Fewer than half the leaders of the Arab world showed up at an Arab summit in Baghdad on Thursday, a snub to the Iraqi government, but the leaders agreed on an appeal to Syria's regime to stop its bloody crackdown on opponents..
The only ruler from the Gulf to attend was the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, whose attendance was significant because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and occupied it for nearly seven months before a U.S.-led coalition drove his army out. Relations between the two neighbors have been fraught with tension since and even after Saddam's 2003 ouster. Sheik Al Sabah's attendance should cap recent improvement in relations.
The one-day summit ended with a call on Syria's embattled regime to "immediately implement" proposals put forward by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end the deadly year-long conflict. The summit's final communique said that the Arab leaders fully support the "legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people to democracy and freedom and their right to determine their future."
The plan calls for Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and use of heavy weapons in populated areas and to commit to a daily two-hour halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations. It includes a full cease-fire to be supervised by the U.N. so that all parties can discuss a political solution.
In his first comments on Annan's plan, Assad says Syria will "spare no effort" to ensure the mission's success, according to the state news agency. Assad said Annan must also get a commitment from armed groups to cease their "terrorist acts" against his government.
Speaking at the post-summit news conference, Arab league chief Nabil Elaraby suggested that the Annan plan was Assad's last chance for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, which the U.N. says has killed at least 9,000 people.
"Assad was given more than one chance. The issue is now with the United Nations and the Security Council," said Elaraby. "The ball is now in Syria's court. It will have to act positively."
One reason for the absences was the Gulf leaders' deep distrust of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, which they believe is a proxy for Iran. In unusually direct remarks, Qatar's prime minister said the lower representation was to protest what he called the Baghdad government's marginalization of Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.
Another reason was the bitterness surrounding the main issue hanging over the summit — the conflict in Syria — on which Iraq has taken an ambivalent stand.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, remained upbeat. He told a news conference at the end of the summit: "We are very comfortable with the level of representation considering the present conditions (in Iraq). The most important thing is that all Arab states participated. It was a historic summit."
He , however, reacted angrily when asked about the representation of Saudi Arabia and Qatar by their ambassadors to the Arab League in its Cairo headquarters.
"We are not concerned, we are not bothered as long as they came."
Arab leaders in the Gulf want tough action to stop the Syrian regime's bloody crackdown on the opposition, with their eye on ultimately bringing down President Basher Assad. If Assad goes, they hope, they can break Sunni-majority Syria out of its alliance with Iran. However, Iraq, which also has close ties to Iran, has resisted any strong measures by the Arab League on Syria, with Zebari saying he was opposed to foreign intervention there.
The summit is the first held by the 22-member League since the Arab Spring revolts began sweeping through the region more than a year ago. The turmoil forced the cancellation of last year's summit. Since then, four perennials of the summit have been swept from the scene — Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
The new leaders of Tunisia and Libya were among the 10 heads of state who attended, but Egypt and Yemen sent lower-level figures, a reflection of the domestic turmoil still roiling those nations.
The summit will also be remembered for an extraordinary precedent. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani became the first non-Arab to chair an Arab League summit. Talabani, a Kurd who speaks fluent Arabic and is well versed in Arab culture, has been a father figure to Iraqis since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, often acting as a unifier between the nation's rival ethnic and religious factions.
Another Iraqi Kurd, Foreign Minister Zebari, chaired Wednesday's foreign ministers' meeting.
Iraq had hoped that hosting the summit — its first Arab summit since 1990 — would herald its return to the Arab fold after two decades of isolation. But the absences and the ability of militants to launch attacks despite a massive security operation — a mortar hit an area not far from the summit's venue as the meeting started — suggest that Iraq may still have some way to go before it could fully return to normalcy and reintegrate into the Arab world.
Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani, also the country's foreign minister, told Al-Jazeera late Wednesday that his own nation's low level of representation was a "message" to Iraq's majority Shiites to stop what he called the marginalization of minority Sunnis.
Majority Shiites have dominated Iraq since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. The nation's once powerful Sunnis complain that the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is concentrating power in the hands of the Shiites. There is a growing desire by Sunni-majority provinces to win autonomy as a way to escape Shiite domination.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the sectarian violence that began shortly after Saddam's ouster but peaked in 2006 and 2007. Tension continues to simmers to this day, with occasional attacks by Sunni militants against Shiites and crackdowns on Sunni areas by the Shiite-led security forces.
"Qatar wants the Iraqi government to resolve this in a way that unites the Iraqi people and gives everyone their rights through a dialogue involving all parties," said the Qatari prime minister.
Relations between Iraq and the Gulf Arab nations have also been tense over criticism by Shiite Iraqi politicians and clerics of Bahrain's crackdown on Shiite protesters the past year. The demonstrators seek more economic opportunity and an end to what they see as discrimination by the Sunni ruling family.
Al-Maliki on Wednesday met with Bahrain's foreign minister on the sidelines of the summit. Foreign Minister Zebari later told reporters that Bahrain would not be on the summit's agenda, a decision that appeared to be a concession by the hosts.
The flood of condemnations and denouncements of the Syrian regime in the opening session of the summit could only reinforce their view that it may be too late for diplomacy to bear fruit in Syria.
The Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been pushing behind the scenes for more assertive action to end the conflict. Privately, they see little benefit in the Arab League's efforts to reach a peaceful settlement and prefer instead to see a small core of nations banding together to act on their own.
Among the options they are considering are arming the Syrian rebels and creating a safe haven for the opposition along the Turkish-Syrian border to serve as a humanitarian refuge or staging ground for anti-regime forces. Such a step would require help from Turkey — the country best positioned to defend such a safe haven — but so far Ankara has seemed reluctant.