Page last updated at 13:11 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

No comfort for Lebanon at Arab summit

Arab flags have been put on show all over Damascus ahead of the Arab League summit
Show of unity: Flags are out but key players are boycotting the summit

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Beirut

At the Arab League summit table this weekend in Damascus there will be one empty chair.

The complete absence of Lebanon was predictable. The country is still without a president and there is a void at the centre of its political system.

Increasingly bitter rival factions are desperate to fill the power vacuum, but risk falling into the abyss.

The Western-backed government in Beirut is hostile to Syria. Damascus is blamed by many in the cabinet for the political deadlock here.

That is why the decision was taken snub the Syrian hosts and boycott the summit which begins on Saturday.

But powerful opposition groups have a different analysis.

According to Syria, and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, the United States and its friends in the Arab world have the keys to unlock this dispute.

Flowery words

So where does this leave the summit?

"Progress [on Lebanon] at the summit is out of the question. Those able to carry it though won't be there. You have a game table with half the players absent," says Oussama Safa, Director of the Lebanese Centre for Political Studies.

It's a chance for Arab leaders to kiss each other, and sit together. It's a festival. The words that come out are always very flowery
Hannah Anbar
Daily Star newspaper

President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have both said they won't be attending in protest at what they see as Syria's negative role in Lebanon.

Their chairs will be filled by more junior delegates. Jordan and Morocco are also unlikely to send top-level teams.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem has accused the United States of trying to "torpedo" the summit. Syria says that, by boycotting the meeting, Lebanon has lost a golden opportunity to tackle its problems.

But observers of previous summits say substantial progress at these meetings is very rare.

"It's a chance for Arab leaders to kiss each other, and sit together," says Hannah Anbar, Editor of the Daily Star newspaper. "It's a festival. The words that come out are always very flowery."

The Arab League has already agreed a plan to resolve the dispute in Lebanon. But nothing has been implemented.

"It's a frozen game, but it's the only game in town," says Oussama Safa.

Wider game

Lebanon, as so often in past, finds itself the battleground for wider regional and global disputes.

So Lebanon may have to wait... Violence never seems very far away. The people - as ever - are paying the price
On the face of it, the political crisis here is about how to carve up power between Lebanon's many different groups.

But it is often seen as a tussle between much bigger forces.

The United States and its allies in the Arab world want to check the rising power of Iran, and its partner Hezbollah.

Damascus and Tehran want a counterbalance to American hegemony.

Syria seems to be putting its longer-term strategic interests ahead of any prestige to be gained from hosting a perfect summit.

Waiting for breakthrough

Nobody seems to think a breakthrough for Lebanon is coming anytime soon.

Some say it will have to wait for a new president in Washington, and an easing of tension between the US and Iran.

Others think regional issues come first. Maybe that means a rapprochement between Israel and Syria. Perhaps, this year, the push for a Palestinian state takes precedence.

These diplomatic possibilities are not in sight at the moment.

So Lebanon may have to wait. But, already the economy here is suffering from political stagnation.

Violence never seems very far away. The people - as ever - are paying the price.

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