Arab Summit: New Syrian-Jordan unity

AMMAN, JORDAN – Monday’s Arab League Summit will likely be dominated by the absence of the Egypt’s president, and the presence of Sudan’s president.

But a more enduring change for the region may get little attention: a new détente between Syria and Jordan.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to Jordan last week for the first time in five years and met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, thawing out what had been chilly relations between the neighboring countries ahead of the summit to take place in Doha, Qatar, on Monday and Tuesday.

The two have had differing viewpoints over a number of issues in recent years, spanning from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Syria's relations with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah. While relations have been maintained through trading messages, Syria and Jordan had been avoiding high-level
meetings and kept an official distance from each other. Last year, when the Arab summit was hosted in Syria, Jordan sent a noticeably low-level delegation.

Jordanian officials say that the detente comes as part of the natural course of things ahead of the summit, at which there will be a renewed attempt at Arab unity on issues such as the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia, which offered Israel recognition in exchange for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

At the summit, a Jordanian government minister said, the Arab world would consider the feasibility of the two-state solution, given the right-wing inclination of the incoming Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu.

"This is part of unifying Arab ranks to see what the political scene in Israel will come up with," says Nabil el-Sharif, the acting foreign minister and the minister of state for media affairs.

"There is definitely some concern in the Arab world after these elections, in that the new government might not be as committed to peace as one would like. [Saudi King Abdullah] has said the Arab Initiative is there, but it will not be on the table forever."

Syria and Jordan have long taken deeply different approaches to the region's conflicts. Hamas has its leadership base in Damascus, but has been all but ejected from Jordan. Most other Palestinian rejectionist groups have offices in the Syrian capital, but are unwelcome here.

In the past few months, however, events may have shifted the dynamic. Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza raised ire across the Arab world and made it more difficult for Jordan to defend its relationship with Israel against critics of normalization with the Jewish state. And President Barack Obama took office, leaving behind the Bush Doctrine, says Amman analyst Mouin Rabbani.

"Jordan was among those states which would really like to see regime change in Damascus, to see a Damascus that is more hostile to Arab resistance movements and more friendly towards Israel," says Mr. Rabbani.

"Jordan was more or less aligned with Bush's policy in Palestine and Iraq," Rabbani adds. "Now Bush is gone, and Jordan is now seeing that it must make its peace with the existing regime in Damascus rather than replace it – Damascus is also keen to mend fences."

Mr. Sharif says that the most pressing issue at Doha will be the peace process in general, and Palestinian unity in particular. Hamas and Fatah have been holding talks in Cairo towards reaching a national reconciliation deal that would lead to a unity government, but have yet to reach an agreement. They resume talks next month.

The summit will also likely emphasize Arab support of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who faces an arrest warrant issued in early March by the Hague-based International Criminal Court. Mr. Bashir is wanted for crimes against humanity in the suppression of a rebellion in the Darfur region.

And Egypt’s absence? Egypt and Qatar have recently been at odds in the region, backing rival approaches to the Palestinian and Sudanese crises.

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