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

Syrians See Little Progress From Arab Summit

Critics of the Syrian government said they saw few positive developments from last week’s Arab League summit, noting that no progress was made on Lebanon and that certain key heads of state refused to attend.

Syria hosted the Arab League’s annual summit on March 29 and 30, using it as a platform to push for Arab unity in a region that remains politically fractured. Damascus has been widely criticised by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United States for creating a political deadlock in Lebanon, which has not had a president since November.

Billboards across the Syrian capital hailed the summit as "the summit for all Arabs" and “the summit of Arab solidarity".

Lebanon boycotted the meeting altogether, while Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan declined to send high-level delegates.

"We all know that the absence of the most important leaders of the Arab world is no coincidence,” said one opponent of the government. “It's a strong message to the Syrian regime.”

“I don't think [Syrian officials] care about the result of this summit, because they know it won’t affect the current situation,” he added.

The critic maintained that Damascus was unconcerned about the summit’s outcome because relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt were already strained, and in any case it believes it has the upper hand on many issues.

“Damascus still holds the cards with Lebanon and Hamas, as well as its ability to intervene in Iraq,” he said.

While Saudi Arabia sent only a low-level delegate, its foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal – speaking ahead of the event – encouraged the Syrians to make progress on Lebanon.

These remarks were seen as conciliatory by one Syrian political activist, who noted that the foreign minister’s “language was calm and encouraging toward Syria”.

At the same time, the activist noted, the lack of progress on Lebanon means that “there won’t be any change in the Syrian view of how to deal with Lebanon’s crises, and that could mean that relations with those Arab countries that absented themselves won’t improve in the future”.

He continued, “In any case, it still too early to expect Syria to respond to the Saudi messages.”

The Syrian opposition figure said he was not concerned about tensions escalating between Damascus and Saudi Arabia, which is aligned with the US. The US navy recently deployed warships off the Lebanese coast, fuelling widespread speculation that Washington was sending a warning to Syria.

But the opposition member argued that despite their differences – shown by Saudi Arabia’s snub at the Arab summit – the Saudis would not let Washington mount an attack on Syria.

“Syrian knows very well that Saudi Arabia will never welcome a fresh military action against an Arab country,” he said. Saudi Arabia “is already suffering from Iran’s increased influence in the region,” he added. “Iran has benefited most from the occupation of Iraq."

On the street, Syrians were divided about the results of the summit. Many echoed – and supported – the Syrian government line that the summit was a success, but others repeated this view with heavy sarcasm.

(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.)

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