- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria is putting on a gracious face as host of its first Arab summit, but strained relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a political standoff with the U.S. and Lebanon threaten to undermine this weekend’s meeting.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is sending only its Arab League ambassador, an unusually low-level official for a gathering of heads of state. Few expected an appearance by King Abdullah, who is particularly embittered with Syrian President Bashar Assad, but foreign ministers usually fill in for missing heads of state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both close allies of Washington, have seen relations with Damascus deteriorate over the past three years. Along with the U.S., they disagree with Syria on nearly every top issue in the region.

In Lebanon, Washington and its Arab allies back the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and accuse Syria, through its Hezbollah ally, of blocking election of a new president. Syria, which ended a three-decade military occupation of Lebanon under international pressure in 2005, denies that.

Damascus supports the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have been in stepped-up clashes with Israel recently. The pro-U.S. Arab states try to isolate the militants and call for a peace settlement.

Washington and its Arab allies are also worried by Syria’s close alliance with Iran, which they fear is increasing its influence in the region.

The disagreements led to speculation that the U.S. allies would boycott the summit, but it appears all will participate — although it isn’t clear at what level. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have not announced whether they will attend.

The Syrian government newspaper Tishrin said today that the summit would be primarily directed “against the stands and policies” of the United States in the region, mainly in Iraq and the Palestinian territories — a stance likely to further alienate Washington’s Arab allies.

The U.S. has stepped up pressure on Syria. It imposed economic sanctions on several Syrians, including an Assad cousin, for allegedly working to undermine the governments of Iraq and Lebanon. Last month, three Navy warships sailed to the eastern Mediterranean in a show of strength and support for U.S. allies in the region.

Lebanon has not decided whether to take part in the summit, and some anti-Syria politicians backing Saniora’s government have called for a boycott. Lebanon has been without a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s term ended in November. The pro-Syrian opposition has repeatedly boycotted parliament sessions meant to elect a successor.

“I’m afraid that the Lebanese issue will reflect negatively on this summit,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told Egyptian television yesterday.

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