Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Gaza Conflict Leaves Arab States Disunited

As the three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza came to an end, it was far from clear whether Syria or moderate Arab states had come out on top in their dispute over how to deal with the crisis.

The diplomatic duelling and thinly-veiled attacks that went on among Middle Eastern states demonstrated their inability to speak in one collective voice, and only deepened the divisions between western-backed Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the so-called “resistance” states, Syria and Iran.

On January 16, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others refused to attend a hastily-arranged meeting in Doha at which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad called on Arab countries to review their ties with Israel and suspend a 2002 Arab peace initiative.

At the competing Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait a few days later, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak criticised countries like Syria that spoke out against his country’s response to the Gaza crisis.

A Damascus-based political analyst who asked to remain anonymous said that contrary to the wishes of Syrian leaders, the more moderate countries will continue to wield greater influence in the region when it comes to mediating disputes between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas.

“What has transpired cannot be seen as a victory for Syria and its allies in the region, if we consider the amount of destruction and the number of fatalities in Gaza,” said the analyst. “Syria and Iran didn’t anticipate that Israel would launch such a large-scale offensive in the weeks leading up to the new United States presidency.”

Instead, he said, the Syrians and Iranians had hoped Hamas would flex its muscle at a time and Israel would not want to respond for fear of upsetting the incoming administration of Barack Obama.

“What happened shows that when both countries are playing with fire, no one is safe,” he said. “The political repercussions may be no less painful than the humanitarian ones, especially if foreign forces are eventually brought in to protect the border between Gaza and Israel.”

A Syrian political activist offered a different view, arguing that the Gaza crisis actually strengthened the hand of the “resistance states”.

“The international community must now rely on Syria more than ever to control Hamas, since it is home to much of the movement’s political leadership,” he said. “That gives Syria a very strong card to play in negotiations with the new American and Israeli administrations.”

He said recent developments had tarnished the image of western-backed countries among Arabs, and the Syrian regime would try to use this to its own advantage.

During the summit in Kuwait, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz surprised many by declaring that the rift among Arab leaders had been mended.

The activist said the king’s remarks were a futile attempt to separate Syria off from Iran and also to impress the Obama administration.

Assad’s political and media advisor Buthaina Shaban issued a statement on January 19 noting that disagreements remained on core issues.

“Syria’s reaction shows that the regime doesn’t feel a need to alter its position or abandon its relationship with Iran, because it feels stronger after what happened in Gaza,” said the political activist. “There has never been a better time for the regime – there is a new American president who has declared a desire to start negotiations with Syria, a moderate Arab coalition that has been weakened by the crisis, and an international desire for calm in the region.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)