Iraq hosted the Arab League summit last week, a significant development for a country that has been marginalized from its Arab neighbors and trying to recover after years of internal violence. But as Arab relations with Iraq improve, relations with its neighbor Syria are deteriorating. In a new Q&A, experts from the Carnegie Middle East Center examine the significance of the summit for regional relations, and look at the League’s response to the conflict in Syria. 


What did it mean for Iraq to host the Arab League summit?

Maria Fantappie: After decades of international marginalization and internal violence, Iraq’s ruling leadership saw the summit as an opportunity to promote a new image of the country, re-launch Iraq’s regional role, and consolidate its power in the domestic arena.

If the Arab League summit failed in formulating a solution for the Syrian crisis, it provided Iraq’s leaders with a forum to promote their foreign policy aspirations and make strides at the domestic level. With the regional and international attention focused on Baghdad, Iraqi leaders sought to portray a different Iraq: politically stable, safe, capable of formulating its own foreign policy, and welcoming economic investment. Iraqi leaders avoided any discussion over their domestic tensions. 

On the domestic level, Maliki scored another victory in his competition with the opposition Iraqiya party led by Iyad Allawi, who did not attend the summit. March 2012 marked the two-year point in a long crisis between the two blocs. Maliki succeeded in portraying himself as the champion of Iraq’s aspirations of playing an emerging role in the region. 

How did the Arab League summit influence regional relations? 

Paul Salem: This summit ends more than twenty-two years of Iraqi isolation from the rest of the Arab world. The last summit held in Baghdad was in 1990. This was followed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which severed Iraq’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the rest of Arab world, and was followed by a decade of sanctions and isolation. The U.S. invasion of 2003 ushered in a new period of Iraqi isolation from the Arab world, partly because of the U.S. occupation and partly because of the replacement of Sunni by Shia power in Baghdad.  

In light of this, it is significant that this summit was held in Iraq, and that the Arab countries and the GCC countries participated—even if they did not participate at the highest levels. This indicates a reintroduction of Iraq to Arab politics and a rebalancing of Iraq’s position as a returning central power between the Arab countries, Turkey, and Iran.  

Rebuilding Iraqi-Arab relations is one of the cornerstones of rebuilding Arab cooperation at all levels: political, economic, and security. But as relations with Iraq are improving, relations with Syria are deteriorating, so there are still serious obstacles to Arab cooperation.

From the GCC perspective, although they still have serious misgivings about the Maliki government, it is significant that these countries are beginning to engage with Baghdad. For example, Saudi Arabia finally named an ambassador to Baghdad and participated in the summit. The GCC is still concerned about Iran and therefore suspicious of Iraq’s ties with Tehran, and remains uneasy about sectarian tensions in Iraq. But overall it’s a positive step that the GCC and Saudi Arabia are beginning to engage rather than continuing to boycott Baghdad.  

If Arab countries engage positively with Iraq, it could provide an avenue to improve the Arab-Iranian relationship, especially since many of their differences concern Iraq. Arab-Turkish relations are reasonably good and therefore do not specifically need improvement. But Iraq is the main bridge between the Arab east and Turkey, particularly since Syria is closed now. Therefore, Turkish-Arab cooperation, particularly on economic and energy issues, would require Iraq to play a central role—and Iraq can. In other words, cooperating in Iraq could further Turkish-Arab cooperation and could also improve the climate for some improvement in Arab-Iranian relations.  

Of course, we must keep in mind that this is just one meeting and we shouldn’t exaggerate its lasting impact. But if Iraq continues to reach out to its Arab neighbors and if the Gulf and others continue to engage with Iraq, this could help reduce sectarian tensions and improve the economic and security situation within Iraq and the region.

How would you describe the Arab League’s response to the conflict in Syria? 

Yezid Sayigh: At the end of its summit meeting in Baghdad, the Arab League’s closing statement supported Kofi Annan’s plan, which the Syrian president has since also accepted. And so the earlier demand by the Arab League that Assad step down as a precondition is no longer on the agenda. 

That said, the prospects for the implementation of the Annan plan are extremely low, if not nonexistent. I think that the Arab League will find very quickly that it is back at square one, unable to bring about change or transition and unable to end the conflict in Syria. The League will find itself once more divided among its members on how to proceed, at which point the Saudis and the Qataris, who at the moment have reluctantly accepted the Annan plan, may reconsider their position. They may simply be biding their time, knowing that in a week or two the Annan plan will have demonstrably failed and that they will be in a position once more to push for arming the opposition and perhaps even push for international intervention in one form or another.

What implications does Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition have on the conflict?

Sayigh: It is not clear how far Saudi and Qatari leadership will actually go in implementing their declared support for arming the Syrian opposition. There are indications that they have realized that this could have a serious negative impact on Syria and its neighbors, with armed groups emerging as proxies for broader regional disputes and other powers in the region.

Even if the Saudis and Qataris do indeed want to pursue this option, it remains to be seen how exactly they would deliver weapons to the opposition. The Iraqis are unlikely to cooperate with smuggling arms. And delivering arms through Jordan or Lebanon could be destabilizing to those governments, who are already trying to prevent smuggling across their borders. They would also be in a very tough position if the Syrian regime decided to retaliate. 

That said, if Qatar and Saudi Arabia feel as though the Arab League is failing to support the Annan diplomatic initiative assertively enough or if—and this is very likely—there is a breakdown of the ceasefire, perhaps then the Saudis and Qataris may again start pushing for this. However, Qatar has now handed over presidency of the Arab League summit to Iraq, which is insisting on a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis. By this Iraq means it specifically opposes external military intervention, let alone arming the opposition. So the Arab League has effectively handed over the whole file to the UN Security Council, and is unlikely to take a leading role for the foreseeable future. The Saudis and Qataris are therefore likely to pursue more assertive policies through the Friends of Syria, while maintaining pressure at the UN.

But this remains a challenging issue within the Friends of Syria group. France and the United States recently warned against arming a divided opposition where there is no command and control. Sending arms would be a complete failure until these challenges are overcome. The Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul on April 1 did not move forward on this issue, instead it provided the Syrian National Council with funds (apparently donated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) to pay the salaries for the Free Syrian Army and promised modest assistance with non-lethal equipment. But they clearly delayed the question of armament.

What are the latest developments in Kofi Annan’s initiative on the conflict in Syria? 

Sayigh: The real question is what will happen in a couple of weeks when it becomes obvious that the Annan plan cannot and will not be implemented on the ground.

The Syrian regime has committed to a ceasefire starting April 10, but there are slim hopes of this holding. The regime is especially unlikely to enter into the serious and comprehensive dialogue as required by the Annan plan. The Annan initiative is something the regime can string out and engage in on a superficial level over many weeks. But what certainly cannot take many weeks is the demand for mutual disengagement by both the Syrian armed forces and the armed rebels. This will be the single most challenging aspect of the Annan plan to implement. 

If arms are not laid down, the whole plan will fall apart. So the question remains, what will the regional players do in a couple of weeks when it becomes obvious that the diplomatic initiative has failed? Will they once again return to proposing outside forms of intervention, whether this is in the form of a humanitarian corridor, no fly zone, safe havens, and so on? 

At this point, the international community will find itself back at square one, in the same predicament it faced in November and December with the realization that there are very few options for influencing the Syrian situation in a positive way. 

We hear talk of the controlled collapse of the regime and a managed transition, but I do not think that the international players or the regional players have that sort of ability. They do not have the resources or the control on the ground to be able to manage the collapse of the regime or control the transition. This is simply big talk from players who do not have the means. 

Russia would like to see some sort of political transition but it is not clear if they will permit other players such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or the United States to interfere in order to bring about change. Certainly the Russians have been quick to veto any military action, but even if this was not the case, it is unlikely that the United States, EU, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey are willing to go into Syria militarily, even in a limited way. 

It is not even obvious to me what military action would look like. We may find that despite everything, after numerous threats and counter-threats, we find ourselves in a stalemate—of military escalation and de-escalation followed by diplomatic escalation and de-escalation. 

It is going to be like this for much of the year. Perhaps as the winter months approach and the fuel crisis deepens and there is greater need for transport fuel, as well as greater need for currency to pay salaries, we may see the situation reaching a critical point. 

Can Iraq influence regional developments, particularly the Syrian crisis?

Fantappie: The country is trying to be an influential player and establish alliances with other players in the region. The Syrian crisis presents the first opportunity to showcase Iraq’s foreign ambitions in the region. By refusing to take a strong stand on Syria, Iraq may serve Tehran’s interests, but at the same time work to establish itself as a crucial ally for those trying to influence the Syrian regime. 

Iraq’s domestic tensions are not yet subverting its foreign policy. In spite of Maliki’s strains with both the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya and the Kurdish leaders, Maliki and the Kurds have found common ground on their foreign policy aspirations. They both aspire to become influential players in the region.