Off to Algeria

The Arab League will convene in Algeria this week to mark its sixtieth anniversary and develop a common stance on the Syria-Lebanon conflict and other regional problems. Or so the organizers hope. In fact, representatives from the 22 member states disagree on a number of key issues, making consensus unlikely. Although Arab nations are united in supporting Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, each has a different method for dealing with Damascus. Jordan is calling on Syria to dismantle Hezbollah militia and comply with the international community’s demand, while Saudi Arabia and Egypt favor less drastic measures. Other disagreements - over Palestinian refugees, the Middle East peace process, and Iraq - have led to widespread pessimism about the summit. Many Arab countries now seem determined to handle key issues outside the umbrella of the League. - YaleGlobal

Off to Algeria

The issues facing the Arab League summit in Algeria this month will remain unsettled until the key players define a common stance
Dina Ezzat
Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Security and logistic preparations are well under way in Algeria in preparation for the convocation of the highest-level Arab wide congregation. On Tuesday, 22 March, Algerian President Abdul-Aziz Boutaflika will welcome his 21 counterparts -- or their representatives -- as well as the secretary-general of the Arab League and world dignitaries that may include United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and European Union High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana.

"We are making all the necessary preparations to ensure that this will be a successful and worthwhile summit," Algerian Foreign Minister Abdul-Aziz Belkhadem said in Cairo this week as he participated in a regular spring meeting of Arab foreign ministers.

According to Belkhadem, his country is making sure that the summit will produce enough plans and adopt enough resolutions to "make a difference" for the status of Arab order.

However, judging from the stance of the 22 Arab League states on the key issues to be discussed by the Algeria summit -- and as demonstrated by last week's Arab foreign ministers meeting -- it is hard to see how the next Arab summit will make a difference to any of the central Arab problems -- not to mention the overall Arab order.

When Arab leaders start to arrive in Algeria on 21 March, the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon will have undertaken a significant redeployment as promised earlier this week by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. The Arab summit stance on the withdrawal of the troops was clear: "All Arab capitals wanted Syria to pull out of Lebanon, either because they thought this would contribute to stability in the region or because they wanted to carry favours with the American administration by supporting its demands," said one Cairo- based Arab diplomat.

What remains unclear, however, is the stance to be taken collectively by the Arab summit on the next phase of Syrian-Lebanese relations and, more importantly, on the demands made to Syria by Washington and other members of the international community.

Jordan is taking the hardest line. Speaking in Tel Aviv earlier this week during a press conference with his Israeli counterpart, Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Al-Moulqi said that "Syria is in no position to bargain on the withdrawal." Jordanian diplomats say that they expect the Algeria summit to make it clear to Damascus that Arab countries are no longer willing to support Syrian manoeuvres when it comes to the presence of its military troops and that it is time for the Lebanese to succumb to the will of the international community as represented in UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Most Arab countries, including Syria, are willing to recognise 1559. After all, the joint Syrian-Lebanese statement that was issued Monday in the wake of the Higher Syrian- Lebanese Council in Damascus referred to the will of both countries to acknowledge this resolution. But this does not mean that all the Arab capitals -- at least Cairo and Riyadh who are both central to the political scene in the eastern part of the Arab world -- want to exert pressure on Damascus.

"The Saudis are not convinced that Damascus does not have the blood of [assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq] Al-Hariri [who was a Saudi national] on its hands and has therefore removed its support for the Syrian presence in Lebanon," said a Lebanese source. And according to a senior Egyptian diplomatic source, Egypt, which for a long while perceived the Syrian military presence in Lebanon as a stabilising force, is no longer sure that this is the case. "Egypt is concerned that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is damaging Syria's regional and international interests, and President [Hosni] Mubarak has conveyed this worry to the Syrian leadership."

That said, neither Riyadh nor Cairo -- both very influential in encouraging the declared Syrian decision to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon -- are not sure they want to sign to a proposed draft resolution that Jordan suggests should explicitly and affirmatively ask Syria to comply with 1559.

"Our line is clear: to honour the Arab League-sponsored Taif Accord and observe the requirements of 1559," said an Egyptian source.

In short, Jordan wants Syria to go all the way up to dismantling Hizbullah and to disarming the Palestinian refugee camps while Saudi Arabia is not sure about dismantling Hizbullah and Egypt fears that any meddling with the issue of the refugee camps would open the door to a debate regarding the future of millions of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries, a debate it hopes the Algeria summit will avert.

As for the rest of Arab countries, the situation is either unclear or undecided. After all, with the exception of the talks involving Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, the Syrian and Lebanese leadership and the UN secretary-general, the council of Arab League foreign ministers as such was not directly involved in discussing developments on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. Actually, as Arab foreign ministers were meeting at the Arab League headquarters last Thursday, Sharm El-Sheikh and Riyadh were playing host to senior consultations on the issue.

The Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian consultations on the matter remain inconclusive. Riyadh and Cairo still need to assess the internal Lebanese and Syrian reactions to the initial phase of Syrian redeployment and then decide what kind of language they ultimately want the summit to spell out on the issue.

Another factor affecting the final draft on the Syrian-Lebanese issue, would be the outcome of Jordanian attempts to convince Saudi crown prince to re-launch the Arab Peace Initiative that was adopted by the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002 and which is expected to be re- enforced by the Algeria summit later this month. Amman hopes that Riyadh will agree to include the new version of the Arab Peace Initiative with language demonstrating flexibility on the issue of the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees in Arab countries.

Both Egypt and Riyadh believe that the Arab world has to adopt "a realistic approach to the issue" but neither seems ready to publicly omit all references to the right of return of Palestinian refugees -- even when they know it is unrealistic to do so. "This will help neither the new Palestinian government nor the Arab regimes that are already facing the pressure of public opinion over the future of the Palestinian cause. Moreover, Algeria may not want to be the host of a summit that is associated with abandoning a basic and legitimate right of the Palestinian people," said one Egyptian diplomatic source. According to this source, it would also be unwise to tackle this issue now in view of the pressures that are being imposed on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.

"In other words the Syrians, along with the Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians will have to determine their position on this matter and consult with the Algerians," commented an Arab diplomatic source. "This indicates the absence of a collective Arab consultation on the issue," he added.

According to informed Arab sources, the Algeria summit is sure to express opposition to imposing economic or any other sanctions on Syria and to call on the international community to engage in constructive dialogue with the Syrian government. It will also call on the US administration and US Congress to refrain from imposing further sanctions on Syria.

Meanwhile, developments in Iraq have been blocked out of discussion in collective Arab meetings whether on the ministerial or the summit levels. "We find it best to sort things out and then explain them to the Arab countries," commented a Cairo-based Iraqi diplomat.

Moreover, the Palestinian Authority has decided it does not want to get involved in detailed discussions during the Algeria summit. The Palestinians have said that they would expect the customary language expressing support for the Palestinian right for statehood and independence and calls for an end to the aggressive construction of illegal Israeli settlement occupation.

As for the details of the Palestinian- Israeli talks, the Palestinians indicated a preference to let this issue be handled by Egyptian-Israeli- Palestinian, and possibly Jordanian, contacts.

"In short, with the exception of developments in Sudan, all the key Arab issues including Syria, Iraq and Palestine will be decided during limited Arab talks. This is a clear sign that the collective Arab stance which characterised the early days of the Arab League no longer exists," commented an Arab diplomat.

The Algeria summit will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Arab League. It is expected to adopt a set of resolutions that aim to upgrade the performance of collective Arab consultations under the umbrella of the Arab League. This includes amendments to the charter of the Arab organisation that should facilitate the rules of voting and decision-making. They should also allow for the formation of an Arab Parliament.

But, as some Arab diplomats argue, there would be little significance attached to such amendments if Arab countries seem determined to handle the key issues away from the umbrella of the Arab League.

"Even when Secretary-General Moussa is involved in the discussions, it is apparent that he is there in his personal capacity as a senior Arab diplomat who has a record in fixing deals, and not as a representative of the Arab organisation that brings them together," admitted one Arab League source.

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