[dehai-news] Washingtoninstitute.org: Harmonious Discord Likely at Doha Arab Summit

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Tue Mar 31 2009 - 05:04:27 EST

Harmonious Discord Likely at Doha Arab Summit


By David Schenker

March 31, 2009

On Monday, the annual Arab Summit will convene in Doha, Qatar, a meeting
that may become a media circus if invited Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir
-- recently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for murdering
nearly a half million of his countrymen in Darfur -- attends. Nonetheless,
for participating Arab states, al-Bashir will likely be a sideshow
overshadowed by a resurgent Syria, a regionally ascendant Iran, and a
continuing and increasingly less solvable intra-Palestinian crisis.


Arab summits have traditionally showcased regional disputes; the Doha summit
is unlikely to change that pattern. The last meeting of Arab leaders
occurred at the end of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza this past
January. Qatar had requested an emergency Arab summit, but disagreements
among states over Hamas resulted in only fourteen of twenty-two member
states attending, leaving the meeting one short of a quorum for an "Arab

Gaza was discussed during the Arab Economic Summit convened in Kuwait later
that month. While the Arab states pledged $2 billion toward Gaza's
reconstruction, discord prevailed as to whether funds would be disbursed
through Hamas or Fatah. Intra-Arab differences also persisted about whether
the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promises Arab recognition for Israel
after an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is reached, should remain on the

The most important development to emerge from Kuwait was the thawing of
Saudi-Syrian relations, which deteriorated following the February 2005
assassination of former Lebanese premier (and Saudi citizen) Rafiq Hariri, a
crime widely believed to have been perpetrated by Damascus.

Intra-Arab Reconciliation

After the opening ceremony of the Kuwait gathering, Saudi's King Abdullah
met with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, and Qatar, in
addition to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Mousa, to discuss
reconciliation between Western-oriented and Iranian-allied states. The
Kuwait meeting was followed by a mini-summit hosted by the king in Riyadh on
March 11, attended by Egypt, Kuwait, and Syria. The goal, reportedly, was to
"clear the air."

Few details from the Riyadh meeting have emerged, but both the atmospherics
and the post-meeting statements, which described the summit as "a start of a
new phase in relations in which the four nations will endeavor to serve Arab
interests through cooperation," suggest at least a temporary decrease in

Despite appearances, however, differences -- particularly regarding Iran and
support for "resistance" -- persist. Syria continues to refuse suggestions
that it change the strategic nature of its relationship with Iran and is
pressing Egypt and Saudi Arabia to adopt a more sympathetic stance toward
"resistance groups." In an interview with al-Safir on March 25, Syrian
president Bashar al-Asad downplayed progress on reconciliation, likening the
process to an airplane that "took off . . .[but] if the engines power
subside[s], the plane will collapse."

Palestinian Disunity

While Syria is mending fences with neighbors, efforts to foster Palestinian
reconciliation remain stalled. Continued divisions between Hamas and Fatah
are not surprising; they represent the wider and persistent divisions in the
Arab world between the moderate and militant camps. In recent months, the
parties have been engaged in talks in Cairo to forge a Palestinian national
unity government, but the talks have deadlocked, if not collapsed, and it is
unlikely that the Doha Summit will succeed where Cairo failed.

Hamas-Fatah relations are particularly strained going into the summit. Just
last week in Lebanon, Kamal Medhat, deputy to Abbas Zaki, the Palestine
Liberation Organization representative in Beirut, was assassinated. There
are few clues as to who perpetrated the murder, but Medhat was considered an
important Fatah operator in the Palestinian refugee camps, and his loss is
sure to strengthen the relative position of Hamas. Given the heightened
tensions, it will be difficult to rhetorically paper over these differences
at the summit as per standard practice.

Despite these problems, Palestinian-related issues dominate the Doha Summit
agenda. Among the summit's topics will be continuing Arab League support for
the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, pressing for a UN "war crimes" probe of
Israeli conduct during the Gaza campaign, ending the "unfair Israeli
blockade" of Gaza, and reaffirming Palestinian refugees so-called "right of
return" per UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The agenda, however, does
not mention the more controversial matter of Palestinian unity. Given the
full slate of issues and lack of consensus, Arab leaders are likely to keep
the Arab Peace Initiative on the table but make little effort to
operationalize the plan.

Syria Resurgent

Perhaps more than anything else, the Doha Summit will showcase the improved
standing of Syria. One month after Washington initiated a dialogue with
Damascus, long-isolated Syria has made significant headway in reinsinuating
itself into the Arab system. Problems still remain. but al-Asad, who months
ago strolled the Champs Elysees with French president Nicholas Sarkozy, is
now walking the palaces of Riyadh.

The al-Asad regime continues to face two significant challenges: the
International Tribunal prosecuting the Hariri assassins, which opened in the
Hague earlier this month, and the International Atomic Energy Agency
investigation into the alleged Syrian nuclear facility in Kibar. Despite its
problems, the regime is clearly hoping that the perception of increased
international legitimacy will insulate Damascus from some of the worst

Meanwhile, Syria is taking steps to exploit its growing international
acceptance. Just last week, Syria announced the appointment of its
first-ever ambassador to Lebanon, a move that has been widely applauded. At
the same time, however, in Lebanon, where elections are ten weeks away, it
appears the assassinations are starting again. In addition to the murder
last week of Medhat, it was reported on March 24 that security forces
interdicted a car bomb plot against pro-West March 14 leader (and former
president) Amin Gemayel. Preliminary reports suggest that the arrested owner
of the car was Syrian.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Syria's improved status within the Arab
League, the topic of Lebanese elections does not appear on the agenda.
Syria, however, did manage to insert two items into the program: a
reaffirmation of Arab opposition to U.S. economic sanctions on Syria and a
condemnation of "the attempts aimed at politicizing the principles of
justice." The second point reflects Syria's rejection of the Hariri
Tribunal, echoing al-Asad's recent threat that if the tribunal were
politicized, "Lebanon would be the first to pay the price."

Bashir and Bashar

The condemnation of "politicizing the principles of justice" is also an
apparent reference to Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International
Criminal Court on seven counts of war crimes in Darfur and crimes against
humanity, including murder, rape, and torture. Al-Bashir is obviously not
going to cooperate with the ICC. Neither, apparently, is the Arab League.
Despite an arrest warrant issued on March 4, al-Bashir traveled to Cairo on
March 25 for a meeting with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak; a day later,
he met with Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qadhafi in Tripoli.

Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Shaikh Hamad bin Jassem, who
delivered the official invitation to al-Bashir on March 24, said Qatar had
been pressured not to issue an invitation. Nevertheless, Qatar is not a
signatory to the ICC, and the Arab League will not enforce the international
arrest warrant against al-Bashir. As Arab League Secretary General Amr
Moussa said of the warrant, "We in the presidency of the Arab League have a
clear position on this request and we totally reject it." Indeed, according
to the Arab League statement, the charges brought by the ICC are an illegal
violation of Sudanese sovereignty.


Fearing capture enroute, in the end al-Bashir may not attend the summit.
Ironically, however, given the continued divisions facing the Arab world on
Iran and the Palestinians, support for al-Bashir vis-a-vis the ICC may be
the one issue -- in addition to the perennial condemnations of Israel -- on
which the Arab summit in Doha may reach consensus. Given the low
expectations, the best outcome for Washington would be that the summit,
which almost certainly will lend its imprimatur to an indicted Sudanese war
criminal, will not further legitimize Hamas.

David Schenker is Aufzien fellow and director of the
ctiveNav=researchPrograms> Program on Arab Politics at the Washington


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