While the G7, Russia, Iran and Turkey are discussing Syria intensively this week, Arab countries seem to be trying to keep apace with the outcome of an escalating diplomatic furore that is to the liking of some but not others.
On Monday, G7 foreign ministers met in Italy to discuss ways to pressure Russia to give up on its long term ally Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria who resisted for six years attempts to have him step down after peaceful protests that soon devolved into all out civil war. Sunni Islamist fighters, Syrians and others, supported, financed and trained by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, on one hand, and faced off against the predominantly Druze-led Syria army supported by the Shia militias of Hizbullah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and finally the military might of Russia.
The G7 meeting came in parallel to consultations between the presidents of Russia and Iran, Vladmir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, where the two men pledged continued support for Al-Assad.
On Friday dawn, Middle East time, the US launched missile strikes against the airfields of Al-Assad’s military that are suspected to have launched a chemical attack against civilians in the village of Khan Sheikhoun.
In his statement on the matter, US President Donald Trump, whose permanent representative to the UN had a few days earlier said that removing Al-Assad was not a priority for Washington, said he was shocked by the images of helpless civilians and children in Khan Sheikhoun after the chemical attack.
In the few days that followed, the US and West made a full U-Turn on their policy on the Syrian president. Russia will have to choose between taking the side of a brutal dictator like Al-Assad or taking the side of justice, was the message that came out of the G7 ministerial meeting ahead of an anticipated visit of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow.
Meanwhile, Arab countries do not appear scheduled to hold any meetings on Syria – certainly not under the umbrella of the Arab League whose secretary general said late last month during the annual convocation of the Arab Summit that “Arabs cannot be excluded from the debate on the future of Syria.”
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly Monday afternoon, while the foreign ministers of the G7 were in Italy threatening a tough stance on Russia if it continued to side with Assad, an Arab League source said that there is no proposal for an extraordinary foreign ministers meeting on Syria.
“No, not a meeting at the level of the permanent representatives – at least not until now. But I would be surprised if a request is put forward.”
According to this source, “It would be pointless to have a meeting on Syria because there is a very clear split of opinions on the matter; and the Arab leaders just adopted the minimum they would agree on during their summit in Amman less than two weeks ago.”
According to the Amman Declaration, Arab leaders stressed “the need to intensify efforts that could lead to a peaceful solution to end the Syrian crisis” and “to allow for the realisation of the aspirations of the Syrian people and to preserve the unity of Syria and its sovereignty and independence” while supporting efforts to “eliminate all terror groups acting on its territories”.
The Amman Declaration also underlined that “there is no military solution for the crisis in Syria,” affirming support for the Geneva negotiations process.
According to Arab diplomats attending the summit in Amman late last month, this language was agreed in view of an overall Arab expectation that the new US president was not interested in attending to the situation in Syria and that he would rather leave it to the care of Putin.
“Well, we were proven wrong; today the picture does look different,” said one.
He added that the new stand of the US on Syria, that had included threats of additional airstrikes against Al-Assad military targets, as indicated Monday by the White House, is “even more dividing to Arab countries”.
“They were not really agreeing on Syria before and the language in the resolutions that were adopted by the summit and that of the final communiqué were designed by the secretariat of the Arab League, upon consultations with leading Arab capitals, including Cairo and Riyadh, to accommodate the views of everyone in the general sense,” said the Arab League source. There was no “serious plan of action” agreed – “not at all, because all the leading countries have their policy lines,” he added.
But with the US strikes on Al-Assad’s airfields Friday, this position is proving hard to keep.
“Last month, those who wanted to lend support to Al-Assad and who was even willing to discuss the return of his regime to represent Syria in the Arab League, with Egypt and Iraq at the forefront, thought that they had Trump on their side; on Friday morning things changed and it was those who want to remove Assad, and to end the Iranian-Russian-Hizbullah support for him, who actually had Trump on their side,” the same Arab League source said.
Most Arab Gulf capitals and Jordan were fast to announce support to the US strikes, and to even praise the move. In a telephone conversation with Trump, the Saudi monarch, according to an official statement issued in Riyadh, “congratulated” Trump.
Turkey, a perfect Saudi ally and member of NATO, also indicated support for the strikes, with the Turkish president saying he hoped they were more extensive.
For its part, Egypt, whose president had just finished a five-day visit to the US, needed a little over 12 hours to issue a statement that did not even refer to the US strikes.
The Egyptian statement was not issued from the office of the president who, according to informed Egyptian sources, had left Washington not thinking that Trump would “at all act against Al-Assad”.
“The president made an effort to explain to Trump that keeping Al-Assad on top of the Syrian regime, at least for now, is essential so as to keep Syria together and to protect its institutions; he did say to Trump that if Al-Assad was to be removed today, Syria could turn into another Libya,” according to one informed Egyptian source.
The Egyptian statement was issued from the press office of the Foreign Ministry. It said that Cairo was “anxiously following the serious developments in Syria”. It stressed that need to “sprare Syria and the Middle East from the threats of escalating the crisis” and warned that any possible escalation would have unfortunate consequences on “the lives and capacities of the Syrians”.
Egypt called on “all Syrian parties” to commit to “an immediate ceasefire” and to pursue a political resolution that should be supported by the US and Russia who both have “a responsibility to preserve international peace and security”.
“It was a tough call; we are not at all happy about these strikes and we don’t think they serve any real purpose. But of course, we are trying to rebuild new bridges with Trump and we did not want to be driven into a side-taking exercise that is futile by definition,” said an Egyptian diplomatic source.
The Arab League was even more perplexed and consumed with its political calculations than Egypt.
“For obvious reasons,” said the Arab League source. “It is not easy when you have Egypt, Iraq and also Algeria, on the one hand – and Egypt is important not just because it is the country that hosts the headquarters, but because the secretary general is Egypt’s former foreign minister who is known to be on the side of Al-Assad – and you have on the other side Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab Gulf states and Jordan, the current chair of the Arab Summit.”
He said that the Arab League needed to consult with the concerned capitals before it issued a statement. “This is standard procedure.”
It took two days for the secretariat of the pan-Arab organisation to issue a statement, which was largely inspired by the Egyptian statement.
The Arab League called on “all the Syrian and non-Syrian parties” to promptly pursue the resumption of the political process. Its statement called on regional and international players to refrain from taking positions that serve their political interests at the expense of the Syrian people and that of Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.
Like the statement issued by Cairo, that of the Arab League made no direct reference to the US air strikes near Homs.
According to the Arab League source, “in a situation where the Arab countries were communicating – even when they were fighting over political positions as we saw for example in the decade prior to the Arab Spring – a more-prompt statement would have come out, and a call for an emergency meeting would have been put forward by at least two member states. This is not the case anymore.”
He added: “It is unfair to blame the league or the secretary general; it is not up to the secretariat to either side line Saudi Arabia or Egypt or to side with one over the other.”
Arab diplomats who spoke to the Weekly this week and in the weeks leading up to the Amman summit concurrently agreed that there is no room left now for serious talk about a united Arab position, or even a process of serious Arab engagement.
In the words of one, the Arab Summit was convening “just so it would have convened, or as the French say, yes, pour la forme.”
Today, Arab diplomats agree that the Arab League is almost irrelevant and that each Arab state is pursuing its own agenda without even trying to win over the rest of the Arab countries to its point of view. Syria, in particular, is a case in point.
This week, those Arab capitals who supported the strikes were using every ounce of political and economic influence to get Western capitals to keep the pressure on Al-Assad in the hope that the man who came to power in June 2000, following his father who ruled Syria for three consecutive decades, would finally be removed after having all but lost control of his country.
For their part, Arab capitals that do not support the strikes were lobbying like-minded partners in the international community to insist that any further action against Syria should be based on a UN Security Council resolution, and while that if Al-Assad is removed, Syria could be lost to “terrorists” who would “wreck the Middle East”.
According to one informed Cairo-based European source, “It is interesting how each side is trying to use Israel to pass its point of view to the US.”