Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1335, (9 - 15 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

This next Arab summit

International and regional developments leave no room for equivocation on the part of Arab states. They must find the political will to defend their interests, individually and collectively

The annual Arab summit will convene in Amman at the end of this month amidst Arab, regional and international developments that constitute a very serious test for Arab countries. These developments are combined with calls for fresh responses from Arab governments as far as the crises that have beset the Arab world for the last six years are concerned. Yet, they have been incapable of finding political solutions necessary to restore security and stability to the Arab world.

From last July, the date of the last Arab ordinary summit in Mauritania, till today, very important changes and developments have taken place that have had a direct impact on the multiple challenges facing the Arabs and threatening their security, whether individually or collectively and stability.

The first challenge is the changing pattern of alliances across the region. The allies of yesterday have become almost adversaries, and the enemies of the past could become allies in the not-very distant future. Take, for example, the cases of Russia and Turkey. When Arab heads of state convened in Mauritania last summer, both Ankara and Moscow were still on opposite sides concerning the situation in Syria. The battle of Aleppo had just begun and Russia was lending very substantial support to Syrian governmental forces to retake the city while Turkey still showed support for the rebels who had taken control of the eastern part of Aleppo. The city came under government control in December. In the meantime, Turkish forces penetrated into Syrian territories 24 August and are still there without any hint of resistance or condemnation from Arab countries. The Turks and the Russians are in the driver’s seat in Syria these days, and the two succeeded in enforcing a nationwide ceasefire across Syria on 29 December, save in areas under the control of the so-called “Islamic State” and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fath Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra Front. The two are terrorist organisations and are defined as such by the United Nations.

The two semi-formal allies, for the time being, brought in Iran to make sure that the ceasefire would hold. They gathered in Astana to work towards this objective. Despite violations here and there from the parties to the ceasefire, the level of violence has come down. Meanwhile, the fourth round of negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition took place from 23 February to 3 March in Geneva. The fifth meeting could take place this month, after the parties reached an agreement on the political agenda for their next round of negotiations. According to statements by some opposition negotiators, it seems that the fourth round proved to be more positive than the previous three rounds, although no progress has been achieved on the core questions, including political transition and fighting terrorism. Needless to say, the Amman summit should take these developments into consideration in working out a new position on Syria. Old resolutions by the Arab League on Syria have become obsolete. They should be revisited. One question, though, will be a tough one to settle; that is, the vacant seat of Syria at the Arab League. Will the seat remain vacant? Will the Arab League keep its regrettable resolution of assigning the seat of Syria to the Riyadh-backed coalition? This decision on the part of member states is unprecedented in the annals of the Arab League. We hope the Arab Summit will change it. But the chances are slim.

The second challenge facing the Arabs when they gather in Amman is how to deal with changes expected in US policies towards major Arab questions, and mainly the Palestinian question. The Trump administration has given the impression that the two-state solution is no longer the only viable solution to settle peacefully the Palestinian problem according to the United Nations resolutions. This ambiguity has led to speculation that the new US administration would not consider the resumption of peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis as a priority. Nor is it alarmed or concerned about the quickening pace of settlement construction on Palestinian lands in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This impression, whether true or not, has encouraged the Israeli settlement movement to press ahead with its programme of annexing the West Bank, and to nip in the bud the two-state solution. Add to that the promise of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. The sheer fact that the Trump administration is considering such an ominous move speaks volume about the ambiguous positions of this administration on the general situation in the occupied Palestinian territories. It has become an axiom in the Middle East that the absence of movement towards a mutually-acceptable solution to the Palestinian question is an invitation to violence and radicalisation. No wonder, the Arabs have to elaborate a position in their upcoming summit on these very important issues. It would not suffice to reaffirm the Arab Peace Initiative so long as the Palestinians do not have a peace partner.

Another challenge that Arab countries should study is the Israeli plan to form a grand alliance with what it calls the Sunni Arab states. The purpose, from an Israeli point of view, is to form a regional alliance to confront Iran. In other words, Iran would become the enemy of the Arabs. The Israeli plan is a non-starter to begin with and, consequently, the Arab countries should not fall into such a trap. The problem is compounded by the fact that President Donald Trump seems to favour it. His two priorities in the Middle East are limited to containing Iran and defeating terrorism, a policy that sits very well with the extreme right government of Binyamin Netanyahu. It is interesting to note that this idea of a grand security partnership between Israel and the “Sunni” Arabs was floated by the Obama administration. Former US secretary of state John Kerry had previously talked about it, but he conditioned its formation on reaching a peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Such a condition is, so far, absent in the reasoning of the Trump administration.

Times are changing in the Middle East, morphing rapidly in directions unknown and untried before in the last five decades. The territorial integrity of the major Arab powers is threatened. Reshaping the geographic borders of these powers is no longer an idea, but rather an imminent possibility. On the other hand, some Arab governments are involved, directly and indirectly, in such planning and, judging from their policies, so far they seem either completely oblivious to the fact, or they would not mind the possible breakup of leading Arab countries like Syria, for example. The next Arab summit should issue a clear message on the inviolability of Arab borders and respect for the territorial integrity of Arab countries that have been in the throes of civil strife for too long. Similarly, the summit should be seen by major international and regional powers as evidence that Arab states have the political will and resolve to play an important role in shaping the future of the Middle East, the heart of the Arab world. Put differently, that they have a say, and this should be taken into account. There is no reason to leave Iran and Turkey intervening in the way they have done in Arab politics.

 The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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