No unanimity on Syria ahead of Arab summit

Sunday 26/03/2017
Ambassador Hossam Zaki, the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general. (Ahmed Megahid)

Cairo - While there is growing, but not unani­mous support for Syria’s return to the Arab League, such a move remained linked to Presi­dent Bashar Assad’s fate and any agreement on ending the coun­try’s war, the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general said.
“The position of the league on the issue hinges primarily on agreement among Arab govern­ments,” Hossam Zaki told The Arab Weekly during a phone interview from the Jordanian capital, Am­man, as preparations for the 38th Arab summit were under way.
Syria’s flag fluttered on the streets of Amman side by side with those of the 21 other Arab states to be represented at the summit, the most important annual Arab gathering. But no one will occupy Syria’s seat when the countries’ leaders meet at the summit March 29th.
A number of Arab governments have reportedly started lobby­ing for Syria’s return to the Arab League, six years after mem­bers’ foreign ministers froze the country’s membership in reac­tion to the Assad regime’s brutal treatment of protesters. Since then, Syria’s league seat has been vacant.
Egypt and Jordan were report­edly part of a chorus of Arab states trying to convince Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have thrown their weight behind Syria’s opposition to change their position on Syrian President Bashar Assad, especially after recent gains by his army on the battlefield.
Jordan had announced on March 19th that Assad would not be invited to the summit.
“We will do this in line with Arab League resolutions,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.
Nonetheless, Syria is expected to be a polarising issue during the summit. The view in some Arab capitals is that Assad’s fate is a make-or-break issue for Arab security.
Assad’s presence is seen in a number of Arab capitals as a guarantee that Syria will continue to stick together until a political transition is made.
The Egyptian Foreign Ministry was clear on the issue when it said on March 9th that Syria’s return to the Arab fold should happen.
“Syria’s return to the Arab League was discussed by Arab foreign ministers in meetings before the summit,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said. “There is growing desire, no doubt, across the Arab world for Syria to return to the Arab fold,” he told Egyptian private al-Hayat TV.
Political analysts said the sum­mit would also be a chance for Syria’s allies to team up against those who do not want to see As­sad at future Arab gatherings.
Saeed al-Lawindi, a researcher at the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said a decision approving Syria’s return to the league would be political victory for Assad.
“This decision will mean that Arab governments recognise him as the legitimate ruler of his coun­try,” he said. “It will make Assad the one laughing last.”
Iraq has also championed calls for Syria’s return to its seat in the league, the organisation it helped found with five other states in 1945.
Abu Zeid said the summit would give Arab leaders an opportunity to speak freely with each other about the challenges facing the Arab world.
Zaki said the Syria issue will compete with other equally im­portant issues, including handling the Trump administration’s plan to move the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that could stifle Palestinian statehood aspirations.
“Iran’s interference in the affairs of Arab states will also take prime position among the files to be discussed by Arab leaders during the event,” Zaki said. “Turkey’s military presence in northern Iraq will also be discussed. These are all issues of utmost importance for Arab security.”