With preparatory meetings underway for the Arab League summit in Jordan next week, the track record since last year’s disappointing summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania, is hardly encouraging.
The ever-worsening catastrophe in Syria, the wars and humanitarian crises in Yemen and Libya, and the dying two-state solution have been compounded by a disconcerting inability of Arab leaders to find some basic common ground.
The Syrian crisis provides the most striking example. Syria was suspended from the Arab League in 2011 following the brutal crackdown on protesters, and sanctions imposed on the regime.
But the systematic genocidal actions of the regime have not gathered unanimous condemnation. Back in 2011, four out of the 22 members of the Arab League did not back the decision to suspend Syria. Reportedly, Lebanon, with a government dominated by Hezbollah, and Yemen, still controlled by Ali Abdullah Saleh, joined Syria in voting against the resolution. Iraq, under heavy Iranian influence, abstained.
There have been some worrying signs of flexibility about the future of the Syrian president. In tune with Russia, the Egyptian leadership has not disguised its sympathy toward the Assad regime. In October last year, Egypt voted in favor of a Russian UN Security Council resolution draft that made no mention of a halt to airstrikes in Syria at a time Aleppo was being flattened by the Russians.
Even the current secretary-general of the Arab League, the former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, revealed late last year in an interview on Egyptian TV openness about Assad’s future. “There is no problem if the Syrian people choose Bashar Assad as president in future elections,” Gheit said. Although his overall argument seemed to be that there was no military solution to the conflict, his take on Assad was still jaw-dropping.
Iraq, however, could offer an opportunity for Arab leaders to show during the summit their resolve to unite around common objectives. There is progress in the fight against Daesh in Mosul, despite the humanitarian crisis and incessant terrorist attacks across Iraq. For that progress to be sustainable the contribution of the GCC states for the post-Daesh reconstruction and inter-communal reconciliation will be key. King Abdallah, the host, is expected to help bridge the gap between Iraq and the GCC governments.
For a prime minister who desperately needs and deserves international and regional support, Haider Al-Abadi’s recent meeting with the new US administration in which he obtained guarantees of greater US support against Daesh is a promising development.
Hand-in-hand with anti-Daesh offensive and stabilization efforts is the necessary push against overwhelming Iranian interference in Iraq. On the battlefront, one of the main concerns is the ruthless violence used against Sunni civilians by pro-Iranian militias within the Popular Mobilization Units in areas retaken from Daesh. If not checked, it will continue to push Sunnis into the hands of the organization and undermine reconciliation efforts.
Plus, if pro-Iranian militias remain in Mosul’s Nineveh province following the assault on the city, it would offer Iran a corridor across the Levant.
Politically, pro-Iranian factions in Baghdad, including former Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, are bent on undermining Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
For a prime minister who desperately needs and deserves international and regional support, Al-Abadi’s recent meeting with the new US administration in which he obtained guarantees of greater US support against Daesh is a promising development. The meeting in Washington on Wednesday of the global coalition against Daesh lauded the Iraqi government’s efforts and pledged strong support for the prime minister.
Equally significant was the visit earlier this month of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir to Baghdad, the first of a senior Saudi official in over 25 years. This and the appointment in 2015 of a Saudi ambassador to Baghdad — in the meanwhile re-assigned over comments about the PMUs and a possible plot to assassinate him — reflect Saudi and wider GCC support for Al-Abadi’s government.
A show of unity in support of the Iraqi government, a pledge to support reconstruction and reconciliation in Sunni areas and a stance against Iran’s blatant interference in Iraqi sovereignty provide the Arab League a window of opportunity that should not go to waste. An institutionalized mechanism to deliver on the pledges may also be on the pipeline.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.