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SYRIA: Offering Lebanon an olive branch, or a booby trap?

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Is Syria just playing games or is it really trying to repair its acrid relations with the Lebanese government?

That was question this week after Damascus dispatched an official for an express visit to Beirut. His mission: deliver an official invitation to Lebanon’s government for this year’s controversial Arab Summit, scheduled for Damascus at the end of March.

The invitation was addressed to western-backed Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. He represents an anti-Syrian front, which blames Damascus for a string of political assassinations and continuing interference in the Lebanon internal affairs.

Voices in Siniora’s western-backed camp are already calling on him and his government to snub the summit. Walid Jumblatt, one of Lebanon’s most hawkish anti-Syrian leaders, told the Arabic service of BBC radio that Syria might as well be considered a puppet of Iran rather than part of the Arab world.

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Here’s one of his comments as translated and quoted by the online Beirut-based Naharnet:

Lebanon should boycott the Damascus summit because its participation would be similar to acquitting the Syrian regime which along with its allies has hampered the presidential elections… There is a Persian empire in the Gulf [that] has reached Syria. The Syrian regime has lost its Arab belonging because it is in the Persian orbit.

For the few past weeks, the summit, which is supposed to be about fomenting Arab unity, has instead stirred up tensions between the Arab capitals. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries were toying with a boycott of the annual meeting to punish Syria and its leader Bashar Assad for blocking the voting for a new Lebanese head of state since last November.

Lebanon has been torn for several months between the anti-Syrian majority and an opposition backed by Iran and Syria and led by the militant group Hezbollah. Some voices are calling for all sides to set aside their differences and accept the invite. An editorial in the Lebanese English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, urged Lebanese leaders to grasp the opportunity of the summit to reconcile:

What is needed is a mature response that respects the ideal of ‘no victor, no vanquished,’ not yet another challenge that can only prolong an impasse that has already slowed Lebanon’s economy and made emigration a way of life for another generation of its people. Both sides have too often taken the low road over the past 16 months, as have their respective foreign backers. This is yet another chance for at least partial redemption.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is calling on its pals leading the so-called moderate Arab states to isolate Syria by boycotting the summit. The State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was quoted in an AFP article:

In contemplating whether or not they attend a meeting in Syria, it certainly bears keeping in mind what Syria’s role (has been) to this point in not allowing a Lebanese electoral process to move forward.

Raed Rafei in Beirut


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