Arab League a Divided House

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 9 Apr 2012

Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

While regional organizations are going to be the mainstay in international politics in the post-cold war world, one of the old regional organizations Arab League (formed in 1945) has shown all weakness of a broken house with members failing to take coordinated position on any of the raging international issues. A simple juxtaposition of the Arab League summit with the BRICS summit, held on the same date, 29 March 2012, brings stark contrast how coordination in one part of the world is failing acutely, while the rise of BRICS in global arena is a foregone conclusion. While the Arab League, as the recent summit at Baghdad revealed, has become known for all differences, whether on Syria or Iran or on issues of conflict resolution, the BRICS countries developed commonalities on many issues including that of Syria and Iran.

That the summit schedule was shifted twice before this one at Baghdad, and that only 9 member countries out of total twenty two countries participated in the summit itself reveals a poor story of the League. Even the nine countries participating in the summit did not send their top leaders; rather the member countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar sent junior officials instead of head of states to participate in the summit. It will be interesting to note that this erstwhile powerful body in the North and Northeast Africa and the Gulf, which in the past played effective roles to confront regional crises and develop mechanisms such as Joint Arab Economic Action Charter, has foundered in the emerging global scenario.

One of foremost reasons behind the erosion of credibility of this Arab body, which became evident during and aftermath of the colour revolutions that swept across the Arab world, is the rising menace of sectarianism and animosities based on it between the member countries. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni dominated countries, while countries like Iraq (the post-Saddam phase) and Syria are Shia dominated countries. The increasing bonhomie between Iraq and Iran, majority Shia countries, too have not been taken well by the countries like Saudi Arabia which perceives the increasing bonhomie threatening, more because of its animosities with Iran which is recently embroiled in conflict over nuclear programme. It is widely reported in international media that Saudi Arabia expressed readiness to bear the oil burden which arose due to sanctions on Iran. After the overthrow of Saddam (a Sunni) in 2003, Iraq has become the Shia dominated country. In post-Saddam era the majority Shias have taken rein of power in the war torn country. That the summit is being hosted by Iraq itself has been perceived by many local and regional as a demonstration of the rising prowess of the country to become a major regional power. This has also been a subtle sore point for some members of the League.

The most contentious issue at present that divides the members is the issue of Syria, which is ruled by a Shiite faction called Alawite. Saudi Arabia and Qatar strongly advocate the use of force to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. In fact, Saudi Arabia has been supporting the opposition groups including the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad’s forces. These countries have also supported the idea of creation of safe zones within Syria, on the border regions with Turkey, which can provide shelters to rebels in order to fight the Assad regime. In the summit, the Prime Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad stated, “We are faced with a difficult choice — either we stand by the Syrian people or stand by him (Assad) … It is not to be expected from the Syrians to idly stand by while the regime continues to kill its own people this way.” On the other hand the host of the summit, Iraq strongly opposed any use of force against Syria. The prime minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki stated, “Based on our experience in Iraq, the option to arm either side of the conflict will lead to a regional and international proxy war in Syria.” He emphasized on peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and deliberation. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani stated, “We reiterate our call for a peaceful solution to meet the expectations of the Syrian people without any foreign interference.” In this context, the Kofi Annan plan to defuse the crisis comes to picture. The positive thing is that Syria agreed to abide by this six-point plan, which mainly calls for immediate ceasefire of hostilities, allowing humanitarian assistance, and expression of freedom through peaceful manner. While addressing the summit, the United Nations’ Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon urged Syria to immediate abide by the proposal of Annan.

Syria, one of the founding members of the League was suspended last year. Assad refused to abide any resolution of the Arab League summit. In fact, it can be safely assumed that the acute differences among the members and sectarian dimensions of the conflict will not allow evolution of consensus to defuse the crisis. On the same day the Arab League met, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iran, a close ally of Syria, and met prominent leaders to discuss the Syrian crisis. Turkey has so far been cautious to support a method of forceful resolution of the Syrian conflict. Another crucial issue that sullies the relations is the role of Al Qaeda, which follows a radical variety of Sunni Islam in propagating methods of violence. The Arab Spring too has witnessed the rising prowess of this radical organization, which has not hidden its intention to target countries like Iraq. Last week a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 52 people. This attack was later claimed by Al Qaeda as perpetrated by its cadres. Hence, one must not delink Al Qaeda from the ongoing Arab politics. It will also be another interestingly study whether the decimation of secular authoritarian regimes in Arab have really dawned genuine democracy, or has emboldened the radical organizations like Al Qaeda.

In the emerging discourse on regionalism and regional organizations, the study of Arab League offers deep insights into rise and fall of a regional organization. It also serves a pointer how despite slogans of democracy and development during the Arab Spring; all recent developments are not geared towards achieving these goals. Besides, the recent developments also indicate how sectarianism, terrorism, divergent aspirations have marred the vibrancy of an erstwhile effective organization called Arab League.

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Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics. 

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Apr 2012.

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