The Arab Summit / The Power of Isolation

"In the name of merciful and compassionate Allah, I hope you solve just one Arab problem," begged a surfer on television network Al-Arabiyah's Internet site. His supplication, which will apparently go unanswered, was directed at the heads of state convening in Damascus today for an Arab League summit, or at least those heads of states bothering to attend after Egypt and Saudi Arabia neutered it.

The pair seek to punish Syria for continually thwarting any political solution in Lebanon by not allowing the appointment of General Michel Suleiman as president and not forcing Hezbollah to accept a reasonable division of cabinet posts. Syria rejected, albeit politely, the Arab League's compromise proposal, positioning itself as the victor over the united Arab front.

But the Saudi-Egyptian penalty could become an own goal. It does not promote a resolution to the crisis in Lebanon and it highlights the chasm between the camps. This is no longer the well-known split between "moderates" and "extremists," but between the "Arab circle" and the "Iranian circle" and has emphasized the power of organizations like Hezbollah, and to some extent Hamas, to set the Arab agenda.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are frustrated that Iran succeeds in influencing Arab policy no less and maybe - regarding Lebanon - more than the Arab countries themselves. The attendance of the Iranian foreign minister - not a member state and not an Arab state - emphasizes Tehran's role in this rift.

It is possible that Egypt and Saudi Arabia's partial embargo of the summit will turn Syria's isolation into a source of power. The Arab states know that the solution to the two most severe crises in the Middle East pass through Syria, yet they don't have the means to force its hand. Syrian agreement to the suggested solution would gnaw away at Hezbollah's political maneuvering power, which could lead to Syria losing control in Lebanon.

This summit will be considered the Arab League's largest failure, but could clarify how Syria, in spite of its isolation, is becoming the most significant state in the region's diplomatic processes. The question now will be what option Egypt and Saudi Arabia will have to resolve the Lebanon crisis and how they can extract Hamas from the Iranian-Syrian circle to resolve the Palestinian crisis.