DAMASCUS (Reuters) – More Arab kings and presidents on Friday joined the long list of leaders staying away from an Arab summit hit by a campaign to punish the Syrian hosts for backing the Lebanese opposition.
The Yemeni vice president will represent his country and Jordan will send only its permanent representative at the Arab League to the annual two-day meeting opening on Saturday — more snubs to an event Syria had hoped would dispel the impression that it is isolated in the region.
The Lebanese government is boycotting the event completely, and its closest allies — Saudi Arabia and Egypt — announced earlier this week that they would send only low-level delegations.
Bahrain, which is close to the Saudis, sent a deputy prime minister, another low-level delegation leader.
Diplomats and commentators say the United States has been the driving force behind the campaign to dissuade Arab leaders from going to Syria, which prides itself on its resistance to U.S. and Israeli policies.
“The Americans have been working on ensuring low-level representation in the run-up to the summit. We are seeing now a snowball effect,” said one diplomat in the Syrian capital.
Another diplomat noted that Saudi Arabia made its decision shortly after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited the kingdom last week.
Veteran Syrian journalist Thabet Salem said Syria still aimed to show it was a “no surrender” country whose policies were in line with popular Arab sentiment.
“The United States has been working non-stop to weaken the summit, which confirms the emergence of two axes in the Arab world. Syria is virtually alone on one side,” Salem told Reuters.
The longstanding political dispute in Lebanon has dominated the preparations for the summit, which would normally concentrate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an Arab peace initiative first launched in 2002 and the problems in Iraq and Darfur region of western Sudan.
But this year conservative Arab leaders tried to use the threat of a poor turnout at the summit to put pressure on Syria to give the green light to the election of a new Lebanese president on terms acceptable to the Lebanese government and parliamentary majority, diplomats say.
When the Lebanese parliament missed its last chance to choose a president this week, the stage was set for the conservatives to act.
Saudi Arabia, which along with the United States and France backs Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, is sending only its Arab League representative to the event. A junior minister will represent Egypt.
The struggle in Lebanon is part of the international conflict between the United States and Iran, each of which have allies inside the Arab world.
The pro-Iranian parties — Syria, the Shi’ite Muslim movement Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas — are much weaker than the American-backed governments arrayed against them, but their opposition to U.S. policies gives them some popular appeal.
A Yemeni official said that Vice-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi would represent his country at the summit. President Ali Abdullah Saleh will not attend the meeting because of “special circumstances”, the official added, without elaborating.
Diplomats had expected Saleh to come, especially after his success in negotiating an agreement this week between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas.
Iraq is sending Vice President Adel Abdul-Hadi rather than Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is busy with the outbreak of fighting between government forces and fighters loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki is on his way as a guest on the sidelines but the U.N. secretary-general, who often attends Arab summit as a guest of honor, is not coming this year, Syrian officials said.
By 1 p.m. (1100 GMT), the only heads of state to have arrived were Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Ahmed Abdullah Mohamed Sambi of the Comoros. The presidents of Sudan and Algeria, as well as some Gulf heads of state, are expected to attend.