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Syrian Tremors at Arab Summit

Interviewee: Mohamad Bazzi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, cfr.org
March 29, 2012

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The Arab League summit in Baghdad has focused on Syria, where leader Bashar al-Assad has continued to fight opposition forces calling for his ouster. But Mohamad Bazzi, former chief Middle Eastern correspondent for Newsday, says because events on the ground have accelerated, the summit "is now almost inconsequential." The League sent monitors to Syria last fall and was at the forefront of dealing with the Syria crisis, he says, but "now it's an ancillary player." Bazzi notes that the new cease-fire plan backed by Kofi Annan--and under discussion in Baghdad--is mild in comparison to a League-backed plan developed months ago. "Unfortunately, the signs on the ground are that although Assad says he accepts the plan, he continues his crackdown," Bazzi says.

What do you make of this Arab League summit? Will this be an important moment or just empty words?

This Baghdad summit has already been delayed by a year. It was supposed to take place last April, but because of the uprisings in various parts of the region, the summit was killed last year. So the Iraqi government has had to wait a year to showcase all of the improvements that it had made in the international zone in Baghdad--to show off all the money that it's spent to pave roads, remodel hotels, and to try to use the summit as a signal to the world that Iraq is back within the Arab fold.

Because of this long delay, the summit is now almost inconsequential--like most Arab League summits of the past decades. The events on the ground have accelerated to the point that Arab leaders are playing catch up, and Syria is the perfect example. There actually was a very muscular Arab League policy several months ago when the Arab League decided to intervene in Syria, which is not something that the Arab League normally does. The League sent monitors to Syria last fall, but that mission did not go very well, and eventually it fizzled out. At that point, the Arab League was at the forefront of dealing with the Syria crisis, and now it's an ancillary player.

The Arab League at one point was urging the Security Council to pass a resolution calling for Assad to step down, but the Russians and Chinese vetoed it, so now the Arab League is backing Kofi Annan's plan. How is it different?

The Kofi Annan plan is actually much kinder to the Syrian regime than the last Arab League-backed plan in the fall, which basically called for a transitional period. That plan called for Assad's regime to cease its killing and to cease the violence, and also called on the opposition to stop attacking government forces. And then for transitional period, where Assad would step down and his vice president would take over until elections could be held, Syria rejected that flat out; Assad continued his brutal repression, and more elements of the Syrian opposition became armed and took to fighting government forces, but they're really outgunned and they haven't been able to make any significant military gains against the Syrian regime.

The events on the ground have accelerated to the point that Arab leaders are playing catch up and Syria is the perfect example.

This plan by Kofi Annan drops any mentions of Assad leaving power. It basically only calls for the Assad regime to stop killing people. It also calls on the opposition to cease any attacks on government forces. So this is more of a cease-fire that carries very little consequences for the Assad regime. It is almost a perfect plan for Assad to accept. Unfortunately, the signs on the ground are that although Assad says he accepts the plan, he continues his crackdown. In the past two days, there've been attacks on pockets of resistance in various parts of Syria, so there's no sign on the ground of the crackdown ceasing.

At this Arab League summit, apparently the Gulf states are not sending their heads of government. Is this because there are still tensions with Iraq over the Shiite-Sunni conflict?

It is because of tension with Iraq, which is a Shiite-ruled government, and the Sunni-dominated states in the Gulf. And it's also a signal to Iraq that these Gulf states want the Iraqi government to move away from Iran. They're still unhappy over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's alliance with the Iranian regime. They don't want the Shiite government in Iraq to be so closely identified with Iran. They despise Iranian influence over all facets of life in Iraq.

What's Maliki's position?

For Maliki, that's going to be very difficult to do because the Iraqi government has been much more reliant on Iran than it has been on the Gulf states. Iran is a very important trading partner. It's an important economic engine for the Iraqi economy. For the most part, for the past several years, Maliki has always chosen Iran and could not count on Sunni Arab states to come to his aid, and even symbolically, they seem to be rejecting his overtures to be returned into this Arab fold. There's not really much he can do about that. I can't imagine Maliki would abandon his close relationship with Iran.

Iran is one of the few nations that solidly supports Syria, while Iraq has had a very mixed relation with Syria over the years. What is the current state of relations?

Today the Iraqi government is taking its lead from Iran in its relationship with Syria. It's been relatively supportive of Bashar al-Assad's regime. In the past few months we've heard more critical comments from various Iraqi officials, and some Iraqi politicians have even gone as far as saying that Assad needs to step down, that he needs to give up power. But for the most part, Iraqis at the highest levels, especially Maliki, have taken their cue from Iran.

Maliki and his inner circle don't want to take the risk of alienating Iran when it comes to Syria, and it's a little unusual because at various points in the last five years or so, Maliki has accused the Syrians of harboring former Ba'athists in Syria, who have carried out attacks inside Iraq. At one point, he broke off relations with Syria very publicly, accusing the Syrian regime of helping instigate suicide bombings in Iraq. But since the uprising started in Syria, the Iranians seem to be leaning heavily on Maliki and their other Iraqi allies to support Syria. One concrete example of this: There've been reports in the past few months that Iranian flights had gone over Iraqi airspace to deliver material--most likely military supplies and other kind of technological aid--to Syria. In the past two weeks, U.S. officials have been leaning heavily on Maliki to stop these flights, and it appears that they have stopped, but I wouldn't be surprised if they begin again once U.S. pressure comes off.

Let's talk about the Arab League summit again. Historically, it was formed back in March 1945, but you didn't hear much about the Arab League until they called for Western help in crushing Libya last March. Is it largely ineffective?

For several decades, it was largely ineffective. It was split between the oil-rich states that supported the West, and leaders like Hafez al-Assad [Bashar's late father] and Muammar al-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who tried to make use of the summits to grandstand and to expound anti-U.S. and anti-Western rhetoric. Qaddafi, in particular, liked to use the Arab League summits as his stage, and he tried to attend many of them. Saddam Hussein stayed away for the most part after his invasion of Kuwait, and after Iraq was isolated and thrown out of the Arab League at one point.

There's been a history within the Arab League of a lot of intra-Arab fighting, and the summits would become sort of a regional entertainment that never led anywhere. There would be these bland statements at the end of each summit, where the Arab countries would mostly agree on something related to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where they would call for Israeli withdrawal from post-1967 territories, and that's about it. In 2002, there was a summit that produced the Arab Peace Initiative that was launched by Saudi Arabia, where the Saudi king made the offer that all Arab states would agree to a peace deal with Israel if it reached a deal with the Palestinians and if it settled all outstanding territorial issues with the Arabs. That was really the last memorable summit where something tangible was achieved, and since then, it's just been political theater.

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