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Edition 12 Volume 6 - March 20, 2024

The Damascus Arab summit

Getting through Damascus  - Mohamed Abdel Salam
The hope is that the Damascus summit becomes just another summit and not an end to all summits.

Success measured by attendance  - Rime Allaf
A summit should be the perfect setting for reaching regional solutions, but pan-Arab politics have rarely followed such logic.

Everyone can brag, nothing will be done  - Rana Sabbagh-Gargour
The yearly ritual has been secured, but nothing will come of it.

The summit and Lebanon's political future  - Oussama Safa
Whatever Lebanon ends up doing about the summit, its presence at the table is essential.

Getting through Damascus
 Mohamed Abdel Salam

Ever since 2024, when Arab countries decided to hold a "leaders' summit" regularly, nearly no summit has taken place without problems. Even before then, Arab summits were not an easy affair: Arab countries disagreed regarding the necessity of some meetings and the content of resolutions adopted, there were personal problems among some of the leaders scheduled to participate, and there were sensitivities regarding the role of the host, convener or chairman vis-a-vis the other leaders. With few exceptions, Arab public opinion was not satisfied with the resolutions issued by the summits. Almost all summits witnessed problems at the level of representation, agenda, management of the sessions and final decisions. For decades, the "summit institution" was too crisis-ridden to be turned into a regular meeting.

These problems were merely exacerbated when the summit became an annual event. The problems began with a new factor: the venue of the summit. It was agreed that the summits be convened consecutively in the Arab capitals according to alphabetical order. Every capital destined to host the meeting began to dump its regional problems on the summit. This is currently happening with Damascus.

The venue issue has caused additional problems. There are capitals like Baghdad that will not host a summit in the foreseeable future. Differences among some of the capitals have led many leaders to stay away from participation. In addition, other complications have led most of the Gulf capitals to waive their role in hosting the summit for the benefit of the next on the list. A Saudi proposal appeared in 2024 to establish a permanent headquarters for holding the summit in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh, precisely in order to avoid these problems.

But before anything could change, the process reached Damascus, the self-styled heart of Arabism. It has been understood since the close of the Riyadh summit last year that Damascus would not be one of the easier Arab stations. At that time, the possibility was broached to waive Damascus in favor of the next capital. The issue was not related to the fact that the president of the host country becomes chairman of the summit or that the host capital dominates the meeting and invitation arrangements and usually seeks to determine many of the items on the agenda. Rather, it touched on the more serious issues of Damascus' policies and the attitude of the key Arab countries toward them.

Syria has turned away from its traditional alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia to become party to a coalition with Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. The two alliances are waging a genuine cold war in the Middle East arena. This war has turned Lebanon into a time bomb, worsened the situation in the Gaza Strip, strained relations between Damascus and Riyadh and generated an unprecedented stalemate in relations between Damascus and Cairo. The Damascus summit has to address these open files in such a way that the summit does not end in a failure to resolve any issue at all, or at least makes it possible for the leaders to shake hands for the media, thereby avoiding an obvious farce.

Egypt, aware of the dangers of Syria's behavior, has traditionally sought to prevent Syria from moving in directions that Damascus might regret. It appears from published reports about contacts between them that Egypt has tried to exploit the Damascus summit as a real opportunity to maneuver Syria back into the so-called "Arab ranks". Even when this appeared to be impractical, Damascus was asked to submit something that might reflect an interest in the success of the summit, at least with respect to facilitating the task of electing a president in Lebanon. This would have constituted a first step toward alleviating radical Saudi-Syrian tensions.

Yet Damascus seems to be thinking in an entirely different direction. It is not ready at all to be flexible regarding the problems it faces even if this means the summit's failure. Indeed, Syria appears more willing to forego its Arab relations in favor of inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad to be present and adopting an agenda, alarming to the other participants, that includes a critical approach to the Arab peace initiative. Damascus claims it has based these proposals on the legacy of previous summits and appears to be uninterested in amending them.

Syria's tactics were clear from the outset. It wants to convert the Damascus summit from a source of pressure to a bargaining chip. Thus, in order to avoid complete isolation and ensure the summit is held as scheduled, it has begun to signal a more cooperative attitude by keeping Iran away from the summit and sending an invitation--without solving the problem--to Lebanon. It also expressed its willingness to discuss policy differences--but during rather than before the summit, even though this contradicts the Arab summit tradition. There is still no specific understanding as to how the summit will be conducted once Arab delegations reach Damascus.

The Syrian capital has dumped all its problems on the summit. The summit has led to an opening of the files of Syria's policies in the region, yet without registering progress in resolving the problems generated by these policies. Now it appears that the opportunity to do so has been lost, and the direction of Syrian policies will be maintained during the post-summit period. For a country like Egypt, the challenge is to ensure that Syria is no better off after the summit than before it, and to enable the Arab summit institution to emerge intact from Damascus and move to another capital next year. Thus the hope is that the Damascus summit becomes just another summit and not an end to all summits.- Published 20/3/2008 bitterlemons-international.org

Mohamed Abdel Salam heads the Regional Security Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Success measured by attendance
 Rime Allaf

Despite their proven futility, Arab League summits have always managed to create a modicum of expectation over the last couple of decades, with several big events shaking the Arab world to its core. But apart from the few exceptions when actionable resolutions were adopted, like the expulsion of Egypt at the 1979 Baghdad summit (following its peace agreement with Israel) or the emergency Cairo summit of 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (where a leaked recording exposed Arab leaders disgracefully shouting insults across the table), Arab League summits have mostly been opportunities to prove the cliche that "Arabs agree to disagree".

With such low expectations and no likely achievements, the region now mostly plays a different summit game: how will turnout be? Which of the big names will skip and who will strive to steal the headlines by arriving late? The scrutiny continues during the summit: who will be merely civil to whom, who will show effusive appreciation of whom and whose brotherly kisses and hugs will provide the best photo-op?

The upcoming Damascus summit suffers from these usual afflictions, but there are additional issues raising the stakes. For one, past thorny summits were held on relatively neutral ground, either in countries not directly implicated in the crisis du jour or in Arab League headquarters. In contrast, the Damascus summit will convene in the country most at odds with its co-members and under the auspices of a rather controversial regime whose relations with other states have deteriorated over one of the trickiest problems facing the region in recent years: Lebanon's presidential crisis is blamed on Damascus alone.

One other novelty is the extent of pre-conditions other regimes have imposed, or tried to impose, on their host--conditions that reveal the lack of faith summit participants themselves have in the potential value of such gatherings. Instead of proposing to use the summit to resolve the Lebanese problem, countries with rival positions have hinted that their participation depends precisely on the election of a president after 16 attempts; a seventeenth failure, they warn, would doom the summit to low-level (if any) representation.

Syria is anxious to avoid a humiliating no-show from the big names. Repeatedly trying, and repeatedly failing, to secure Saudi approval for a visit by Foreign Minister Walid Muallem to deliver the official summit invitation, Syria finally resigned itself to send it at a much lower level, illustrating the depth of the gulf between Riyadh and Damascus. It will not have helped, of course, that Lebanon was the last of 22 countries to be invited to the summit, in a manner defying protocol and typical of Syrian "diplomacy": handed to a resigned minister of the Lebanese cabinet by an official of the Syrian foreign ministry, the invitation wasn't even signed by the host, but by the Syrian prime minister.

Such moves do nothing to endear the Syrian regime to its critics, and Muallem's claim that this summit will have the highest level of attendance of any summit remains to be seen. It is not clear whether he counts one of the confirmed attendees, the Iranian foreign minister, in his tally, but unless other friendly neighbors (such as Turkey) also make an appearance, the Iranian representative may find himself the sole non-Arab at the table among irate participants finding yet another point of contention with the host.

But Damascus is also subject to unprecedented third party interference, a phenomenon not experienced by other summit organizers. With the American president arrogantly preaching to Arabs about attendance, and with even the usually diplomatic head of EU diplomacy, Javier Solana, opining that key Arab leaders should not go if a Lebanese counterpart is not among them, Syria's own meddling begins to appear pertinent.

A summit should be the perfect setting for reaching regional solutions, but pan-Arab politics have rarely followed such logic and we are left measuring success by attendance rather than achievement. Thus, even the 2024 Beirut summit's major accomplishment (the adoption of the Arab peace initiative) was overshadowed by the absence of half the heads of state and the deliberate snub of besieged Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's televised address to his fellow leaders, when the host, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, interrupted Arafat's broadcast as it began from Ramallah and declared it was time for lunch.

The current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will be unenthusiastic about making a personal appearance in the capital where his biggest enemy (Hamas) holds political court, but is unable to skip the summit given the tragic situation in Gaza. Likewise, the Lebanese will be damned if they come (which some would consider a show of weakness before Syria) and damned if they don't (which could be interpreted as unwillingness to trust pan-Arab diplomacy). Current heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia will also be torn between attending to impose their presence and sitting out to register their opposition to Syrian actions and thus cause summit failure.

But Syrian-Saudi relations, currently at an all-time low, have overcome greater challenges. While many believe that King Abdullah has not forgiven, or forgotten, Syrian slights he felt were directed at his person after the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2024, this didn't stop him from embracing and meeting with the Syrian president at the last summit in Riyadh. This shows that summits do little to change political situations, and the Damascus summit will be just as inconsequential as its precursors.

Still, the Syrian regime is hoping that the regional situation, recently stirred even more by Israel, the United States and various other incendiary meddlers, will Arab leaders them toward participation, and that their presence in the self-proclaimed "beating heart of Arabism" will allow for a whirlwind persuasive demonstration of its leadership in the sacrosanct Arab struggle--a task made more difficult, if not moot, by the presence of Iran.

To paraphrase Fontenelle, a great obstacle to success is the expectation of too much success. Despite Syrian hype around the summit, success measured by attendance merely increases the possibility of failure in such unfavorable circumstances.- Published 20/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.

Everyone can brag, nothing will be done
 Rana Sabbagh-Gargour

The troubled Arab League summit is finally going ahead in Syria later this month. But the wrangling between Saudi Arabia and Syria over Lebanon that preceded the summit is likely to continue after the meeting as the rift between the pro and anti-western Arab states over Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine deepens.

The divisions fall between two axes: the Iranian-led hardliners grouping Syria, local allies Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine on the one hand, and the so-called "Arab moderates" or allies of Washington, on the other side. Neither front is willing to lose the battle.

"The Arabs have all lost control over their region and its political crises," a senior Jordanian official told this writer. "The decision is no longer in our hands: some are taking the cue from Iran, others are taking it from America.... A solution for these interconnected crises will continue to stagger, until America and Iran settle their differences over Tehran's nuclear file and re-draw the map of the new Middle East, exactly like World War I victors Britain and France divided the remains of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence."

The run up to the summit has been dramatic--reflecting an ongoing battle among most Arabs against Iran's growing influence in the region. For weeks, regional political heavyweight Riyadh insisted it would boycott the March 29-30 summit if Damascus does not facilitate the election of a new Lebanese president by then. Not all the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were on board.

Egypt opted for another approach: Arabs should take part in the summit and spell out what Arabs require from Syria.

"You go to a summit to solve your problems instead of insisting to settle them in advance. You give Syria the 'Arab option' instead of pushing it further into Iran's lap," said an Egyptian diplomat. "You bluntly tell Syria it needs to facilitate the election of Lebanon's president, to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the peace process and to ensure national reconciliation by stopping Hamas' spoiling role," he said. "And you ask it to help stabilize Iraq, where Iran now has the upper hand."

Jordan, which mended fences with Syria in November after a four year hiatus, opted for a middle ground: maintaining close political coordination with Cairo and Riyadh while trying but failing to ease Saudi-Syrian tension. This balancing act, however, proved difficult. Riyadh, Amman's key Arab bankroller and strategic political ally, and Washington got sensitive.

Syria, for its part, did not show any signs it would be willing to concede on Lebanon for the sake of holding a high-level Arab summit that is not expected to further its strategic interests. The noise coming out of Damascus was defiant; the summit would be convened on time with "whoever attends", to gain some of the prestige it is aching for to counter US isolation and western pressure on its ruling elite in connection with a UN tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The trial will start in June, leading the regime and its ally Hizballah to use brinkmanship and a tacit threat of civil was as a means of destabilizing the pro-US government.

Saudi Arabia then tried another diplomatic tactic. It lobbied for the convening of an eight-way meeting with Egypt, Jordan and its GCC allies to demand a summit delay or change of venue to Egypt, to embarrass Syria over Lebanon. In parallel, Washington pressured its Arab allies to snub the Syria summit. But the ensuing Israeli military offensive in Gaza inflamed Arab public anger and further isolated moderate voices pushing for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians under the Arab peace initiative re-launched at the 2024 Arab League summit in Riyadh.

Once again, Syria stole the show, prodding hundreds of thousands to march through the capital's streets while Arab moderates issued shy condemnations. Syrian media orchestrated an aggressive campaign equating the latest killings in Gaza to the Nazi-run Holocaust. An embarrassed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas briefly called off peace talks with Israel before Egypt brokered an informal truce between Hamas and Israel.

Days into March, Arab diplomacy finally saved the day. Arab foreign ministers held marathon talks in Egypt, and Saudi Arabia announced it would attend the Damascus summit. Together with Egypt and Jordan, Riyadh will send low-level representation, at ambassadorial or ministerial level. This is a sufficient rebuke to the Syrian regime while bringing less harm to the already diminished Arab League.

Syria accepted to send an invitation to Lebanon, but said it would leave it up to the country's feuding politicians to decide who will lead the delegation to the summit if no president is elected by March 25.

"The Arab ritual of holding a regular summit has been secured," said an Arab official. "Once again, however, Arabs will fail to agree on anything major, opting for flexible, minimum consensus and meaningless resolutions to take back home."

Syria will use the summit to embarrass Washington's allies. It has invited Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to attend the summit's opening. Khaled Mishaal, the Damascus-based political leader of Hamas, and a rival of President Abbas, is likely to sit next to Mottaki. President Bashar Assad will play the "Palestinian card" and use other tactics to counter Riyadh's rebuke over Lebanon, where the presidential impasse is likely to continue for months.

Damascus and a few low-profile Arab supporters will insist on reviewing the failed peace process, including pushing for other alternatives such as retreating from the Arab peace initiative because of Israel's continued building of West Bank settlements, a practice the US-mediated Annapolis accord was supposed to forbid. Moderate Arabs will fight back. They will push to stabilize the situation in Gaza. And in the absence of other Arab strategic alternatives to peace, they will focus on the continuation of Palestinian-Israeli talks to secure a peace deal before the end of US President George Bush's term in office.

As a compromise, the summit will form a ministerial committee to monitor the process and to reconsider future options within a set period of time if the talks go nowhere.

"Everyone will leave Damascus with something to brag about. The biggest losers will be Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine while post-summit Arab political intrigue and bickering will continue well into the next Arab League summit," said an Arab official.- Published 20/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, an independent journalist, is former editor of the Jordan Times.

The summit and Lebanon's political future
 Oussama Safa

Waiting for Godot in Lebanon nowadays seems more fruitful than anticipating a political breakthrough in the near future. The hopes that a consensus president will be elected before the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus are quickly evaporating, to be replaced by renewed pessimism about the future of politics in the country. The triumph of Syrian diplomacy in securing an acceptable showing of Arab officials at the scheduled summit on March 28 will be another missed opportunity for an all-out Arab effort to prevail on Damascus to facilitate the election of a Lebanese president. The Israeli attacks on Gaza have served the Syrians well by overshadowing the Lebanese crisis and making the Palestinian issue the priority agenda for the summiteers in Damascus. Arab leaders now find it increasingly difficult to boycott the gathering in Syria.

The pessimism about Lebanon's future is not entirely misplaced. While moderate Arab states had hoped for a quick resolution to the political crisis before the summit, a gradual escalation in rhetoric and organized violence by the opposition in Beirut accompanied the preparations for the summit and indicated there was no Syrian appetite for a thaw. Most ominous were the riots that pitted the Lebanese army against demonstrators and resulted in seven dead civilians on January 27 this year. The riots were intended as a bloody message to the Arab foreign ministers who were gathering in Cairo that day, but also carried an intentional embarrassment for presidential hopeful Michel Suleiman, the army commander-in-chief. His chances of getting elected soon seem to have subsided after the riots and the humiliating ensuing investigation and subsequent suspension of seven military officers and soldiers.

Regionally, Syrian-Saudi relations took a turn for the worse. The Arab League initiative brokered by the Saudi and Egyptian foreign ministers in Cairo deadlocked in Beirut, mostly due to the opposition's ever changing demands. The recent victory by the conservatives in Iran will undoubtedly embolden President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's position in the region, particularly with Hizballah in Lebanon. The latter is involved in a covert war with Israel following the assassination of its senior military leader, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus.

It remains to be seen whether the killing of Mughniyeh is the start of new forms of pressure against Damascus or just a settling of scores that happened to take place in Syria. While it is highly likely that covert confrontation between Israel and Hizballah will be the new face of war between them, the political scene in Beirut seems to be in a deep freeze.

Hopes are pinned on the revival of the Arab League initiative, though all indications are that the initiative is dead. As the Lebanese have grown accustomed to waiting for regional rapprochement of powers before they can expect a political deal, the upcoming Arab summit seems to be only the next disappointment in this regard. Depending on the summit's closing communique and the tone with which it deals with standing political crises in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, the aftermath of the summit is a period to watch carefully in Lebanon. Syria will soon host the summit leadership for the upcoming year, which means that joint Arab diplomacy will be based in Damascus for the next several months. This will inevitably break Damascus' isolation from the Arab fold and give it a much needed breather to expand its spectrum of regional and international diplomacy.

The summit's communique is also expected to deal with the six-year-old Arab peace initiative that until today remains intransigently rejected by Israel. Any move led by Damascus to alter the initiative will most likely provoke Saudi resistance and might entail even further worsening of relations between the two countries. At the same time, a low-key showing at the summit by the Saudis or any attempts by the latter to steal the thunder of the Damascus gathering will push Syria to retaliate in Lebanon. This might take several forms, including new levels of street violence between supporters of the opposition and loyalists, increased pressure on the loyalist government coalition or a new wave of car bombs and assassinations. The recent urgent warning to Saudi citizens to leave Beirut is an indication that the kingdom is bracing itself for a confrontation at the summit and in its aftermath.

Lebanon's late invitation to the summit has opened the door to various speculations as to whether it will be present at the Damascus meeting. While the government is undecided, the issue has become a subject of political controversy, with much of the opposition pushing for the country's representation at the summit. Whatever Lebanon ends up doing about the summit, its presence at the table is essential. The late Turkish President Turgut Ozal once opined about Turkey's role in redrawing the map of Iraq after the first Gulf war that "he'd rather be a guest at the table than an item on the menu." By not showing up at the summit, Lebanon risks becoming a forgotten hors d'oeuvre on the menu.- Published 20/3/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Oussama Safa is general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.

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