Lebanon summit reveals Arab divisions over Syria, Iran

Several heads of state have pulled out of an Arab economic summit in Beirut this weekend.

The Arabic Economic Summit holds a joint press conference with members of the organizing committee, in Beirut,
The summit this weekend is overshadowed by competing visions for Syria's future and Iranian influence in the region [Hussein Malla/AP]

Beirut, Lebanon  As Lebanon prepares to host a regional economic summit this weekend, the meeting has been overshadowed by divisions over Syria’s future and efforts to contain Iran.

Having previously confirmed their attendance at the Arab Economic and Social Development summit in Beirut, many heads of state are now set to stay away.

The emirs of Qatar and Kuwait will not attend, Egypt is planning to send the prime minister rather than the president, while the Palestinian Authority president has said he will be in New York.

The snubs seem to be a message to Iran, whose allies, including Hezbollah, hold power in Lebanon and support the Syrian government.

Iran’s allies saw the talks as an opportunity to bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad back into the Arab fold, eyeing an Arab League foreign minister-level meeting before the summit as a chance to hold a vote on Syria’s reinstatement to the regional body.

However, the future of Syria is not due to be on the agenda.

“The league has no plans to discuss an invitation to the body’s summit in Tunisia during the upcoming meeting in Lebanon to which Damascus is not invited either,” Arab League Assistant Secretary General Hossam Zaki said. 

“We aren’t there yet,” Rami Khoury, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Not all Arab countries want to immediately normalise relations with Syria.”

No consensus 

The Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 and imposed economic sanctions over its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters before the country descended into civil war. Some countries withdrew their ambassadors.

Late last year, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab League leader to visit Syria since the crisis began. In the following weeks, the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in the country, but a consensus among the bloc remains elusive.

Days before the Beirut talks a number of Arab states made their positions clear. Iraq, which did not cut ties with Damascus, said it supports efforts to restore Syria’s membership of the Arab League. Qatar, a supporter of Syria’s opposition, stressed the reasons for Damascus’ suspension have not been addressed and there are no encouraging signs to push for normalising ties.

Saudi Arabia has denied it plans to do what its allies – the UAE and Bahrain – did a few weeks ago.


“There was a momentum but it has slowed,” Sami Nader, political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “US Secretary of State Pompeo told them it is too early to normalise relations and talk about reconstruction before agreeing on the general elements of a political settlement.”

Obstacles ahead

Assad, who has survived the seven-year rebellion against his rule, is looking to consolidate his power, end his isolation and attract much-needed funds to rebuild the destroyed country.

But what is believed to be a Russian-led diplomatic push to legitimise the Syrian government is now facing obstacles.

When the Arab League was expected to discuss readmitting Damascus earlier this month, the meeting was postponed.

Egypt, which was leading the diplomatic drive to re-embrace Assad’s Syria, now says it cannot be readmitted to the Arab League if it doesn’t solve the political crisis in line with the UN-led political process.

There are also those who warn against prematurely normalising ties, saying that would only strengthen Assad’s position when it came to negotiations.

The US is particularly eager to curtail Iranian influence in the region, and sees any move that strengthens Assad as strengthening Iran.

Assad’s opponents want him to comply with UN resolutions that would require relinquishing some powers.

It’s not clear if supporters of Assad’s return will intensify their efforts before the next Arab League meeting in Tunis in March.

For its part, Iran has publicly welcomed the shift in policy of some Arab countries.

“Arab countries returning to Syria was a positive change that signaled the international community recognised Syria’s territorial integrity and legitimate government,” the foreign ministry said.

However, if the Arab League were to normalise ties with Damascus, it would likely create a new regional order that would not serve Iranian interests. While Gulf Arab financial support could provide a huge boost to Syria’s economy, the leaders of those countries would also likely seek more influence in the country.

“The return of Arab enemies of Iran to Damascus is seen in this context as some sort of a drawback on the Iranian sacrifices in Syria,” Mohanad Hage Ali, Carnegie Middle East Center, analyst told Al Jazeera. “The Syrian regime return to the Arab fold means there has to be some sort of policy impact regarding the relationship with Iranians and its alliance with Iran.”

Iran has been a staunch ally of the Syrian government throughout the war and there is no indication Assad will break that alliance.

The Arab diplomatic snub of the Beirut meeting is just the beginning of US-led efforts to contain Iran’s influence in the region.

They are expected to gain momentum in the lead up to the anti-Tehran meeting in Warsaw in February.

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Source: Al Jazeera