The Daily Star (Editorial)
March 27, 2008 - 6:49pm

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem got two things right on Wednesday, opining that Lebanon was wasting an opportunity by staying away from the upcoming Arab League summit in Damascus and that America was  conspiring to undermine the gathering. The Lebanese government, after all, might have achieved considerable gains by taking part in the event. And it is clear that the US government continues to hold several peoples hostage to its own designs for a new order in the region.

What Moallem failed to note, though, was that Syria has also missed out on a chance to significantly enhance its own position and safeguard its own interests. It did this by sending Lebanon's invitation to the summit in a manner that it knew would be interpreted as a slap in the face. Instead of making it difficult for Beirut to reject the invitation, Damascus made it more likely that a boycott would ensue. The same mistake has helped to ensure that other pro-American Arab regimes like Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's would downgrade their representation at the summit. By extension, therefore, the Syrians also played into Washington's hands.

And what has Syria lost by this multi-faceted mistake? Plenty. The tendency is to label the continuing crisis a "Lebanese" one, but it is also a Syrian one. On the bilateral level, every day that passes under a cloud of Lebanese-Syrian discord is one that erodes the natural business and social ties between the two countries. The summit might have been a superb forum for both open and private discussions of how to restore trust and cordiality to the relationship. Regionally, the same problem continues to alienate Damascus from many Arab capitals, thereby preventing it from influencing their own choices on a variety of issues. - especially their reactions to the Iranian overtures that America has done so much to derail.

Syria and Lebanon are neighbors, and what happens in one cannot help but to affect events in the other. Beirut has every right to fear, for example, that its sovereignty remains unrecognized by a foreign government that held sway here for almost 30 years. Damascus is entitled, too, to worry about things like the possibility that its own stability might be threatened by American and/or Israeli plans to co-opt and reorient Lebanese foreign policy. Those concerns cannot be addressed, however, when there is no dialogue - and thus far Syria has failed utterly to demonstrate a genuine desire for that.

Syria's hosting of this year's Arab League summit was a convenient coincidence that might have helped break the ice for the ordered resumption of its relations with Lebanon on a more equitable basis. Instead, it has become yet another point of contention between the two sides. The Americans wanted that to happen, and the Lebanese let it happen - but it was the Syrians who made it happen by being flippant and taciturn when they should have been serious and conciliatory.


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