Posted by Joshua on Friday, March 28th, 2008
The US has put a premium on the effort to isolate Syria. V.P. Cheney's visit was instrumental in shoring up flagging efforts to put the squeeze on Syria. I have heard this from sources in Washington, and now Khaled Oweis quotes diplomats in Damascus to the same effect. The media has been aggressively anti-Syria, as well.
The Syrians are taking the view that what really counts in the end is not the propaganda game, but the action on the ground over the long haul. They believe that Syria and its allies will come out ahead in Lebanon, despite US and Saudi efforts to disarm and isolate Hizbullah. Syria is convinced that the Lebanese Shiites and their Christian allies are too numerous to be side-lined or marginalized in Lebanese politics indefinitely. Eventually, the March 14th coalition will have to come to terms with their demands and give them a larger voice in government, either through elections in 2009 or earlier in some sort of political deal. Cheney and his team may be able to win a few rounds in the coming months, but Syrian authorities believe that ultimately Washington will have to accommodate Syrian and Lebanese opposition interests in the region.
They believe that ex-Ambassador Feltman of Lebanon was being intentionally misleading last week, when he argued that US "policy is based on support by both the Republican and Democratic parties for Lebanon as a cornerstone in the foreign policy of the United States." Feltman went on to say that "Washington's stand on Lebanon is based on the nation's 'democracy and sovereignty' in contrast with Israel's stand, which is based on a security concept." Damascus is counting on the fact that Washington's "democracy" agenda is not really the guiding principle of its regional policy. Damascus is convinced that the US is more like Israel than it wants to admit.
Syrian authorities were also made more confident by today's UN report on the Hariri investigation, which named Syria only to praise it for good cooperation.
This weekend's Arab League gathering of Middle East and North African countries in Syria is expected to be a display in regional divisions.
By Julien Barnes-Dacey | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor Damascus, March 28, 2008
Proclamations of a "united Arab effort" are inescapable on the streets of Damascus today. But as Syria prepares to host its first-ever Arab League summit, the gathering of states across the Middle East and North Africa has become an expression of division, rather than unity.
Syria is more isolated now than at any moment in recent history, publicly spurned by Egypt and Saudi Arabia – the traditional big Arab players – who are only sending low-level delegations to the prestigious gathering that opens Saturday. Lebanon is boycotting altogether.
The United States and its allies in Riyadh and Cairo accuse Syria of using its influence in Lebanon – particularly with the Hizbullah militant group – to block its adversaries next door from coming to power, and thus scuttling any political solution to that country's deepening factional crisis.
Syria is also spurned for its ongoing support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and for standing shoulder to shoulder with Iran as the Persian Shiite nation grows increasingly assertive across the Middle East.
"It would have been unheard of a few years ago to imagine a summit where the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not only boycott, but would make it very public that they are not coming because of Syrian meddling in Lebanon," says Rime Allaf of Chatham House, the London think tank.
Syria, which has called on Arab states to attend the meeting in order to discuss the various regional problems, places the blame for the pre-summit spat between nations squarely on American shoulders.
"The United States has been at a loss as to how to put pressure on this summit," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem. "These are all attempts to torpedo the summit because it is a summit that the US has nothing to do with, neither in its agenda nor in the decisions it will take."
Even as the summit threatens to be an embarrassing failure, Syria has refused to disown its allies, projecting itself as the leader of an alliance that is countering US and Israeli interests in the Middle East.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad dubs his country the heart of this "axis of resistance" that unifies Damascus, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Tehran in its defiance of Western and Israeli interests in the region. Representing part of this union, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is one of the more notable dignitaries to have already confirmed his attendance at the summit.
"We do not care what others say about us," says Suleiman Haddad, chairman of the Syrian Foreign Affairs Committee. Mr. Haddad says Syria represents the true majority in Lebanon and that it will continue supporting the "resistance" in the Palestinian territories.
Analysts, however, say Syria's position of opposition to Washington is dictated more by practical realism than ideological fervor. From its perspective, Lebanon is seen as the back door into Syria that cannot be left in the hands of a pro-American, anti-Syria government while a hostile administration remains in the White House.
"When you want to threaten Syria, when you want to create problems for Syria, you begin in Lebanon," says Samir Altaqi, head of the Orient Center for Studies in Damascus, pointing to the recent deployment of US Navy warships off the Lebanese coast.
Syria's influence over militant groups in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is also considered leverage in its struggle to regain control of the Golan Heights territory, which was occupied by Israel in 1967.
But while Syria says it is part of an opposition axis, the country remains ready to cut a deal, too, says Chatham House's Ms. Allaf.
She points to Syria's willingness to attend the recent Annapolis, Md., peace conference hosted by President Bush as a clear sign that Syria is ready to negotiate. "There is no carrot for the Syrians at the moment," she says. "Clearly the Syrians are not just going to dump their allies."
For the moment, however, deadlock rather than dialogue is seen as the most likely scenario in Damascus.
"Syria thinks that being stubborn will pay off and that the US effort in Lebanon will collapse," says Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert at the University of Oklahoma.
He compares the situation to the long Lebanese civil war in the 1980s. After the Americans and other regional players withdrew, Syria was the last country standing.
More Arab leaders snub Syria and skip summit
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Jonathan Wright
DAMASCUS (Reuters) – More Arab kings and presidents on Friday joined the long list of leaders staying away from an Arab summit hit by a campaign to punish the Syrian hosts for backing the Lebanese opposition.
The Yemeni vice president will represent his country and Jordan will send only its permanent representative at the Arab League to the annual two-day meeting opening on Saturday — more snubs to an event Syria had hoped would dispel the impression that it is isolated in the region.
The Lebanese government is boycotting the event completely, and its closest allies — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — announced earlier this week that they would send only low-level delegations.
Bahrain, which is close to the Saudis, sent a deputy prime minister, another low-level delegation leader.
Diplomats and commentators say the United States has been the driving force behind the campaign to dissuade Arab leaders from going to Syria, which prides itself on its resistance to U.S. and Israeli policies.
"The Americans have been working on ensuring low-level representation in the run-up to the summit. We are seeing now a snowball effect," said one diplomat in the Syrian capital.
Another diplomat noted that Saudi Arabia made its decision shortly after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited the kingdom last week.
Veteran Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said Syria still aimed to show it was a "no surrender" country whose policies were in line with popular Arab sentiment. ….
Diplomats had expected Ali Saleh, President of Yemen, to come, especially after his success in negotiating an agreement this week between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. Only the Vice President is coming.
Iraq is sending Vice President Adel Abdul-Hadi rather than Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is busy with the outbreak of fighting between government forces and fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is on his way as a guest on the sidelines but the U.N. secretary-general, who often attends Arab summit as a guest of honor, is not coming this year, Syrian officials said.
By 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), the only heads of state to have arrived were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Ahmed Abdullah Mohamed Sambi of the Comoros. The presidents of Sudan and Algeria, as well as some Gulf heads of state, are expected to attend.
I am not sure I believe the news that Israel is seriously seeking to resume peace talks with Syria, as I have explained recently, but it is possible.
Israel seeking to resume peace talks with Syria, Friday, March 28, 2008
An Israeli cabinet minister has revealed that his Government is seeking to resume peace talks with Syria. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer says all efforts are being made to restart negotiations leading a peace treaty.
He did not disclose if those efforts were having any success, but said Israel recognised it would have to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syria under any agreement. Previous talks between the two sides collapsed in 2000.
This huge story from Laura Rosen, here
WHO: AMIR FARSHAD EBRAHIMI, GERMAN-BASED JOURNALIST AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST
WHERE: ISTANBUL AIRPORT
WHAT: ARREST OF GERMAN-BASED IRANIAN JOURNALIST BY TURKISH AUTHORITIES ON CHARGES THAT HE HAS COLLABORATED WITH THE FBI IN THE FLIGHT OF ALIREZA ASGHARI FROM IRAN. TURKISH AUTHORITIES HAVE ADVISED MR. EBRAHIMI THAT IN ORDER TO AVOID ANOTHER SIMILAR INCIDENT THEY ARE DEPORTING HIM IN THE NEXT FEW HOUS BACK TO IRAN
Also Via Friday Lunch Club:
Areas of Baghdad fall to militias as Iraqi Army falters in Basra, In the Times of London, here