Iraq: Arab summit divided over how to
March 29, 2012
From L to R: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani,
Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Kuwait's
emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Somalia's
President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and Libya's
National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa
Abdel Jalil pose for a group picture on the
sidelines of the first Arab summit to be held in
Iraq in 22 years on March 29, 2012 in the former
Republican Palace in Baghdad, with the year-long
crisis in Syria in the spotlight. Among those
attending were nine Arab leaders, including Kuwait's
emir, who was on the first visit to Iraq by a
Kuwaiti head of state since the 1990 Iraqi invasion
of that country..
Photo: Getty Images.
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BAGHDAD, — Arab leaders gathering here
today will call for Syria to implement a cease-fire,
but there's little faith that President Bashar Assad
will do anything to halt his crackdown on the
That could set the stage for Gulf Arab nations,
eager to see Assad's downfall, to take stronger
action on their own.
Arab governments are divided over how strongly to
intervene to stop the bloodshed in Syria, and their
divisions illustrate how the conflict has become a
proxy in the region's wider rivalry -- the one
between Arabs and powerhouse Iran.
Sunni-led nations of the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia
and Qatar -- hoping to break Syria out of its
alliance with Shiite Iran -- are believed to be
considering arming the Syrian rebels to fight back
against Assad's forces. But other Arab nations are
reluctant to openly call for that step yet.
Iraq, the host of the one-day Arab League summit, is
in a particularly tight spot because its Shiite-led
government has close ties to Iran, Assad's top ally.
Given the divisions, foreign ministers meeting here
Wednesday laid out a middle-ground for their leaders
to issue at the summit. The draft resolution they
put together would reject foreign intervention in
Syria while voicing support for the Syrian people's
"legitimate aspirations to freedom and democracy."
It would call on Assad to implement a cease-fire and
let in humanitarian aid.
The leaders also "denounce the acts of violence,
killings ... and remain committed to a peaceful
settlement and national dialogue," it said.
It also supports the mission of joint U.N.-Arab
League envoy Kofi Annan, who has put forward a peace
plan to end the regime's crackdown that the U.N.
estimates has killed more than 9,000 people since
the uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari acknowledged
to the media that the summit will offer "nothing
new" on Syria, but will complement ongoing
international diplomacy to settle the crisis.
Damascus has accepted Annan's plan, which includes a
cease-fire. Violence has continued, however, with
clashes between government forces and armed rebels.
Syria's opposition is deeply skeptical that Assad
will carry out the terms of Annan's plan.
The plan also calls on Damascus to immediately stop
troop movements and the use of heavy weapons in
populated areas, and to commit to a daily two-hour
halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and
Opposition members accuse Assad of agreeing to
Annan's plan to stall for time as his troops make a
renewed push to kill off bastions of dissent.
"We are not sure if it's political maneuvering or a
sincere act," said Louay Safi, a member of the
opposition Syrian National Council. "We have no
trust in the current regime. ... We have to see that
they have stopped killing civilians."
The Assad regime has pre-emptively rejected anything
coming out of the Arab League summit, a reflection
of its refusal to deal with the 22-member body since
it suspended Syria's membership last year.
Iraq is hosting the annual summit for the first time
in a generation, keen to show it has emerged from
years of turmoil and U.S. occupation. But the Syria
issue has clouded its attempts to win acceptance by
other Arab nations, which are deeply suspicious of
its ties with Iran.
In a snub to Baghdad, most -- if not all -- of the
rulers of the six Gulf nations were staying away
from the summit, sending lower-level figures
instead. League officials said the level of
representation was aimed at showing their
frustration over the lack of more assertive action
Instead of its king, Saudi Arabia was sending its
ambassador to the Arab League -- a worse slap
because the post is even lower than the foreign
minister level. The League officials said Saudi
Arabia and Qatar had wanted Iraq to invite
representatives of the Syrian opposition to the
summit. Baghdad declined, much to their dismay,www.ekurd.net
the officials said, speaking on condition of
anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Offering a glimpse of Qatar's thinking on the Syrian
crisis, the prime minister of the tiny, energy-rich
nation told Al-Jazeera television that it would be a
"disgrace to all of us if the sacrifices of the
Syrian people go to waste."
"We are faced with a difficult choice -- either we
stand by the Syrian people or stand by him (Assad),"
said Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani.
The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more
assertive action to end the conflict. Privately,
they see little benefit in the Arab League's efforts
to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to
see a small core of nations joining together to act
on their own.
Among the options they are considering are arming
the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the
opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve
as a humanitarian sphere or staging ground for
anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help
from Turkey -- the country best positioned to defend
such a safe haven -- but so far Ankara has seemed
For Gulf nations, removing Assad would almost
certainly break Syria's alliance with Iran,
disrupting the sphere of Tehran's influence that now
extends from Iraq and across Syria to the shores of
the Mediterranean. Syria's Sunni majority makes up
the bulk of the uprising. Assad's regime is
dominated by his own Alawite sect, a minority
offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, said the summit
would not demand that Assad step down. But he later
said Iraq "could no longer remain neutral" in the
face of the violence in Syria.
He did not elaborate, but added that the Syria
crisis was headed toward "internationalization,"
maintaining that the Arab League already has done
all it could to resolve the conflict.
Zebari, however, is a Sunni Kurd and his
pronouncements may not accurately reflect the views
of the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the
all-powerful Shiite political establishment backing
In a possible breakthrough in Iraq's relations with
Bahrain -- one of the Gulf Cooperation Council's six
members -- al-Maliki met on the sidelines of
Wednesday's meeting of Arab foreign ministers with
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed
Al Khalifa. No details emerged from their meeting.
Relations have been tense since Shiite Iraqi
politicians publicly criticized last year's
crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni-led regime against the
nation's Shiite majority. The tension between Iraq
and the GCC over Bahrain was among the reasons an
Arab summit that had been scheduled to take place in
Baghdad last year was abandoned.
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