Wide gap between Arab leaders’ official stands and facts on the ground

Sunday 02/04/2017
Relative consensus. Arab leaders pose for a group photograph during the 28th summit of the Arab League, on March 29th. (Reuters)

London - Arab League leaders meeting in Jordan an­nounced a 15-point communiqué outlining their outlook of the re­gion’s challenges but parts of the Amman Declaration appeared to be detached from reality.

The declaration, read out by Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit at the end of the Arab summit, focused on the stalled peace process between Is­raelis and Palestinians. Arab lead­ers reaffirmed their commitment to the two-state solution, expressing readiness to reconcile with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the land it occupied in 1967, allow­ing for the establishment of an in­dependent Palestinian state.

The emphasis on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was understood as a rejection of Israel’s proposal for regional normalisation, which it seeks to have before securing a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The declaration reaffirmed the Arab League’s rejection of Israeli measures aimed at altering the identity of Jerusalem, calling on countries not to relocate their em­bassies to what they consider an occupied city nor recognise it as the capital of Israel. That part was understood to be a message to US President Donald Trump, who ex­pressed an intention to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Critics, however, say the show of solidarity towards Palestinians is played up to mask the disunity of Arab leaders who have little else to agree on publicly.

The second country mentioned in the declaration was Syria, where war has been raging for six years. Arab countries agreed to intensify efforts to find a “peaceful solution” to the crisis, which affects all seg­ments of the Syrian population, while preserving the country’s uni­ty and independence.

The declaration added that “there is no military solution” and called for the eradication of “all terrorist groups” there. The state­ment itself will most likely be un­derstood differently by the various Arab countries that back rival fac­tions in Syria. Critics say it is mean­ingless as Arab leaders will contin­ue to support opposing sides.

The declaration pledged sup­port for the Geneva peace process, calling it “the only framework for a peaceful solution” in Syria, al­though it also paid tribute to the importance of the Astana talks in establishing a ceasefire. Giv­ing priority to Geneva over Astana could be because two of the three main players in the latter — Russia and Iran — are staunch supporters of the Syrian regime, which Arab League heavyweight Saudi Arabia is opposed to.

The third prominent player in Astana is Turkey but Ankara, an ally of Riyadh, is seen as too weak to determine the direction of the Syria endgame, as Turkey has be­come too preoccupied with terror­ism from the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to focus on countering the Syrian regime.

Arab leaders also called on the international community to sup­port countries that host Syrian refugees, an apparent reference to Jordan and Lebanon.

Similar to the general statement on Syria, Arab leaders affirmed their backing for national recon­ciliation as a solution to the crisis in Libya, which is facing the threat of terrorism. As in Syria, different Arab countries support rival fac­tions there and some countries are opposed to the UN-sponsored agreement developed in Skhirat, Morocco.

Arab countries pledged full sup­port to Iraq in its war against ISIS “terrorist gangs” in Mosul, stress­ing that the country’s security and stability are linked to that of the en­tire region. The declaration praised Iraq’s military victories against ISIS and expressed support for Bagh­dad’s efforts to achieve national reconciliation.

The statement appears to echo a recent Saudi effort to draw Iraq back to its Arab orbit, away from the influence of Iran. Such a move, however, appears to be unlikely in the near future as decision-making in Baghdad is strongly linked to Tehran.

Iran itself was mentioned only once, when Arab leaders called on Tehran to give back the three UAE islands it occupies.

However, an indirect reference to Iran was made when the decla­ration denounced foreign “inter­ference” in Arab internal affairs designed to destabilise the region and promote sectarianism. Arab leaders also vowed to support the “legitimate leadership” of Yem­en, which is battling the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels.

A prominent supporter of the Houthis is the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah, which is al­lied with President Michel Aoun and has become an established po­litical force in Lebanon.

Mention of Lebanon was absent from the declaration, although five former Lebanese presidents sent a joint letter calling on the summit to re­ject Hezbollah’s use of arms in the country.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a rival of Hezbollah, was spotted flying with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to Riyadh, signalling that Saudi Ara­bia has not given up on Lebanon, despite Beirut’s falling under the orbit of Iran.

The declaration on two occa­sions expressed support for human rights and democracy, while reject­ing the “darkness” of extremism.

The statement appears to reflect the general yearning for peace and stability after years of upheaval, a sentiment expressed by most of the region’s leaders, the latest be­ing the emir of Kuwait, who blast­ed the “Arab spring”. As is the case with other pronouncements during the summit, it remains to be seen how that commitment to peace and stability will be achieved.