The Arab League Summit kicks off on Sunday in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, shadowed by regional instability. On Saturday dawn, the US fulfilled a previous threat, launching strikes on Syria coordinated with Britain and France, in response to allegations of chemical weapons use by that country’s President Bashar Al-Assad.
Russia had warned such a move would escalate tensions and violence and rejected the strikes. Britain and France defended the operation, saying it was limited. Strikes targeted military bases and airports inside and outside Damascus.
Meanwhile, in Libya, unconfirmed reports on the death of military commander Khalifa Haftar have increased uncertainty over the country’s future. Haftar was reported to have been receiving treatment in France after suffering a stroke, reports that his spokespersons and allies denied as well as the claims of his death.
This comes as the death and injury toll is still on the rise in Palestine, as demonstrators entered their third week of protests, demanding refugees’ right of return.
Such regional complications might have been expected ahead of the summit. The war in Yemen continues, as ballistic missiles reportedly fired on the Saudi capital in the past week seem to have played a role in the relocation of the summit.
The dispute with Qatar lingers. Nonetheless, not all crises will be on the discussions’ agenda, which, for example, excludes the Qatari dispute.
Priorities during pre-summit discussions reflected concerns of the hosting country: countering expansion of power in the region by Iran and Turkey.
A media report by Egyptian state-owned media Al-Ahram on Saturday described the summit as exceptional despite being an ordinary session, given the pressing issues surrounding it.
Are Arab powers going to have a role in Syria?
The US has been threatening for several days to respond to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Douma, saying it has evidence, which was also supported by French assertions of intelligence-based evidence.
On Saturday, Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed “deep concerns over military escalation in Syria,” warning of the effects on the Syrian population. At the same time, the statement said Egypt rejects the use of any globally prohibited weapons, demanding an international and transparent investigation into the allegations.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s response was clearly in support of the strikes by the US, Britain, and France and blamed Al-Assad’s regime for the military intervention and criticising its use of chemical weapons.
The strike targeted Syrian sites and there were no reports of the targeting of Russian or Iranian units. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mitsura, is participating in the summit and met with Arab foreign ministers.
So far, the fate of Syria largely rests in the hands of international powers and regional actors like Turkey and Iran, while the influence of Arab countries in the conflict remains minimal.
“We have witnessed several meetings attended by international and regional powers discussing the fate of this Arab country, which I am afraid would result in its actual division,” Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in his opening remarks.
Arab ministers back UN plan for Libya, Haftar’s fate unknown
Earlier this week, French media reported that Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), suffered a stroke and was being treated in Paris. Later on, reports said he was in a coma. Unverified reports have claimed Haftar has died.
However, his allies have denied it. LNA spokesperson Ahmed Al-Mismari told Egyptian TV channel Extra News that the reports are false and that Haftar is not suffering from any health problems, a claim he had already voiced.
Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame met with Arab ministers from Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Egypt, and Sudan in sideline meetings ahead of the summit, all of whom supported the UN’s plan for the country, Libyan media reported.
He also discussed the situation in Libya with the secretary general of the Arab League, including an expected Cairo meeting between representatives of the league, the UN, the European Union, and the African Union.
The UN is looking to push forward with national elections in Libya before the end of the year. However, the issue is a source of dispute in Libya, especially in the House of Representatives supporting Haftar, which is calling for a constitutional referendum to take place first.
Palestinian issue on top of agenda, says Al-Jubeir
As the summit begins, dozens of Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured as tens of thousands have protested for the past three weeks, demanding sovereign rights and faced by an excessive use of force by Israeli security forces.
In opening remarks on Thursday, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir said the situation in Palestine would top the summit’s discussions. For his part, Aboul Gheit said there are “dangerous attempts” aimed at obstructing the fundamentals of the Palestinian issue, pointing to the US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“The upcoming phase would require that we support Palestinian resistance on the ground, especially in Jerusalem, and mobilise for international recognition for the state of Palestine,” he said, adding that Arabs face the challenge of preserving their version of peace conditions and not allowing the manipulation of the peace process in a manner that would enable some parties to enjoy its benefits before fulfilling its commitments.
US President Donald Trump made the controversial Jerusalem declaration in December, and amid few challenging reactions from Arab countries, is expected to proceed with opening the embassy in Jerusalem on Nakba Day, the date Israel celebrates as its birth.
Arab quartet sends messages to Qatar despite conflict discussion postponement
Al-Jubeir said on Thursday that the Qatari crisis was not going to be part of discussions during the summit, and that conflict resolution would take place within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
On 5 June 2017, GCC countries Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, in addition to Egypt, announced a boycott of Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism, meddling with other countries affairs, and encouraging Iranian interference in the region. Fellow GCC member Kuwait has been acting as a mediator since.
The boycott included a series of measures aimed at isolating Qatar politically and economically, and a list of 13 demands which the latter refused to comply with, with the four boycotting Arab states insisting the list of demands is adhered to.
A recent reiteration of those requirements was voiced by the states’ foreign ministers at a meeting that preceded the summit. On Friday, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa further escalated rhetoric against Qatar, CNN reported.
Al-Khalifa stated that Qatar has no significant role in the summit, and that its presence “does not serve Arab national security,” in a tweet in which he criticised “Qatari offensive comments on the summit and Saudi King.”
Qatar has accepted an invitation by Saudi Arabia to attend the summit. Facing financial difficulties as a result of the boycott and formally complaining of what it described as a “blockade” by its Gulf neighbours, Qatar is also looking at an additional challenge posed by Saudi Arabia.
Earlier in April, the kingdom announced a possible plan to dig a canal along its border with Qatar, with a military presence, essentially transforming the peninsula into an island, which raised fears that it might be further cut off from trade and isolated.
Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told US broadcaster Fox News on Wednesday that the “blockade was [already] a needless crisis” and that it “needs to end and Gulf states need to be reunited again,” denying any accusations made by the boycotting states.