Signs of Disunity at Arab Summit Spark Concern

Arab leaders were gathered in Syria on Saturday for a summit, but more attention was being paid to those who didn't show up. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen sent low-level delegations. Lebanon boycotted the event altogether.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

Coming up, flying with freight dogs.

But first, Arab leaders are gathered in Syria today for a summit, but more attention's being paid to those who didn't show up. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen sent low-level delegations. Lebanon boycotted the event altogether because it blames Syria for the political crisis that's left Lebanon without a president since November.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Damascus that some worry that this latest display of Arab disunity could deepen divisions rather than heal them.

PETER KENYON: Syria was hoping to use its turn to host the Arab League summit to present itself as a crucial and constructive player in the region, as opposed to the isolated troublemaker the Bush administration tends to portray. President Bashar al-Assad in his opening remarks did not refer to the many heads of state who stayed away, but he did reject the charges from Beirut, Riyadh, Cairo, and Washington, that Syria is responsible for the Lebanese crisis.

President BASHAR AL-ASSAD: (Through translator) We in Syria are totally ready to cooperate with any Arab or non-Arab effort on the condition that any initiative should be based on national Lebanese consensus because this is what constitutes the basis of stability in Lebanon which is the goal of all of us.

KENYON: Syria wants this summit to be primarily about the Palestinian cause. And the meeting is expected to keep the Arab peace initiative from 2002 on the table. The Arab leaders are also likely to condemn the Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip and military operations aimed at stopping rocket fire that left some 130 Gazans dead earlier this month. No significant developments are expected on Lebanon. And some analysts believe the Lebanese could now drift along with a paralyzed government well into next year.

Syrian Analyst Sami Moubayed says Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan believe they could embarrass Damascus by staying away and possibly force it to change its behavior in Lebanon. But he says they misread the situation and overstated their leverage with a country that believes it has only two real allies left; Turkey and Iran.

Mr. SAMI MOUBAYED (Syrian Analyst): The Syrians don't really bet that much anymore on Cairo and Riyadh. The Syrian bet, more so these days, is on Tehran(ph) and Ankara - the heavyweights that substitute in Syria's regional neighborhood for what the Saudis and the Egyptians used to give.

KENYON: Syria's alliance with Iran, born during Iran's 1979 Shiite/Islamic revolution has long frustrated Western politicians and is an increasingly troubling sore point with Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Especially since the Americans removed the main barrier to Iran's regional ambitions, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.

Syrians say despite the no-shows at this weekend's summit, they're proud of the fact that they managed to stage it at all in the face of heavy pressure from the U.S., including a tour of the Mideast by Vice President Dick Cheney just before the Saudis announced that neither their king nor foreign minister would be going to Damascus. Moubayed says on Iraq, on Israel and Palestine and on Lebanon, Damascus wants to play a greater role and believes it has something to offer.

Mr. MOUBAYED: This is something that the Syrians have been trying to get across that we can play a stabilizing force in this part of the world. Do not break the Syrian/Iranian relationship, invest in it. We can moderate Iranian behavior; we can talk the Iranians into behavioral change.

KENYON: This is essentially the same argument Damascus has been making for years and it's appealing to some Western diplomats. But in post-September 11th Washington, there has been very little patience for a regime that the administration says facilitates the flow of Iranian arms and resources to the Shiite/Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and provides shelter and a platform for Islamist Hamas leaders in Damascus. Officials gathered here this weekend say if there is to be a new phase in U.S./Syrian relations, it will almost certainly have to wait for the next president of the United States to take office.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Damascus.

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