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Beirut’s Arab Summit was an extension of regional power struggles

Analysis
21/01/2019

Only two heads of state, the president of Mauritania and, significantly, the emir of Qatar, were present at the Arab League’s social and economic summit that was held in Beirut on Sunday, Jan. 20. The fact the most heads of state did not attend is a result of the regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and, more broadly, between the United States on one hand, and Iran and Russia in Syria.

The lack of consensus on normalization, or the conditions of normalization, with the Syrian regime affected the summit. The absence of Syria, whose membership in the Arab League was suspended in November 2011, provided a pretext for some Lebanese political parties to undermine the event, which led the leaders of Saudi Arabia and its allies to decide not to come to Beirut.

The immediate cause of the absences stems from the climate of hostility created by Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and his supporters, who targeted Libya for failing to reveal the fate of Amal Movement founder Imam Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared during a visit to Tripoli, Libya in 1978. As a result, Libya decided to boycott the summit. Close observers say that Amal’s protests also dissuaded the heads of Gulf countries from coming to Beirut out of fear for their safety. The absence of these leaders was in the interest of both Hezbollah and Berri, that latter for a tactical reason related to his desire to restore bridges with the Syrian regime. Even if he failed to respond favorably to the Syrian regime's request to extradite to Syria Hannibal Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan deceased dictator Mouammar Kadhafi, currently detained in Lebanon, Nabih Berri used this pretext to impede the summit over the sidelining of Damascus.

Amal’s ally, Hezbollah, made use of the summit by sending a wider, regional message: "It is forbidden for the Arab League to speak in an Arab capital, namely Beirut, that Iran considers to be in its sphere of influence,” former MP Fares Souaid said was the message from Hezbollah and Iran.

By linking the success of the summit to the participation of the Syrian regime, Hezbollah connected the outcome of the summit to Iran’s political objective. The strategy was intended as a direct message to Saudi Arabia and its regional allies. The brief appearance of the emir of Qatar at the summit reinforced this message. Like Hezbollah, Qatar has an interest in weakening Saudi influence in the region, although the two parties have different agendas.

The orchestrated failure of the summit has to do with more than just regional power struggles. It was also connected to relations between Iran and the United States. Media close to Hezbollah accused Washington of ordering its Gulf allies to boycott the summit as part of Washington's campaign to push back against Iranian influence.

If that is true, the request could be linked to the situation in Syria. The United States is not interested in normalization with the Syrian regime before there is a political settlement and, therefore, did not have an interest in seeing the Arab summit succeed. This, in turn, would have encouraged Saudi Arabia to shun the summit. Saudi has less interest in Lebanon following the compromise between Lebanese political parties and Hezbollah, which opened the way for Iranian hegemony.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri was disappointed by the lack of lustre of the event, according to local observers. On Sunday, Jan. 20, he met with former prime ministers Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam and appeared to try to distance himself from the game of influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or perhaps from the game of influence now playing out between Iran and Russia.

According to analyst and economic consultant Sami Nader, the prerequisite for normalization with the Syrian regime is to know whether the regime will be affiliated to Tehran or Moscow. If the regime is in the Russian sphere of influence, Saudi Arabia could consider normalizing relations. On Jan. 20, however, Iran was demonstrating its influence over the Syrian regime. This is probably why Qatar participated in the conference on the condition that no statements were in made supporting the Syrian regime, a condition to which President Michel Aoun more of less complied. Aoun mentioned “empty seats that we would have liked to see filled” in his speech, but did not explicitly mention Syria.

In the world Lebanon’s complicated internal political jockeying, Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil once again scored a victory on the issue of Syrian refugees in the summit’s final statement. But expert Ziad Sayegh, says it wasn’t a complete victory. The inclusion of language about ensuring “circumstances conducive to the return” of refugees cannot be separated from the condition that refugees return to Syria voluntarily.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 21st of January)



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