The Arab Summit scheduled to be held next week in Baghdad is of the utmost importance for the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), first in terms of Iraq’s return to the Arab community, and second in terms of the impact of Iraq’s policy towards Syria on the way the international community addresses the issue of Syria and that of Iran. Russia and China have taken qualitatively new stances towards the Syrian regime this week by approving a Security Council Presidential Statement issued unanimously, which holds Damascus responsible at the security and military levels and supports the transition of power from single-party rule to a “democratic [and] plural” political system. Certainly, Moscow and Beijing are closely monitoring the development of GCC-Iraqi relations, because of how they reflect on this important region, both strategically and in terms of oil.
In this context, the Baghdad Summit is considered extremely important. Indeed, it is the first Arab Summit to be held in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Moreover, GCC leaders flocking to the Baghdad Summit carries political, security, economic and strategic indications, at the bilateral, regional and international levels.
To begin with, it is imperative to closely examine the reason for the change that has occurred in the stances of Russia and China. The first conclusion one can come to is that Moscow and Beijing have felt that the insult, this time, did not come from the UN Security Council, but rather from Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who continued to portray the issue as though it is a battle against a group of terrorists, in blatant denial of the reality on the ground. Then came the emails between Assad, his family, advisers and friends, published by British newspaper The Guardian, to show the extent to which matters were not being taken with the appropriate seriousness, while thousands of Syrians fell dead or were wounded.
The second reason may lie in the Syrian regime’s excessive obstinacy in its stances and its boasting of Russian and Chinese support, as if it were an instrument of immunity from being held to account and of amnesty for its mistakes. China tried to make the leaders of the regime in Damascus understand that its interests required the regime to change its stances and methods, but those leaders failed to understand China’s diplomatic language and caused its Special Envoy to fail in his task – a kind of task rarely embarked on by Beijing.
Moreover, Russia obtained its fair share of failure as a result of Damascus’s excessive reassurance to the fact that Moscow would protect the regime no matter what. This is why Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said that “the Syrian leadership responded incorrectly to the very first manifestations of the peaceful protests” and that “despite the numerous promises it has made in response to our calls, [the Syrian leadership] is making a lot of mistakes”.
Lavrov’s meeting with Arab League foreign ministers last week came after the foreign ministers of the GCC refused to receive him, in protest of the stance taken by Russia. They told him that he should explain to all the Arabs why Russia has opposed the international community, and why it blocked the path of the Arab League initiative for political transition, from the current regime to an alternative one. And when he went to the headquarters of the League of Arab States in Cairo to address the ministers, they told him what signifies: this is your fault. Thus Vladimir Putin’s envoy found himself “exhausted”, as he said when he arrived in New York to take part in a special session of the Security Council on the Arab Spring, and had lunch with the foreign ministers of Security Council member-states, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Britain’s William Hague and France’s Alain Juppé.
In New York, the means of salvation were ready for the veteran Russian diplomat, as Western countries made sure to surround him with attention and to recognize the importance of Russia and of the role it is playing at this juncture. This is how Moscow took the first steps towards issuing the presidential statement unanimously. Indeed, it considered that it had restored its prestige and its influence at the Security Council, with Lavrov receiving special welcome from Western ministers, and the fact that this coincided with the efforts of the joint UN-Arab League Envoy for resolving the Syrian Crisis, Kofi Annan, who took the greatest care to give Russia the utmost attention and importance in order to obtain its support for his mission.
While the statement issued by the Security Council is not binding, its political weight remains clear, as does its message based on the Security Council’s ranks being united in support of the six points, which Annan presented to the Syrian leadership, and for which he has sent a team to negotiate the implementation thereof.
By virtue of this statement, Russia and China have agreed to a language that threatens of “additional measures” if Damascus were to cause Annan’s mission to fail. The next step could be to issue a resolution, and not a mere presidential statement. Yet what matters is that the Security Council has spoken with one voice, and told Damascus what it had not heard before.
In fact, this is the first time Russia has clearly called for demanding that the Syrian government take the initiative of withdrawing its troops from the streets, while it had previously insisted on the “simultaneous” withdrawal of government forces and of those of other parties – i.e. the opposition, both military and civilian.
This is also the first time Russia has agreed to the international community using a language that demands for the Syrian government to agree to a process of political transition “to a democratic, plural political system”, through means that include committing “to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy”. It has also agreed to the necessity for the Syrian government to ensure “freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed”. In other words, Moscow and Beijing have finally agreed to not hold on equal footing the presence of the army in the streets and the presence of protesters, just as they have finally agreed not to hold the two sides equally responsible by agreeing to the necessity of withdrawing government forces first.
All of this does not mean that Russia and China have decided to completely abandon their support of the Assad Regime, or to concede their other stances. Indeed, sources of concern remain the same, starting from the rise of Islamists to power in the Arab region, reaching up to the five Muslim republics surrounding Russia, and ending with the impact of this on Muslim minorities inside the two countries. Similarly, fears of a Western agenda in the Arab region remain great.
One of the reasons that have led to this new Russian stance is the start of an Arab-GCC diplomatic and political movement towards China aimed at splitting it away from the axis of the Russian-Chinese alliance, on the basis of the language of interests, as well as on explaining GCC fears. This is in addition to the resolve of GCC states not to submit to Russia’s desire to preserve the regime in Damascus, and the willingness of these states to engage in a process of wearing down and exhausting the regime and those who support it through the means available to them.
The six GCC countries may not view the Syrian issue with the same amount of enthusiasm for toppling the regime in Damascus, yet they stand together as one when it comes to a major power like Russia joining an Iranian-Syrian axis. Indeed, the issue then becomes completely different, and this is what both Russia and China have been clearly informed of, as their joining Iran and Syria in a single axis now means their standing on the battlefield against the GCC states.
The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have also laid down another part of their strategy based on Iraq in particular, with its Iranian and Syrian dimensions. This is why those countries have concentrated their efforts on repairing their relations with Iraq through the Arab Summit, with Syria and Iran in mind.
The Baghdad Summit will therefore be the summit of repairing the relationship between the GCC and Iraq, starting with the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Indeed, returning Iraq to the Arab community is a strategic goal for both the GCC and the League of Arab States.
If this is achieved, it will provide an outlet for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, whose relationship with the Sunnis in Iraq has worsened. Indeed, he has excluded from government Ayad Allawi, head of the Iraqiya List and former Prime Minister, and then entered into major feuds against Sunni and Kurdish leaderships in Iraq. This is why GCC members consider that Gulf countries showing goodwill towards him and embracing him at the Arab level represents “the testament of a new birth for Iraq” and “an end to Iraq’s isolation”, according to one well-informed Gulf observer.
Iraq must in return take measures to stop supporting the Syrian government, which is not too difficult a matter since the Iraq has since been gradually distancing itself from supporting the Assad regime. GCC members consider that both Iraq’s and Maliki’s interests currently lie in fostering the “Arab credentials for Iraq” in a manner that would separate it from Iran’s geopolitical goals of hegemony over the Arab region.
Going into details, one could say that the political goal is to bring Iraq into the GCC and Arab network of understandings, leading to the end of its union with Iran and the cessation of its support for Syria. As for the security goal, it is to establish cooperation and exchange information in the area of counter-terrorism, which would relieve Maliki and allow him to open up to the interior, so that he may become the prime Minister of Iraq and be part of the voice of Arab moderation. At the economic level, work is underway to facilitate investments, free trade and the construction of infrastructure – roads and telecommunications.
All of this makes the Baghdad Summit an extraordinary one. In fact, it represents a crossroads at which many directions and orientations – Arab, Iranian, Russian, Chinese, American and European- meet. It is the principal gateway to the future of the international community’s approach to Syria and Iran.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Dar Al Hayat on Mar. 23, 2012