One cannot but be impressed with the preparations: Just like the president’s suit, Damascus is preparing around the clock while nervously looking at the mirror, like a girl before a fateful date. Fresh posters of the presidential couple are being hung at every corner. Syria spent tens of millions of dollars it doesn’t have in order to renovate hotels, set up a media center, inaugurate restaurants, recruit battalions of spokespersons and PR people, flatter the media, and pamper journalists.
New signs, in Arabic only, announce that Damascus is the mother of all Muslim culture. Those who attempted to argue with this puzzling claim were sent to prison. Democracy? Not around here. Assad won’t let anyone ruin his party.
Yet the way it looks at this time, until the last moment nobody will know who will come out of the landing planes: Rulers and heads of state, or lowly officials who were “punished” with the duty of showing their presence.
Foreign Minister Muallem, who handed out personal invitations at the 22 palaces of Arab world rulers, has counted a meager number of positive responses: Only Algerian President Bouteflika (I have nothing to lose,) Jordan’s King Abdullah (I have no choice,) Qatar’s Sheikh Hamed (al-Jazeera will have a wild time) and Mahmoud Abbas (annoying the Syrians is dangerous.)
For those who will be coming nonetheless, Assad is preparing a bagful of surprises: The summit’s observation gallery includes seats reserved for the Hizbullah delegation, for Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal and for Islamic Jihad representatives, and of course, we must have Iranian ally Ahmadinejad.
For two days they will sit at the luxurious banquet hall, engage in talks at the corridors, and smile to the cameras. What will they really be talking about? This is not a simple problem for those who are currently occupied with, as is customary with Arab summits, drafting the concluding statements.
Will Saudi peace plan be recycled?
On the one hand, it is worthwhile for Assad to see the Damascus summit recycle (for the third time) the Saudi peace plan, which offers Israel “full Arab peace” in exchange for “Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories.” What’s wrong with that? Syria will be portrayed as a tireless peace lover, and Israel may finally be convinced to address the Syrian channel seriously. In any case, the Saudi initiative was aimed at bestowing great rewards upon Syria: Removal from the axis of evil, the return of the Golan Heights, and the reinforcement of Syria’s hold (“Only we can control Nasrallah”) on Lebanon’s neck.
On the other hand, the Damascus summit will be convened at a time of tense restraint. The USS Cole, which unexpectedly appeared near the shores of Lebanon, bothers the Syrians. Assad and his intelligence chiefs already know who really killed Imad Mugniyah, but they decided to postpone the publication of the list of accused (a partial list only) to the post-summit period. It would be interesting to see who the Syrians will decide to charge with infiltrating the sealed intelligence-controlled area and killing the Hizbullah military commander.
If it wasn’t for events in Gaza, the Damascus summit would have been thrown to the garbage bin of conflicts among Arab leaders. Assad is not only despised in Jerusalem and in Washington – Mubarak and the Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah, who Assad referred to as “half men” (as punishment for their deafening silence during the Lebanon war) are allergic to him. Yet Assad had a miracle: Because of Hamas and Gaza and the mediation efforts there, there is finally an issue that can be dealt with in Damascus.
And so, in the best tradition of Arab summits, Israel will again play a starring role. Propaganda outlets will produce impassioned declarations and threats, and demand that Abbas join forces with Mashaal. Syria will make a great effort to inflame passions just to make sure that there is no lull in the Gaza violence. Otherwise, what will they be talking about during the summit?