By Prashant Rao / AFP
BAGHDAD: After decades at the center of the Arab world, Syria now sits in the dock with regional leaders meeting in Baghdad this week over how to end Bashar Al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on a popular uprising.
But wide disparities among Arab chiefs’ positions may hamper any hope of an aggressive resolution from the meeting, the first to be held in Iraq in more than 20 years and taking place under heavy security after deadly bombings just a week ago.
Crucially, the Arab League will have to reconcile a proposal by Gulf countries to arm opposition groups against President Assad, and states like Iraq which are calling instead for a political resolution to the year-long crackdown that monitors say has left more than 9,100 dead.
“If you are talking about Syria itself, it is not an easy issue,” Iraqi Deputy National Security Adviser Safa Hussein told AFP.
“There is a division internationally and there is a division within the Arab world. I don’t think we should expect miracles to happen in the summit, but I would say there would be an opportunity to bring Arab opinions closer.”
Iraqi authorities have insisted that the summit will focus on structural reform of the Arab League in an effort to make the organization more active, but Syria remains in the limelight, rocked by ongoing protests and deadly clashes, US and European sanctions and a United Nations human rights probe.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned on Sunday that Kofi Annan represented the last chance for avoiding a civil war in Syria and offered the UN-Arab League envoy Moscow’s full support.
Medvedev’s stark message to Moscow’s traditional ally came only hours after US President Barack Obama announced plans to send “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian rebels and new waves of violence swept the battle-scarred country.
Baghdad has played down the possibility of a new resolution addressing the situation in Syria, while Arab League chief Nabil Al-Araby told pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat it was unlikely the meeting in Iraq would call for the Syrian leader to step down.
The summit also marks a re-emergence of Iraq, hosting its first Arab League meeting since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which triggered UN sanctions and was eventually followed by the 2003 US-led invasion.
More than 100,000 security forces members are deployed to provide security in the capital, according to the Baghdad Operations Command, and Iraq has spent an estimated $500 million to refurbish major hotels and summit venues.
But despite the dramatically tighter security measures, Al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq managed to carry out a wave of nationwide attacks on March 20 that cost the lives of 50 people.
Among the attacks was a car bomb that went off in a car park directly opposite the foreign ministry, killing three people.
Iraq expects at least 10 Arab leaders to attend the summit, but while some countries such as Lebanon have announced top-level representation, the majority of the bloc’s 22 members have been tight-lipped over who will attend on their behalf.
“Skepticism is always there, especially when dealing with Iraqi affairs and the Iraqi situation, the security problem, the political problems,” Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi admitted.
“But I think now, all this skepticism is finished because now it’s a reality. Iraq will host the summit, it is going to take place with the full participation of all the countries.”
The summit was originally due to be held in Baghdad a year ago but was delayed due to regional turmoil resulting from the Arab Spring uprisings as well as concerns over violence in Iraq.
As a result of the revolts, many familiar faces will not be attending: since the beginning of last year, Libya’s Moammer Qaddafi was killed, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh handed power to his deputy, and Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled to Saudi Arabia.
In addition, League-member Sudan lost a quarter of its territory last year, after South Sudan voted overwhelmingly to secede in an independence referendum.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide, will head his country’s delegation.
In the absence of the Arab Spring-deposed autocratic rulers, Islamists who have come to the fore in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will be making their summit debut, to sit alongside the hereditary rulers of the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.
Baghdad itself will be represented by new faces, with a Shia-led and Kurdish-backed government taking center stage in the place of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.
And for the first time, the head of state of a country hosting an Arab League summit is a Kurd — Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.