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Syria at the Center of a Splintered Arab League

With tensions running high across the region, what came of this week’s annual summit in Kuwait, and what are Syrian attitudes towards their Arab neighbors at its conclusion? Our experts weigh in.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

On Wednesday in Kuwait City, the Arab League concluded its annual two-day summit. With the Syrian government denied a seat, the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) attended as the largest Syrian delegation.

The summit was held over what analysts have said is unprecedented tension between Arab governments, specifically over how to deal with the Syrian conflict. It also comes at a time when Syrian confidence in the international community, including the Arab states, is at a low.

On Tuesday, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah opened the conference by asking the gathered officials to end their fighting. “The dangers around us are enormous, and we will not move towards joint Arab action without our unity and without casting aside our difference,” he said.

We asked Fadi Salem, a Dubai-based Syria analyst; Sami Moubayed, former visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut; and Taufiq Rahim, a Dubai-based political analyst, to weigh in on what Syrians expected from the summit and what was accomplished.

Syria Deeply: What is the political landscape surrounding this year’s meeting?

Taufiq Rahim: The Arab League meeting comes at a time when the government is very divisive, in particular for the countries that have driven the Arab League’s agenda the last three years: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which are increasingly divided. And as such, at a time of particular disagreement, it is unlikely that we’ll see any consolidated or new initiatives to address the Syrian crisis.

SD: Is the opposition in a less powerful position than it was last year?

Rahim: Ahmad Jarba may be giving an address to the summit, but the person who previously gave one, Moaz al-Khatib, has far more popularity and credibility among the Syrian people. The opposition is attending because the Syrian government no longer has a seat at the Arab League, so they want to portray themselves as the official representatives of the Syrian people and of Syria itself.

Fadi Salem: Things that changed this year are that there are new inter-Arab tensions and emerging differences. I feel it was a downgrade for the opposition. Last year they got a full seat, and this year it’s just an honorary mention in the final communique. So it’s just considered one of the representatives [as opposed to the only one].

Sami Moubayed: There was probably a lot of expectation that the seat was going to go to the SNC, and it didn’t, for two reasons. The Americans didn’t push it as hard [as it could have], seemingly because it has too many other things on its agenda. Syria is clearly no longer a high priority, and the Ukraine is taking up a lot of [Washington’s] time. The other reason is the huge Saudi-Qatar rift. They’re a step back from where they stood a year ago when Khatib gave the opposition’s speech.

SD: What did Syrians hope would come out of the meeting?

Salem: What many Syrians were hoping for from the Arab Summit was for them to agree on support for the Syrian refugees numbering in the millions around the Arab region. The expatriate Syrian communities are under pressure, and so are those with refugee status. But it’s costly and a massive effort, and though it’s much needed, it didn’t get a mention in the final communique. They didn’t get support for displaced people, many of whom are permanently displaced. It’s a long-lasting issue that needs to be dealt with, and it’s not on the radar screen of the Arab Summit.

Syrians were also expecting an end to the theatricals of the closing of Syrian embassies, which puts a lot of pressure on expats in these countries, because now they can’t get visas to travel or renew their passports.

On a military level, countries supporting militarization as a policy in Syria, or sending weapons, or turning a blind eye to their extremist nationals going to Syria have caused a lot of tension in the Gulf. The countries supporting militarization have seen the increase of refugees due to that fighting. If I’m someone designing policy about this – if I’m committed to supporting militarization – then Syrians feel that an equal amount of money should go to supporting Syrians who will be displaced because of it.

Syrians were hoping that inter-Arab disagreements and tensions will stop being fought out [by proxy] in Syria. Right now [several of the major regional players] support a side. But the only thing that got mentioned in the communique is the League’s support of a political process in Syria. Many in Syria feel that it’s not going to lead anywhere.

SD: How do Syrians feel about the Arab League now?

Salem: They feel that it’s failed them. As an organization, it’s more or less a collective representative of the power of the Arab countries, and many of them are in political turmoil, so in terms of a joint effort [for Syria], it would be almost impossible to implement something. Many Syrians feel they don’t have the Syrian national interest or even civilian interests on their radar, that it’s more about politics and making sure [each country’s] influence is felt inside Syria.

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