Arab foreign ministers decided here today to go ahead with next week's scheduled unity summit conference of Arab heads of state, despite Syrian demands for a postponement that would allow bitter disputes among the Arab states to be resolved first.
Immediately after the decision was made to go ahead with the summit talks here next Tuesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam announced that President Hafez Assad would not attend.
Khaddam also said he was calling a meeting in Damascus of representative of Algeria, Libya, South Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization -- the so-called Steadfastness Front -- plus Lebanon, to urge their leaders to join Syria in boycotting the summit. If they did, their absence would greatly diminish the Amman summit's aims of presenting a united and coordinated Arab front facing Israel and the world.
Farouk Kaddoumi, the PLO's representative at the foreign ministers' conference that has been meeting here since Tuesday, and who supported Syria's call for a summit postponement, said today that the PLO's 15-member executive committee would also hold a meeting in Damascus this weekend to determine whether PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat would attend the summit or join the boycott.
The Syrian decision not to attend the conference has put the PLO in a particularly difficult position. It generally supports Syria, which dominates the PLO leadership, but it is being pressured to attend the conference by Saudi-Arabia and other Arab oil states who subsidize the PLO's operations.
Despite the rift in the facade of Arab unity created by the Syrian action today, summit conference officials insisted on calling the foreign ministers' meeting a resounding success because not only had a decision been made to hold the summit as planned but also two basic documents on long-term joint Arab political and economic strategy were approved unanimously -- including by Syria.
The two policy documents are expected to be adopted with little change by the Arab kings, sheiks and presidents who will attend the summit. It will become the expressed basis of Arab political and economic strategy in the region and the world at large for a least the next half decade.
Conference delegates hailed the strategy plans as a major step toward strengthening Arab unity through the formulation of plans for the coordination of joint political action in the future both in the Arab world's confrontation with Israel as well as in its dealings with the West. It also is to establish plans for creating a balanced and independent Arab economy.
"What will make this conference a historic event," said conference spokesman Naif Mawla, is that "in the past our summits have taken actions as reactions to other events that have affected us, like Camp David. This time we are taking the initiative and formulating our own strategy and policies for the future."
Syria and its Steadfastness Front allies played a key role in formulating the two strategy documents in the foreign ministers' meeting here.
Syria's opposition to the summit conference stemmed not from its stated aim of formulating such joint Arab policies for confronting Israel and its foreign supporters, most notably the United States, but from Assad's unwillingness to attend a conference with its Iraqi rival, President Saddam Hussein.
Because of Syria's longstanding differences with Iraq, ruled by a rival branch of the Arab Baath Socialist Party, Syria has supported Iran in its war with Iraq. Syria's ally, Libya, as well as Algeria and South Yemen have also sided with Iran, a non-Arab but Moslem nation.
Arab analysts here said that aside from the explosiveness of the chemistry between Assad and Saddam Hussein, the Syrian president also did not want to attend a summit in which his isolation among the majority of his fellow Arabs might be shown up publicly because of his support of Iran in its fight against a fellow Arab. Saddam Hussein is faced with major economic and political problems at home.
Although Saddam Hussein has yet to achieve the sort of clear-cut battlefield victory in Iran he sought to enhance his ambitions to make Iraq a major Arab military force, the onetime radical socialist has succeeded in forging a moderate alliance with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, and will enter the summit as an influential, perhaps even dominant, Arab leader.
As a longtime admirer of the late Eqyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein's new role is one that he has long coveted and that obviously infuriates Assad, who, despite periodic efforts to make up, has carried on a personal feud with Saddam Hussein for the better part of a decade.
Syrian Foreign Minister Khaddam argued today that given the splits among the Arabs, any adoption of a joint political and economic strategy for the Arab world, no matter how well conceived, would hardly be worth the paper it was written on.
"The problembs of years cannot be solved in a matter of days," Khaddam told reporters before departing. "The problems between us are grave and serious and we must resolve them first before we begin talking of joint strategies that we will all follow."
Khaddam dismissed the claim that the summit conference would be a success even without Syria.
"If it is the intention of the summit to confront Israel," he said, "the absence of Syria, Lebanon and the PLO, who are daily in direct confrontation with Israel, will mean that no one is going to believe that the conference was in fact for the sake of the Palestinians and against Israel."
"If the summit meets as scheduled it is clear there will be little more than welcoming speeches, rubberstamp adoptions of the resolutions already approved, a big dinner party and then everyone will go home," Khaddam said. "We see that as a failure that will not do any good to the Arab nation and therefore we will not participate."