabia and locked themselves into a strategic framework with Iran."
Critics Pounce on Obama Pledge
By JAY SOLOMON
WSJ, March 26, 2008; Page A4
Obama's pledge to hold direct talks with foreign adversaries is drawing fresh fire from both rivals and political strategists. Critics say the approach may legitimize leaders whose power the U.S. seeks to undermine."If you look beyond Iraq, the entire diplomatic approach [of Senator Obama] seems to be kind of New Age: let's talk to our enemies rather then reinvigorating our allies," said Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign's director of foreign policy. "It's naive."
The Obama campaign said it may be necessary to balance the Bush administration and the way it isolated hostile countries and alienated allies.
"I don't think [what Obama's proposing] is that much of a difference from what U.S. policy used to be." said Anthony Lake, a senior foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Obama and a national-security adviser to President Bill Clinton. "It's just different from what the other candidates are saying."….
Sen. Obama has pledged his support for Lebanese sovereignty in the face of what is seen as extensive efforts by Syria to undermine Beirut's political process. He also has pledged his commitment to United Nations resolutions calling for the disarming of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, of which Syria is seen as the main arms supplier.
"Saying you'll talk to Syria no matter what undercuts Washington's position," said Emile El-Hokayem, a Middle East expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. "I don't think it's feasible to revolutionize how diplomacy is conducted" with Damascus.
Still, Mr. El-Hokayem said he believes Sen. Obama's leadership could have a profound impact on the Middle East. "Switching from a hawkish leader to a charismatic one will have a huge impact" on Washington's perception in the region, he said.
Sen. Obama's aides disputed the charge that he would recklessly move into talks with Washington's adversaries. Still, they said Washington doesn't have the luxury to wait indefinitely to hold talks with the likes of Tehran or Damascus because of the depths of the instability in the Middle East.
MOSCOW, March 26 (Reuters) – Russian firm Stroytransgaz has signed a protocol with Iraq to reactivate an oil export pipeline to Syria's Mediterranean terminal of Banias, the Russian firm said on Wednesday.
It said it had signed the deal in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi North Oil Company.
"The participation of Stroytransgaz in this project will represent a substantial contribution by Russian firms to reconstruction and modernisation of Iraqi economic infrastructure," the statement said.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki calling on him to support Russian investments in the country.
The letter was sent as a delegation of Russian businessmen was visiting Baghdad.
The delegation included the head of oil major LUKOIL which is trying to revive a $3.7 billion Saddam Hussein-era deal to develop the West Qurna oilfield, one of Iraq's largest.
Putin specifically mentioned in his letter a project to rebuild the Kirkuk-Banias pipeline and West Qurna. Iraq has repeatedly said the West Qurna deal had been cancelled and LUKOIL would have to compete with other firms at a new tender.
Syria has a 600-km (375 mile) border with Iraq. U.S. forces bombed the 300,000 barrel per day pipeline on the Iraqi side during the 2003 invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power.
Resuming Iraqi oil exports through Banias would net Syria an estimated $1-$1.5 billion a year in transit fees. (Reporting by Dmitry Zhdannikov; editing by James Jukwey)