Monday, April 2, 2007

Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha corrected one of his dinner guests last week, commenting that the recent Arab summit in Saudi Arabia had welcomed Syria back into the Arab fold. “It’s the rest of the Arab world that has come around to accept Syria’s point of view. Syria had never left the fold,” said the Syrian diplomat.

Supporting his argument, the Syrian ambassador reminded the small group of dinner guests, gathered around his table to a delicious meal that started with traditional Lebanese hors d’oeuvres, the fact that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — a staunch U.S. ally in the region — had called the U.S. intervention in Iraq “an illegitimate occupation.”

“In beloved Iraq, blood is flowing between brothers, in the shadow of an illegitimate foreign occupation, and abhorrent sectarianism threatens a civil war,” said Abdullah. Saudi Arabia had initially supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. King Abdullah’s remarks were made at the opening of the two-day Arab summit in Riyadh.

Asked if the king’s critical statement should be regarded as a wake-up call by the United States, a Saudi security expert who asked that his name not be used told United Press International, “The United States needs more than a wake-up call.”

The Saudi expert referred to what is generally perceived in the Arab world as a failed Middle East policy adopted by the Bush administration. Among the most crucial points of concern to the Arab world, which were raised by the Saudi monarch at the Riyadh summit, included the following:

The position taken by the Bush administration in Iraq and the catastrophic results it yielded for the people of Iraq. Tens of thousands of dead, and the country plunged in violent sectarian civil war.

The nonchalant approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a dossier largely ignored by the administration until just recently. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is now working overtime in an effort to make up for wasted time.

The tension between Iran and the U.S. over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Indeed, another wake-up call for Bush administration Middle East policies came when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a planned visit Syria, where she will meet with President Bashar Assad as part of a regional tour including Israel and Lebanon.

News of her Damascus visit has angered the White House, whose policy regarding Damascus has been to ignore it. Washington accuses Syria of helping insurgents in Iraq by supporting them with weapons and money and in facilitating their passage to Iraq across the Syrian border.

Also, Washington wants Syria to stop supporting what it calls terrorist groups, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Washington also wants to see the international tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and several other prominent politicians and journalists proceed with its findings and trial. The investigation has identified several top Syrian and Lebanese officials as prime suspects. Syria would like to see the whole affair disappear.

Mrs. Pelosi, a Democrat, will be the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since relations deteriorated between the two countries. She also will become the highest-ranking American official to meet with a Syrian president since President Bill Clinton met with the late Hafez Assad in 1994.

The White House reacted angrily: “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” said White House deputy spokeswoman Dana Perino. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror, one that is trying to disrupt the [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora government in Lebanon and one that is allowing foreign fighters to flow through its borders to Iraq,” said Mrs. Perino. “In general, we do discourage such trips.”

Mrs. Pelosi’s office, speaking through a spokesman, said the speaker would, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group, intend “to discuss a wide range of security issues affecting the United States and the Middle East with representatives of governments in the region, including Syria.”

There seems to be a certain correlation between Mrs. Pelosi breaking the administration’s ban on engaging Syria and Saudi King Abdullah’s growing frustration with the Bush administration. As Newsweek correspondent Christopher Dickey states in a dispatch from Riyadh, “No longer will Saudi Arabia play backup while its ally the United States fronts the band.”

The lack of U.S. leadership has the Saudi king “trying to lead on virtually every sensitive issue in the Middle East, from an Arab-Israeli peace to Darfur,” writes Mr. Dickey. And this new Arab initiative worries Bush officials.

They wonder, says Mr. Dickey, “whether Abdullah’s new activism will ultimately support U.S. policy or undermine it.” In any case, it is Abdullah who is now fronting the band. And Syria, whether you look at it as having rejoined the fold, or the fold rejoined Syria, is now marching with Abdullah’s band.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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